Matt Skinner reveals how to sniff out the best cellars

For just a few extra pounds you can banish plonk from your table and put some class in your glass. Sophie Morris learns to sip in style
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Instead of heading straight for the surf when he turned 18, Australian Matt Skinner got a job in a wine shop. His stock rocketed when he became the sommelier at Jamie Oliver's Fifteen, and he has been leading an evangelising mission to bring wine to the masses ever since. We meet for a crash course at The East Room in London's Shoreditch, a members' club where Skinner holds the grand title of director of wine. The club is supposed to be an affront to stuffy old-school societies. Inside, I find something of a New World wine bazaar – the walls are lines with contraptions from which members help themselves to wine using a pre-paid card, which means they can sample from the extensive list without having to splurge on a whole bottle.

I admit straight off that I like slinging ice cubes into glasses of pub wine. Skinner is no wine snob, and says people can drink wine any way they want to, but I can tell that the idea of destroying the work of a good wine producer by diluting its product makes him a little uncomfortable. I pretend that I add the ice to get rid of the taste of cheap wine, and he suggests I could spend a little more to avoid nastier varieties. I keep quiet about the fact that I do pay more, it's just that I am trying to avoid getting quite so inebriated quite so quickly on those large pub glasses, which equate to a third of a bottle. Anyway, I'm here to find out how to make the most of drinking at home, thus avoiding hefty bar and restaurant mark-ups.

While most industries flail in the downturn, wine sales from shops should remain buoyant. People who often eat out will instead stay indoors, nudging a few extra pounds towards their wine purchases, so the theory goes. Those who drink at home anyway will probably be on the lookout for slightly cheaper plonk than their usual buys.

Shopping

Skinner says this country is both the best and the worst for buying wine because we're spoilt for choice – which can lead to much confusion. "More often than not, people buy what they bought last week and what they will buy next week," he explains. And, unlike a Californian wine snob I met who is still upset about the film Sideways, which introduced hoi polloi to pinot noir, he wants everyone to have a crack at tasting new, interesting wines.

The level of advice available if you're buying in a supermarket, high street wine chain or specialist shop will vary dramatically, but take any help you can get. You might find a great offer in a supermarket, but be wary of anything that seems too good to be true – that £4.99 wine down from £10 is unlikely to have ever been worth a full tenner. In independently owned specialist shops you won't find any incredibly cheap wines, but you can be fairly sure that each bottle has been chosen with love.

How much to spend

A recent survey of wine experts by Decanter magazine found that the least the professionals would risk spending on a bottle of wine without putting their reputation on the line is £6.99, concluding that if you are an amateur drinker, there is no point ever spending more than this. Skinner does not agree, saying there are great wines for £6.99 for everyday drinking, but you get what you pay for once your budget heads up a notch.

This is largely because the price of each bottle of wine is influenced by the fixed costs for packaging, duty and the retailer – which remain about £3 per bottle whatever its price on the shelf – and the VAT. In a £5 bottle of wine, £1 of that has been spent on the wine. When you get to £10, you get £5 worth of wine. "Once you go below £5 it's like Russian Roulette," he warns. "There are good things, but it is much harder at £5.99 than at £6.99, and at £4.99 it's a whole new world. If you have somewhere to buy it, you can get something decent for between £5.99 and £7.99."

Still, as belts tighten, so will booze budgets. "You just about can't make wine for under £3, but £3.99, as frightening as it sounds, to £5.99, will really come into focus over the next three years." That said, Skinner is working with Sainsbury's on its own-brand wine, which ranges from £2.99 for a Sicilian red to £12.99 for Châteauneuf.

Labels

Don't be fooled into thinking a contemporary label means the wine is hot. The bottom line is the name of the producer. "You and I can have vineyards next to each other both doing pinot noir," explains Skinner, "but you might be out every night tending the vines and I might be getting completely boozed." There are plenty of vineyards with bad reputations, but Skinner won't name names. Learn as you go, and you can trust the producers of the 10 wines he recommends (below).

Get the right kit

This bit is very easy, and makes all the difference. Buy glasses with a stem – tumbler-style glasses mean the wine warms up when the glass is cradled in your hand. They should be a fair size to give the wine space to circulate, and taper at the top, catching the aroma in the neck of the glass, which is important for smelling and tasting. Buy a decanter – a jug will do if you can't stretch to crystal – and decant all reds and full-bodied whites such as pinot grigio and chardonnay. This gives them chance to breathe a little after being trapped in a glass bottle for so long. And buy a decent corkscrew.

Tasting

You won't want to make a show of doing this every time you have dinner guests, not if you want them to stay long enough to taste the food. Don't overfill the glass, and tilt it away from you at a 45-degree angle over a white surface to check the colour. This tells you about age – reds and whites tend to get darker with time – and condition. Look for bright, shiny wines, as you would with fresh vegetables, though pinot noir can get a little cloudy. Rotate the glass to increase the surface area and release the wine's aromas, and stick your nose in. You're looking for fruit and non-fruit smells, but don't get too hung up on not being able to describe what you smell, your wine vocabulary will build up slowly. The same goes for tasting, when you should take about a third of a mouthful, suck your cheeks in and draw in some air and swill round the mouth before swallowing to get your best shot at tasting as much of the wine's flavour as possible. Most people find wines they love through trying them with friends; don't spend hours trying to decipher why you prefer one to the next.

Matching with food

Rather than sticking to the white-with-fish-and-chicken and red-with-meat rule, Skinner says it is more important to judge the weight of a dish, and find a wine that measures up. Very strong reds can be a lot to handle on their own, but slip down with a roast. Only delicate white fish call for light whites; meaty fish and veg, like monkfish or mushrooms, can hold their own with a red. Don't serve white too cold and red too warm – this masks the flavour and aroma.

And his ultimate combination? "The world of wine is too big to love wines from one place, but you can't beat champagne and fish and chips on the beach."

Wines with real bottle: Matt Skinner's picks

Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2007

Bancroft Wines, £19.95, New Zealand

Skinner says: One of the best of this top-selling grape.
Taste: Gooseberry, passionfruit, grass and herbs. Serve with broad beans, peas, basil, goats cheese.
Alternative: Grove Mill Sauvignon Blanc 2007, Oddbins, £8.99.

Felton Road Pinot Noir 2007

Bancroft wines, £19.95, New Zealand

Skinner says: Pinot doesn't have many tannins. The grapes are soft, almost silky.
Taste: Raspberries, dark cherries, cinnamon, clove. Serve with duck, salmon, tuna and roast chicken.
Alternative: Cono Sur Pinot Noir 2005, Tesco, £5.68.

Greenstone Vineyard Heathcote Shiraz, 2005

The Fine Wine Company, £14.95, Australia

Skinner says: Australian Shiraz has been criticised for being too rich. This is the new wave.
Taste: Plum, blackcurrant, cassis, pepper. Serve with rich meat like barbecued lamb.
Alternative: Zonte's Footstep Shiraz Viognier 2006, Sainsbury's and Somerfield, £7.99.

Grosset Polish Hill Riesling 2007

West mount Wine, £15.99, Australia

Skinner says: Australian Rieslings are very dry and usually no more than 8.5 per cent alcohol.
Taste: Lemon, lime, fresh flowers, mandarin. Serve with Asian food – spicy, sweet and sour and salty flavours.
Alternative: Dr Loosen 'L' Riesling 2006, Booths Wine, £6.79.

Green Point Vintage Brut Rose 2004, Waitrose, £11.99, Australia

Skinner says: Very fine bubbles and a great length of flavour.
Taste: Wild strawberries, summer fruits, brioche. Serve champagne with and before food. Serve prosecco with pecorino. Alternative: Nino Franco Prosecco Brut Ultra, Sussex Wine Company, £12.95.

Matt Skinner's 'Heard it Through the Grapevine: How to buy, choose and drink wine', £18.99, Mitchell Beazley

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