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The "secret codes" for buying better wine


Choosing the right wine from a list in a restaurant, bar list or shelf can be daunting. There are often SO MANY choices and so little obvious information to help the choice other than price.

If you’ve been doing this a long time (like some of us) you can develop favourites (regions, grapes or producers) but often even the ex[erts have to go “on instinct” as well.

What are the ‘secret codes’ or ‘warning signs’ that you use to help you make a better choice? Learning a few of these will help newer wine drinkers to navigate the wine lists in their life with greater confidence!

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I have started this thread because I failed.

I was in a pizza restaurant in a town in central England on my way home and there were only 4 red wines listed, all by grape with very little other information (no region, producer, or vintage) and a three word description.

I chose the ‘Primitivo’ (the most expensive on the list), but was away from the table when the bottle came to taste, so my wife had to taste it. She was shocked, but it was not corked, so she accepted it.

My spider-sense ‘warning signs’ would have been tingling if I had been there. The label was all black with a logo of start reflecting from it. This is the sort of wine that advertises its “dark chocolate” notes and likes to describe itself as “sensuous” or “opulent

If you read these words on the label or wine list, BEWARE!

The wine was confected, with massive sweet residual sugar notes. It advertised itself as only 13% but the remaining 3%+ of alcohol that might have been fermented was still there in the wine - as sugar.

My wife and I exchanged glances after a sip and I was tasked to exchange the whole bottle for two glasses of anything else on the list!

If you like the likes of ‘Apothic’, the semi-sweet style of wines that have been hitting the market recently, then these are cues for you, but otherwise they are probably words to try and avoid.

Awkward wine lover moments

Ask them to recommend something they sell by the glass, but also ask for a taste before committing to the purchase. I doubt they would refuse.


On a more positive note, I realise that there are words that excite me as soon as I see them and they might help you to identify some wines that could stand out from the crowd.

The first ones that come to mind are:

laser (as in ‘laser-focused’)

The first may already be over-used and be hard to define, but if the person creating the notes has used it there is a great chance that they are aware that this wine is going to be of more interest to some drinkers rather than others - it may not be a ‘crowd-pleaser’.

These words imply (to me) not only that the wine has high acidity, but that the acidity has been carefully and artfully made part of the wine’s “package” and that this experience will be lively and engaging, maybe even challenging, but not run-of-the-mill.

Not everyone will enjoy this challenge, so you need to decide whether this is something YOU like too, but again, if you do, it might be the secret code you were looking for


The not-so-secret code is Alsace, and if necessary change your order from meat to fish.
Malbec is also starting to be semi-safe. I would take either electric or laser as definitely to be avoided, as they are too pretentious not to be just copied from a blurb (see other thread on over the top descriptions).


I remember reading the following glowing description by Jeff Leve, and have never wanted to drink a wine less. Some of the descriptors are things I normally like (“spice box, minerals”), but most of them (and particularly the cumulative effect of them) make me want to run for the hills.
“When you swirl, glycerin drips from the lip of the glass like wax from a melting candle. Elixir of blackberry, jammy fruits, spice box, minerals, molasses, sweet licorice, vanilla and coffee explode in your face. Incredible levels of concentrated Bordeaux are found in this wine! The amount of chocolate drenched, ripe and over ripe fruit that fills every nook and cranny of your palate is mind blowing! This is so thick, you want to eat it. And you probably could!”





I have to say, restaurant markups make me cry, so on the rare occasions that we eat out (maybe once every couple of years), I just go for the house red/white and hope it’s been well chosen.

Christ almighty. Which wine is it that I really, really need to avoid?


Yes, a place that is brave enough to list Alsace wines is doing it for a reason - and is probably selling them for a better value since they are harder to sell to most people!

In fact I came across a reference to both our suggestions recently (Noble Rot’s references to Rieslings, Gruner Veltliner and related wines):

Redolent with the aromas of slate, stones, citrus and even petrol, try
a laser-focused Weingut Keller or Koehler-Ruprecht, or a broader, richer style from Alsace
or Austria.

(like it, but not convinced they’ve used ‘redolent’ correctly - maybe @martin_brown could advise)


Ch Pavie 2000!


Crikey. There’s no accounting for taste. Imagine what else you could buy for the price of one bottle:


I think it is right…


Yeah, and I’d say Austria for a similar reason.


Unless, of course, you are in Alsace or Austria


But aromas of stones is so meaningless it discredits the whole note.


That in itself would set my warning klaxon off, and I think I would order beer.

That’s in the UK at least. In big wine-producing areas, I have noticed that cheaper restaurants may just give basic information, and in those cases I think you just have to go by the reputation of the restaurant.


Now I can’t stop thinking of words I do and don’t like

OK, how about “garrigue” or “graphite” ?

If used in combination with appropriate fruit notes they should represent wines that have more to offer than simple alcoholic fruit-cocktail experiences.

Garrigue’ is about a resinous, herbal and floral experience that adds a lot more interest to red wines, particularly syrah or grenache, and therefore likely from southern France. It has been used a lot, so may well be abused to the point of meaninglessness now, but it is worth looking out for if you like to pause and explore aromas and flavours.

Graphite’ is a bit harder. In a strict sense (as @SPmember points out) I guess this is not a ‘taste’ but an experience - the experience of old school days where you put your pencil on your tongue. Do kids still do that? This is another Syrah (mainly) note that distinguishes the description from the generic ‘blackberry & black pepper’ note and also might be an indication of better provenance and some ‘electric’ (that word again) experience from the acidity in the wine …

Anyone else thirsty??


Yes, and I am out of drinking wine at home… (as opposed to keep don’t touch wine)


I like 'acacia’ - but only because it brings to mind giraffes on the Serengeti plains, chomping it with a serene expression. Never munched on one myself, so have no idea what it’s actually supposed to taste like, but it sounds like it’s a good thing! :wink:


This wouldn’t appear on any WS descriptions would it? :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye: