World wine-buying guide: Never get the wrong bottle again

World wine-buying guide: Never get the wrong bottle again

Experts reveal what to look for, which producers to seek and what to avoid when buying wine in popular markets

Buying wine doesn’t have to be an exercise in brow furrowing and calculated guesswork. 

We’ve clinked glasses with three experts to get hints for negotiating shelves around the world.

Whether you're looking for a bargain-bin Riesling or top-dollar Chablis, the best merchants and producers are easy to find.

 

Asia

Flying Winemaker, Hong KongHong Kong: Low taxes mean good bargains.

Sarah Mayo, founder of consumer wine hub The Local Nose, in Singapore says: 

“If I only had one wine, I’d take champagne in a second. I like blanc de blancs, Grenache… I’m a Rhone Valley kind of person.

"Watch out for fakes. I would never buy expensive Bordeaux in China, unless you’re in an expensive restaurant.

"In Singapore and anywhere in Asia, the wine has traveled a long way and if it’s not stored properly, it’s going to be degraded. So look for someone who has a long reputation in fine wines and is educated about wine storage, also who turns over their stock and has current vintages."

Singapore

"Look for a reputable seller with a retail and on-premise (restaurant) outlets. Crystal Wines are premium wine merchants with lots of wines from Australia, New Zealand, plus an excellent and reliable selection of Bordeaux wines.

"Artisan Cellars is very boutique wine shop specializing in small Burgundy and Champagne producers. Taberna Wine Bar in Bukit Timah is run by one of Singapore's top wine connoisseurs, they have a very interesting by-the-glass offer and the wine list is amazing.

"Vinum and Caveau Wine & Bar are well respected importers and have a good selection of Bordeaux and Burgundy wines."

Thailand

"Wine Connection is your cheap and cheerful wine merchant in both Singapore and Thailand. They’re not very high end but are careful buyers and sell good, quaffable wines.

"Thailand's best retail and top end shop would be Water Library. Oliver Kramny has a nice balanced portfolio of global wines and knows how to store and serve wines in the tropics.

"For Thailand-made wine, try Monsoon Valley."

Hong Kong

"Lots of wines are imported into Hong Kong and the wine scene is bursting at the seams, so there are lots of cool wine bars to get a glass.

"Amo Eno is run by an American couple, one of whom is a former sommelier and worked in Las Vegas and New York. Upperhouse has three very knowledgeable, smart buyers and a great list by the glass.

"In terms of retail, Watson’s Wines has a good reliable but pedestrian selection. Jebsen’s Fine Wines has an excellent portfolio and sells direct-to-consumer by the case.

"Links Concept was set up by top sommelier for a number of years and caters to parties, so if you were flying in and wanted a corporate event, he’d be your guy.

"Another place is the Flying Wine Maker, run by engaging Australian Eddie McDougall."

China

"This China market is always changing.

"ASC Fine Wines has the largest portfolio of California wines accessible online. Yes My Wine is an online merchant and, although their website is entirely in Chinese, if you know what you’re looking for you can drill down and find it. They also deliver everywhere in China, 24 hours a day.

"Jointek imports directly and is great for fine wines, even Dom Perignon. If you can get to a store, they have 150 outlets throughout China and all labels are in English.

"You can find some really nice wines with a reputable lineage in stores, such as the Spanish producer Bodega Miguel Torres, which has distribution in China."

Japan

"Japan is a fantastic market where you can buy everything. Here people rent wine apartments to store their wines and within the same building there’s another apartment with glassware and a sommelier where they can go to enjoy a glass.

"You can walk into any grocery store or department store like Takashimaya and find a pretty good selection of wine that’s been kept properly.

"Enoteca offers affordable wine, but I found them a little overpriced. Champagne is typically a good buy in Japan. Kyushu is Japan’s native wine and considered to be a quality grape-grown wine.

"Check out Vinotokyo.com for places to buy wine, to read wine reviews and discover Tokyo’s wine bar scene."

 

Australia and New Zealand

Margaret River, West AustraliaIn Australia, look for small producers of white wines for the top quality varietals.

Jim Cawood, sommelier and wine retailer, Vino Vietnam, says: 

“I love Riesling, Hunter Valley Semillon, Burgundies, Shiraz and any sort of Shiraz blends. I have pretty wide tastes.

"Australian vintages are pretty consistent, but most of what is sold outside of Australia is very commercial.

"Basically you’ve got four companies (Treasury Wine, formerly Foster’s; Pierrot-Hardy; Constellation, Pernod Ricard) controlling 70 percent of production, and that’s mostly what’s exported.

"Travel to Australia to look for smaller producers that you can’t find outside the country.

"People always think of Australia and think of big red wines, but our biggest success is high quality white wines. If anything, that’s what you should be looking at and trying to chase down.

"Then there’s some really interesting stuff that isn’t very fashionable, such as the Hunter Valley wines, Semillon and Shiraz and Victorian Pinot Noir. Outside of France, Australia has the best Pinot noir in the world.

"The Margaret River Wine Centre has wines from pretty much all the producers in the region, the staff there are really knowledgeable, the prices are very reasonable and they ship all over the world.

"If you’re in one of the big cities, I would just recommend going to one of the big wine retailers. In Sydney there’s a place called Kemney’s. Ultimo is another.

"Because a lot of older wines are held by big collectors, a lot of the good stuff is sold through auctions. This is great if you know what you’re looking for as everything is done online.

"One of the big ones is called GraysOnline, another is Langton’s. Langton’s will also inspect the lots beforehand and let you know what condition the wine is in.

"Australia isn’t a very good place for buying wines from other countries and as wine is taxed at 40 percent Australian wine is often cheaper overseas.

"One of the cheapest places to buy wine right now is Hong Kong as there’s no tax on wine there. London is another."

New South Wales 

"In the Hunter Valley, Margan, Keith Tullock, McWilliams, Brokenwood are all very good producers. In terms of new wine producing regions, Orange is up-and-coming. Check out producers like Logan and Printhie."

Victoria

"The state is home to the Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula. The Mornington Peninsula is all Pinot noirs: Yabby Lake, Stonier and Merricks are producing good stuff.

"In the Yarra Valley, look at famous producers that started that region, such as Yarra Yering, Yeringberg and Coldstream Hills. In Victoria there’s a lot of good cabernet and shiraz at places like Balgownie Estate, Sunbury and Dominique Portet."

South Australia

"Coonawarra and the Barossa Valley are two most recognized wineries in South Australia.

"Coonawarra is most famous for cabernet and good local producers include Wynns, Petaluma and Leconfield.

"The Barossa Valley has innumerable small wineries to explore, so look for a producer with a good track record, like Torbreck, Yellowglen and, although it sounds boring, Penfolds, which has the best record of any of the wineries in the world.

"Also be sure to check out Clare Valley Riesling."

Western Australia

"Margaret River was the first region chosen in Australia because it had the right conditions for wine production, and it’s probably still the top place in Australia for cabernet and Bordeaux blends.

"Check out Lenten Brae, Moss Wood Wines, Vasse Felix and Cape Mentell."

New Zealand

"It’s a little more tricky to make recommendation here as the wine industry is still pretty young. Any Sauvignon Blanc that you get from Marlborough is going to be pretty good.

"New Zealand is also famous for Pinot Noir and although you can get lots of really expensive Pinot Noir in central Ottago, I don’t think they’re that good. You’ll find better ones on the south island.

"Around Martinborough the Pinot Noir is more like Burgundy. Trinity Hill and Elephant Hill are a couple of big producers. Hawk’s Bay Shiraz is the hottest thing you’d find from NZ at the moment.

"Waiheke Island near Auckland also has some really interesting new varieties."

Things to avoid?

"If there were any varieties to stay away from –- and there’ll always be exceptions -– stay away from Australia Sauvignon Blanc and New Zealand Riesling because you’ve got no idea whether it’ll be a sweet wine or a dry wine.

"In terms of vintages, avoid 2006 wines from Margaret River as that year was really cold, and 2008 wines from the Yarra Valley because a lot of the producers couldn’t make wines because the smoke from all the bush fires that year got into the grapes."

 

The Americas and South Africa

Napa Valley, CaliforniaCalifornia produces up to 90 percent of U.S. wines.

Evan Goldstein, master sommelier, president and chief education officer at Full Circle Wine Solutions Inc., says: 

“I’m a lover of great Pinot noir and Temperanillio, I adore Malbec from Argentina and a stunning Chardonnay.

"The United States market is two-thirds domestic, one-third import. Ninety percent of all wine in the United States is Californian.

"American wineries have seen short harvests in the last few years, resulting in lower supply with ongoing high demand and higher costs, which mean that the best values in wine tend to be in imports from places like Argentina, Portugal, Spain and Australia.

"While all 50 states do make commercial wine, California is most noteworthy and visible for fine wine but it’s worth checking out some of the alternative states such as Oregon, Washington, Virginia, Michigan and Texas.

"If you are keen to drink California and want to stray off the main path (Napa Valley, Sonoma County) you can find great value in Lodi, the central coast, Sierra Foothills and Livermore Valley.

"It’s not in the winery’s best interests to undersell to their customers. If you think you can go straight to the source and get Evan’s Souzao Vineyard cabernet cheaper than you would at a retail store in San Francisco, you’ll be sadly mistaken.

"But you will find large format bottles like magnums and double magnums in cellar doors at wineries, as well as older vintages and small lots of wines not available on the general market.

"There’s a handful of retailers in the Napa Valley like the Bounty Hunter and ACME wine company that specialize in harder to get and small production wines that you won’t find in other places.

"In San Francisco, there are more traditional wine merchants offering wines across a wide range of geographies such as K+L, Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant and the Wine Club, the latter of which probably offers the most aggressive pricing.

"Some stores are known for specialties. If you’re into Australian and New Zealand wines, there’s a store called The Jug Shop, which has a proclivity for antipodean wines.

"It’s always worth going to a wine specialist retailer for guidance, but if you are a savvy astute shopper, I wouldn’t discourage you from going to warehouse stores like Target, Costco and Sam’s Club where you can buy interesting wines at often just a smidgen more than cost price.

"In New York, there are classic, time honored folks like Morrell & Company and Sherry-Lehmann that are good on volume and pricing.

"Zachi’s out in Scarsdale is good, as is Wine Library on the border of New Jersey. As you can’t buy in grocery stores, you’ll find a lot more specialty wine shops, such as Bottle Rocket and Crush.

"The United States is pretty hip in terms of technology and most wineries have websites and e–commerce vehicles. If you found a wine and didn’t want to schlep it home with you, you might be able to find a way to order it and have it shipped."

California 

"From the standpoint of vintages, in California we are blessed with reasonably consistent weather so we don’t have the vintage rollercoaster ride that you have in the Old World. 

"Although 2010 and 2011 were both difficult years, 2012 will go down as a high quality and quantity vintage."

"Places that represent best value year in year out: Bogle in Amador are known for their consistently good inexpensive wine, as are Navarro and Handley wineries in Mendocino County.

"In Sonoma -- particularly good for Pinots and Chardonnays -- check out Patz & Hall, Seghesio, Dutton Goldfield and Laurel Glen."

"Napa and good value unfortunately don’t go hand in hand, but producers that do a good job there are Shafer, Phelps, Kent Rasmussen, Duckhorn and Provenance. 

"In terms of lesser-known places, Ridge Winery in Santa Cruz is one worth looking out for, as is Santa Cruz Mountain and Mount Eden vineyards.

"In Lodi, Michael David and Bokisch; Tablas Creek in Paso Robles, Alban down in Santa Barbara, Melville in Santa Barbara."

Washington

"The beauty of Washington State is that big producers produce extremely high quality wines –- even a brand like Columbia Crest, for example, produces really good wines, as does its parent company Chateau Ste Michelle.

"If you’re looking for Riesling, it’s the Pacific Northwest, specifically Washington, upstate New York, near the Finger Lakes and upstate Michigan.

"Charles Smith is a wacky character who makes really good wines. Cayuse winery and Quilceda Creek represent the first growth in that part of the world. Milbrandt is great value for money and Dunham is good, too."

Oregon

"Adelsheim is one of the original producers. They’ve been up there since 1972. Argyle is another one. A to Z Wineworks, Ponzi and Domaine Drouhin (same as a Burgundy wine) also do a really good job."

Canada

"North America isn’t inexpensive but if you’re shopping in Canada, look for producers from Niagara, Ontario and Okanagan in British Columbia."

South Africa

"These days, South Africa is known for its Shiraz and Sauvignon Blanc; both are very like Kiwi wines but slightly more competitive in pricing.

"What they do best is not what they’d want to be known for, which is their old vine pinotage, a fabulous, idiosyncratic wine with a unique stamp of place. Their old vine Chenin blancs are also really good, but very rare.

"Look at Stellenbosch and the wider Cape region, as well as smaller areas like Elgin and Russell Bay for Pinot noir. Kanonkop, Mulderbosch and Thelema Mountain are all excellent producers."

Central and South America

"Argentina and Chile are drivers for both great value and top-end wines. Mendoza is an amazing region in Argentina known for their Malbec and Salta is known for its Torrontes. 

"Producers to look out for are Alta Vista, Achával Ferrer, Altos Las Hormigas, Colomé, and Amalaya.

"Chile offers great value across the board: Concha y Toro, Montes, Casa Lapostolle, and Almaviva.

"Urguay makes very high quality wines, as does Southern Brazil, specifically in Rio Grande de Sul and also Guadalupe Valley in Baha, Mexico, but it’s harder to find those wines for purchase."

 

Europe 

Rhone, FranceThe Rhone Valley -- expensive but good.

Evan Goldstein, master sommelier, president and chief education officer at Full Circle Wine Solutions Inc., says: 

"Obviously places like France, Italy and Spain have long standing traditions in producing wine and there’s little value to be had in places like Bordeaux, Burgundy and even the Rhone in this day and age.

"Look for Cru Bourgeois wines for good value and producers that have ownership of other chateaus in places like Lalande, Vensac and Latour, such as Château de Pez and Château Greysac.

"Burgundy can be a quagmire, but reputable producers include Faiveley, Olivier Leflaive and Jadot. In the Rhone Valley, producers like Chaputier and Jaboulet tend to be more affordable and easier to find. 

"A lot of France depends on what you like. Bordeaux is a lot of sports coats and ascots, but you get to the Rhone or the Loire and it’s truly artisanal.

"In Italy, the prices of Italian wines have gotten very high, so when shopping in the north, like in Piedmont, for example, stay away from Vertigo-inducing prices of Barolo and Barbaresco and steer instead towards Barbera and Dolcetto, which represent better value for money.

"Campagna, down by Naples, and Apulia, Sicily and Sardinia are good places for value. Look at Feudi di San Gregorio in Basilicata and the time-honored Mastroberardino

"For interesting things a little more off the proverbial track, look at modern Portugal, Greece, places like Austria and Slovenia and less conventional regions in traditional countries.

"If you go into Spain, don’t just look in La Rioja and Ribera del Duero, but look at producers in the area surrounding La Mancha, Jumilla, Torro, Galicia and Ribeira Sacra."

Jim Cawood, sommelier and wine retailer, Vino Vietnam, says:

"Spain is the New World of Europe at the moment and is the most dynamic wine producing region, probably because they’ve invested European Union money into developing the market and because of the molecular gastronomy and culinary experimentation there.

"Not many people think of Spain as being a country of white wines but there’s a whole price range from entry level stuff to bottles that cost €700 (US$903). There’s also a lot of fantastic Temperanillo and Grenache.

"France clings to what it does really well with Burgundy and Bordeaux and Rhone Valley wines, but that represents 3-5 percent of what is produced in France and the vast majority is just average table wine. Italy is the same.

"For Burgundy look for smaller producers like Maison Champy, Vincent Girardin, Jaques Prieur. The same goes for Champagne -– forget about the Moët and Veuve Cliquot and other big commercial houses.

"You can get some good champagne that’s relatively inexpensive if the producer doesn’t have a massive advertising budget to prop up."

Things to avoid?

"The only one that was a big dud was 2002 in the Rhone Valley when they had floods during harvest time and everything was flooded, and 2003 in Spain when they had that big heat wave."

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