A Beginner's Guide to the World's Best Wines
The world of wine can be an overwhelming one, but you don't need to be a connoisseur to appreciate the different varietals on a wine-tasting holiday. In fact, that's what vineyard tours are all about - helping you get to know different wines and grape-growing techniques, while soaking up some of the best landscapes and cultures on the planet. Here we catch up with Flight Centre's Christopher Johnson, our resident wine expert, to pull together a beginner's guide to the world's best wines and wine regions to help you choose your next travel destination:
First off, we all love wine, but how do you know so much about the stuff and what about it interests you?
I worked for over six years in the wine trade, starting at Laithwaite’s wine merchants as a Sales Assistant for one year, then the rest of my time at Jeroboams Wine Merchants progressing to a Store Assistant Manager and Retail Training Manager.
I started by trying single varietals - such as Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec etc - and establishing how the flavours of that grape differ depending on country and climate. For instance, a New Zealand Sauvignon is a lot fruitier and fuller than a Sauvignon from Sancerre, France. I built all my knowledge on this basis and through experience. And of course, lots of wine drinking expanded it!
I have always been fascinated by wine because of the depth of flavour you can get out of a single grape variety and how much this varies based on the soil and climate of the region. I also took biochemistry at university, which has made me passionate about the cultivation and development of living organisms. This follows into the large amount of vines that are cloned and bred with other varieties, as well as fermentation techniques and wine-ageing studies.
I also have a Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Advanced certification, which I undertook as part of my wine training.
What is your favourite wine and why?
That is such a difficult question! There are so many great ones out there; so I've selected a few from several countries.
Chapel Down is a great wine produced here in the UK, in Kent. There's Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and some traditional English grapes used in Roman times, all of which are fantastic quality. The whites are fresh with tones of elderflower and minerality. Their sparkling wines are perhaps the stars of the show though, with our soil and climate in the south east being very similar to that of France's Champagne region.
In New Zealand, all the Felton Road wines are great, but my favourite is their Pinot Noir (around £40 per bottle). It was one of the first Pinot Noirs I ever had and I loved the earthy quality, balanced with the fruit and body. Cloudy Bay Te Koko is a famous Sauvignon Blanc, produced on the South Island. It also comes aged in oak barrels to add a creaminess and depth. Honourable mention goes to the wines of Hunter’s in Blenheim, Marlborough. Every year they win multiple awards for their great everyday wines, which are only around £10-20 a bottle. Their range has pretty much all the single grape varietals, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and even a sparkling wine made using the same method and grapes as Champagne.
As for Italy, there are so many delicious wines to talk about here, especially with Italy being my favourite wine-producing country. I think the best wine I ever had was a 1996 Ornellaia. Silky smooth, the fruit and tannins had softened beautifully and it was just a fantastically balanced glass of wine (at that time it was around £220!), a real treat. It's not something for everyday of course. For this I would have their Le Volte (around £20) instead. It's a super Tuscan red, made from grapes from the same vineyards, giving you an idea of the pedigree of Ornellaia without the same price tag. For those who prefer white wine, I’ve always really liked Soave, in particular the wines of Pieropan, an usual grape that grows in long vertical bunches. Once again Pieropan produces a standard Soave and an oaked version, both of which are fantastic fresh, fruity and balanced.
So where should lovers of wine go on holiday?
Italy and New Zealand, are fantastic countries to visit anyway, and with their large selection of vineyards and wine types there is something for everyone to try. I would also say any upcoming wine fan has to go for France; one of my best wine visits was to Champagne, where they put on a real show.
Which country does the best wines in your opinion?
I personally think Italy, again because of the great variety of grapes and climates from north to south.
When ordering a wine at a restaurant, do you have a go-to varietal and why?
I think the best advice for any wine consumer is to choose the house wine. While this is often thought of as a cheap decision, there is a reason they call it the house wine: they have spent time and effort choosing it and it is often the best value. Personally I love Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and oaked Chardonnay.
Are there any particularly unusual wines you have tried?
Tokaji, a Hungarian dessert wine is something special - all sweet wine drinkers should try it. Rieslings from Germany / Alsace, or anywhere really, offer a lighter wine with fantastic range of flavours. In the old world you tend to get a more petrolly, oily, lighter style and the new world more fruit and body. On a similar note, wines like Gewürztraminer (which translates to “spiced”) gives you an idea of their flavour.
If any of our readers want to know more about wine, where should they start?
I would say start with single varietals from multiple countries and compare them, i.e. buy a Sauvignon / Pinot Noir / Cabernet Sauvignon from New Zealand, South Africa and France and compare. WSET is a great resource too and open to everyone, whether they are in the wine trade or not, and I would also say go for wine tastings at local wine merchants - they have great knowledge and will always be happy to speak to you about wine.