The Ocelot

A collection of my monthly wine columns for this southern-UK entertainment and lifestyle magazine.

June 2017 – Wine Tasting Evening

Ocelot 132 June 2017

Whenever colleagues at work need a bit of morale boosting I always offer to put on a wine tasting evening for them.  It’s well known that a bit of alcohol can oil the wheels in social situations, and the event is interactive, exciting and usually very interesting.

Organising your own is easier than it might sound and, with a bit of planning, can cost as little as £10 per person.  A bargain for a full and fun night!

Tip # 1 – Ask each guest to bring an assigned bottle of wine

Your overall tasting night would ideally take the form of several mini tastings, with each consisting of 3 or 4 different wines of one particular theme.  So, if there are 9 of you attending, that’s 3 mini tastings of 3 bottles.

A theme can be anything that you want, such as comparing the red wines from one country, a particular grape variety produced in 3 different countries, or 3 different brands of the same style of wine.

Work out what themes you want to explore and ask each person to bring a related bottle, otherwise you may end up with 10 different bottles of ‘on-offer’ Sauvignon Blanc.

Tip #2 – Budget

In something of a humorous gesture, a friend once bought a £3 Tetra Pak carton of Rioja to a tasting evening.  He was surprised that, by the end of the night, the £3 Rioja had been tasted, then decanted and tasted again, and also tried in various wine glasses ranging from stemless to Riedel.

A tasting isn’t about expensive wine, but more to contrast and compare the differences between each of them.  To ensure everyone spends fairly and that any comparisons are across wines of a broadly similar quality, set an appropriate budget for each bottle purchased.  A nice round figure is £10.

Tip #3 – Glassware and props

At this point you may be thinking, hang on, 3 glasses per person multiplied by 9 people equals more glasses than I have at home.  The good news is that high street merchants like Majestic, and pretty much all of the major supermarkets offer free glass loan (with a fee only payable if any glasses get broken).

In terms of props, white A4 paper is useful as a table/place mat for each guest.  The plain white surface also allows you to clearly contrast the colour and appearance of each wine against it.

If you have an atlas or map of the world handy, or can make one viewable on a device, it can help people understand why a wine tastes the way it does.  For example, tasting ripe fruit flavours in a wine produced in a warm climate versus leaner fruit from a cooler climate country.

Tip #4 – Food and Water

It makes good sense to lay on a few light bites to soak up the alcohol, and this can be as simple as breadsticks and crisps.  If you want to add a further dimension to your night and attempt some food and wine matching you can be more adventurous and lay on some cheeses and meats.

If the food is to be more of a focus you can once again spread the cost and allocate a particular item to each guest, adjusting down the amount spent on the wine accordingly.

Jugs of water are also a good idea, not least for keeping you hydrated, but also to rinse out glasses and cleanse your palate between wines.

Tip #5 – Have fun!

The most important tip of all.  If you can’t taste the difference between any of the wines (which may happen towards the end of the night if you’re finishing off the bottles), it doesn’t matter at all, just have fun!


May 2017 – Trading Up

Ocelot 2 May 2017

The triggering of Brexit has finally begun and the implications on the pound, the markets and our trade deals are all still unknown quantities.  With the majority of our favourite wines coming from within Europe there will undoubtedly be some impact on pricing.

Several years of austerity have already made us tighten our belts and become increasingly price-conscious, so it may seem odd if I suggest that you should perhaps want to pay more for a bottle of wine.

No, I don’t mean arbitrarily handing over more money than you need to the cashier and, with care-free flair, telling them they can “keep the change”, but in much the way that the craft movement has thrown open the beer market and moved many people away from larger mass produced brands, people are increasingly aware that sometimes paying slightly more can mean a lot extra in terms of quality.

Quick question: When you buy a bottle of wine, how much of that cost actually goes towards the quality of what you are drinking?  100%, 50%, 10%?

If you don’t know, read on!

A bottle of wine costing £5.39

£5.39 is a fairly specific amount, but that’s the average cost for a bottle of wine in the UK*.  The first slice of the bottle price goes to the retailer who would expect to make something like 22-25% of the value as their profit. The next big slice of the pie goes to the government who will take a fixed amount of excise duty (currently £2.16) as well as VAT at 17.5%.

Once you factor in the packaging costs (labels, corks/screwcaps) and logistics of getting the bottle on to the shelves in the first place, the amount left spent on the actual quality of the wine is a mere 60p.

Yes, that’s right, just 11% of the bottle price goes on the actual wine whilst the government take nearly 60% of your money for themselves.  Boo!

A bottle of wine costing £7.50

If you trade up slightly to a £7.50 bottle of wine, what do you get for your extra £2.11?

Well the good news is that most of it goes on the wine itself.  As the packaging and logistics costs are exactly the same regardless of the wine inside, and the fixed excise duty doesn’t change, the only percentage increases are the extra VAT and retailer margin.

What this means is that now you are actually paying £1.50 on the contents of the bottle, so well on the way to three times the quality for not much extra cost.

The extra money spent on wine quality allows the winemaker to shun bulk production methods (which can see stalks, vine canes and even insects go in to the vats) and be more selective about what grapes they include.  In the long term it can lead to them buying better equipment to produce and mature their wines.

Excluding prestige brands, which can cost fifty times the price and not be fifty times the quality, the good news is that this carries on up to scale.  If you’re feeling flush and spending £20 on a bottle of wine, you’re still paying the fixed excise duty and packing/logistics costs and, consequently, a lot more for the contents of the bottle.


Note: Of course it is absolutely possible to find £5 bottles of wine that shine for the price, and sometimes they just need rooting out.  Head on over to my website if you want some help locating one.

* Source: Bibendum

April 2017 – Food & Wine Matching

Ocelot April17

Knowing that I love my wine it’s perhaps no surprise that my dining companions invariably ask me to choose the bottle when we go to a restaurant.  In many chain establishments or in pubs, when perhaps there are only a handful of different bottles available, it is good to know that a wine buyer somewhere along the way has taken all of the hard work out by only choosing wines that will pair well with their food offerings.

If you’re going somewhere that offers a greater range or if you are preparing a special meal at home and want to go the extra mile, it’s very true that you can become sufficiently over-whelmed by all of the variety and begin to panic.

Like anything though, there are numerous tricks and tips you can use to get the right wine for your food, and certainly for you to get in the right broad category.

If you follow the below tips there’s a good chance you will probably enjoy your meal more, and it may inspire you to try out new and exciting combinations.  Above all, it may just mean you look a bit fancy in front of your friends!

Tip #1 – What grows together goes together

Even if you’re not too hot on your geography this is nice easy way to make a good match.  When just dipping your toe in to the world of wine it can sometimes look like anything grows everywhere, but there is a pattern.

The grape varieties that survive and thrive are there for a reason and so, if you are ordering Italian food, invariably a bottle of Italian wine will match best.  Great swathes of the Mediterranean have a culture of wine being present at the dining table, and the style of the wine has developed to specifically blend and compliment the food in advance.

Tip #2 – The colour code

So you’ve got the right country for your dish, but which wine do you go for: red, white or rosé?

Even just the colour of a wine can give you hints as to what it will pair best with it.  At the simplest level this can be matching a white wine with lighter coloured foods such as fish and pasta, red wines will go well with darker dishes such as meatballs or steak, and rosé is good with salmon or cut meat such as prosciutto.

Tip #3 – How much do you weigh?

No this isn’t a personal question, but more about the weight of the dish you are ordering.  I’m going to expand on my above tip to ensure you are matching your wine to the overall weight of your dish as opposed to its main ingredient.

The oft repeated myth that fish pairs with white wine and meat dishes pair only with red can easily be turned on its head by the style of the dish.  For example, if you are ordering a well grilled fish, or a meat dish with a creamy mushroom sauce, the opposite of which wine is best is actually true.

Think about the overall weight of the meal and then balance it with the weight of the wine you eventually order. Along the same lines, the sweetness of the wine needs to match the sweetness of the foods, so when heading for the dessert menu, your standard dry wines will be easily over-powered and you’ll need to head for a specifically labelled sweet wine.

By using the tips above you are 90% of the way to choosing the right wine for your food but, like anything, there is a whole level of detail you can immerse yourself in, such as the specific flavours that each particular grape variety will add.

The last thing I will say though is that, in most cases, the best wine that will go with the food you are eating is the bottle you are drinking at the time.