The 24-Hour Wine Expert

Our Southern correspondent, Fionnuala Harkin, is certainly one of our go-to experts in Wines Direct. Always eager to learn more, Fionnuala jumped head-first into Jancis Robinson's nifty little book, which promises to make you an expert in wine by the last page! 

A lot of the advice Jancis has for readers rings true with Fionnuala's, and Wines Direct's, ethos. Get to know your independent wine merchant, and don't be scared to ask us questions! Read on for Fionnuala's thoughts on the book! 



Fionnuala with Gavin Keogh & Des Doyle at Chateau Haut Garriga

Fionnuala with Gavin Keogh & Des Doyle at Chateau Haut Garriga

Having missed out on tickets for Jancis Robinson at Litfest this year, I was faced with a choice - stand with my nose squished against the window until someone took pity on me, or buy her clever little book in the Litfest bookshop, which promised to make one a wine expert in 24 hours. With excellent coffee on hand in the Big Shed, it was an easy decision. 



By the end of the introduction, she already had my full attention; her first nugget of advice to budding wine experts was to forge a relationship with a good independent wine merchant. One that's already established.

Jancis offers guidance on how to get the most from your wine experience, whether it’s choosing wine in a restaurant, for a party, or Tuesday night pasta. She encourages you to avoid wines with labels that tell you too much about how the wine tastes and food matches, rather than about how the wine was made. This reeks of marketing over substance.

Look for 'Mis En Bouteille Au Domaine', or its equivalent, on the label. This gem informs you that the wine is made and bottled in the same place, not transported in bulk for bottling elsewhere, possibly under many different labels.

When people ask me how you know one Chablis is better than another, I go to the point Jancis makes about the retailer you trust. She points out that there is no direct correlation between price and quality in wine - often you're paying for the region or famous name on the label. Moving outside the most popular areas can very often bring better value.


All the information relevant to making the right choice for yourself is available from that good wine merchant. Wines Direct of course!  Equally, if you're buying a gift for a wine lover, an obscure wine from a great producer will be really appreciated, and good Champagne never goes amiss.

In a restaurant, you are advised to ask for help. Far from being a sign of weakness, Robinson believes it's quite the opposite; someone who knows very little will want to act as if they are in control, where a more confident punter will know that the wine waiter or restaurant manager will know their own wines very well.  They will be in a position to recommend a suitable wine, and possibly introduce them to a wine they might not have chosen if left to their own devices.

When I'm doing wine training with staff in restaurants, I always encourage them to offer help to their customers. Many people are afraid to ask in case they're directed to the most expensive wines. This is very rarely the case. The restaurant will want you to come back, which is much more likely if you are recommended a good wine, at a fair price - better again if it's one you haven't had before. Be adventurous! I couldn't agree more with Jancis when she exhorts us to move away from our comfort zones. Did someone say Pinot Grigio? What about Trebbiano from Abruzzo? Sauvignon Blanc fan? Try Spanish Verdejo.

When matching wine with food, choose a wine which equals the texture and weight of your food: light, delicately flavoured food needs a subtle wine which won't overpower it. Conversely, a big, rich meaty dish calls for a robust, structured wine. Otherwise, match the wine to the occasion - fun, uncomplicated wines for barbeques and parties, special wines for big occasions. 


Screwcap, bag in box, wine in keg – Robinson’s in favour of them all. For inexpensive wines, box, carton, and keg all make sense both cost-wise and environmentally. Only 10% of all wine made today needs to age in bottle. For this reason, the container is just that- something in which to keep the wine fresh for a few months to a year.  

Anyone who has ever married, or had significant birthday celebrations beyond their 21st, will have some heavy duty glasses designed by a famous name in the press. These are great for barbeques because they are so heavy, they don't blow over in the howling gales that usually accompany al fresco dining. For getting the most out of a glass of wine in less windy conditions, a nice, clear, thin glass which slopes inwards towards the top is your only man. Most of the flavours we perceive in a wine come from its smell. This is lost if the glass opens up, allowing those precious aromas to escape.

Tasting wines is a very subjective activity, and Jancis admits that novices can come up with better descriptors than experienced tasters, who can have preordained set of terms. Smell, taste, swish, swallow! Think about all the aromas, feel how the wine reacts with every part of your mouth. Notice the aftertaste, what favours are left, how long do they last? If you want to improve your tasting experience, you could look up the WSET tasting grid, which gives pointers on what to look out for in smells, flavours, textures and other nuances in your wine. The temperature of the wine is very important - too cold and the subtleties are lost, too warm and it becomes dull and flabby. 

I think I've glossed over the bones of this lovely little paperback; it's well worth it's €8 cover price. Armed with all that information, you should stock up on some off-piste wines from Wines Direct, gather a few pals together, and try out your new-found wisdom for an evening of vinous entertainment and education! 



...her first nugget of advice to budding wine experts was to forge a relationship with a good independent wine merchant...

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