how to choose a good wine

Next Thursday the wine bars will get their first taste of this year's Beaujolais. Beaujolais Nouveau Day is about as populist as the wine world gets. But if you do get hooked on wine on the 16th, it may be worth remembering the man who once came a cropper on this very day. An awkward customer asked the barman what he thought of keeping a couple of cases for a year or two. "Great idea," replied his host, knowing full well it would taste like vinegar. Who said revenge is sweet?

I too am no stranger to the wrath of Dionysos and think that rather than describing themselves as "elegant" or "rich", some wines should carry warnings. Words like "bludgeon" spring to mind. Or "repeater", which haunts you throughout the following morning.

It was after a particularly vintage bludgeon that I decided to change my habits. But how would I go about finding those bottles that are elegant and rich?

One of the first lessons I learnt was to ask for help. The wine trade has been forced to shed its traditional snobbery and search for new markets: shops now hold public tastings for the curious, but uninitiated. I spoke to Neill McKenzie of Laytons Wine Merchants, who tried to guide me through a jungle of vineyards.

I found that a lot can be told from the label. Well, that's what you'd have thought. "Nice label, nice wine. Right?" Not exactly. It's what the label says that matters, and the more specific the information, the better a bottle is likely to be.

We started off with the vintages. The most basic wine guide can tell you which are the best years of a particular wine. But if the year is not given, the wine may be a blend from different years.

Next came the wine classifications, a tricky affair. Appellation d'origine Controlee, for a French wine, and Denominazione di origine Controlata Garantita, for an Italian, are a basic mark of a wine's quality. But as a more sophisticated guide, the system can be misleading. It all started in 1855 in the Medoc, a district of the Bordeaux region, where local wine merchants determined the top five classifications. Premier Cru Classe, or first growth, is the highest, followed by Cru Bourgeois and then down to basic Appellation Controlee Bordeaux.

Classifications also vary in terms of region and place of production. Here, exclusivity is a very good sign. If the bottle gives a precise origin, such as Appellation Chateauneuf-du-Pape Controlee and then the name of the domain, it will obviously come from a more established product than plain Appellation Cote du Rhone.

Right then. I've looked at the vintage. I know what appellation means and I know my Premier Cru from my Cru Bourgeois. Time for a bit of shopping then.

Scratching at the surface of the established wisdom of the wine world can bring great rewards. People are often seduced by the big names like Bollinger and Veuve Cliquot, which dominate the champagne market. Perhaps they are some of the best, but better value can often be found in the less famous varieties. Laytons champagne is increasingly popular in London and not surprisingly at pounds 11.45 a bottle.

So now it's time to do some choosing. I am expertly diverted south of expensive Cote de Beaune region to the Chalonnais. Here, you can find the reassuringly specific label of Montagny Premier Cru 1994, Le Vieux Chateau, with an Appellation Montagny Le Vieux Chateau Controlee.

It sounds like a lot to swallow but it went down a dream. And, dare I say, it was rich and elegant. Sitting back with none of the side-effects I had been used to before, I realised that I had done it, I had chosen a decent bottle of wine. Now, where's that champagne?


Laytons Wine Merchants, 21 Motcomb St, London SW1, hold public tastings. Info: 0171-235 3723