Choosing a bottle abroad
Choosing a wine when you are out of your normal comfort zone can be a difficult experience. The different labels, names, unknown grapes and nothing to help with translations. It's no wonder people just stick to the house wines and miss out on what each country has to offer.

Recent research conducted by experimental psychologists at Oxford has revealed something that we all sort of knew anyway: wine tastes different in different environments.

This isn’t ground-breaking. We’ve all drunk amazing wines on holiday, that, once across the Channel, taste utterly bog-standard at best. I’m talking about those 4-euro bottles from the hypermarche that we’ll mull over, basking in the warm glow of a Mediterranean evening and picking assiduously at a bowl of olives, but know, deep down, must in fact be plonk. The scientists have shown that apparently even the colour of the glass, ambient lighting and the music you’re listening to can influence how a wine tastes, so the post-holiday wine-drinking blues may well be just an inevitability. But surely, quality is nationless? Surely a good wine must retain some goodness whether it’s drunk in the Dordogne or in Dudley? The question then, is thus; how do you choose a wine on holiday, that is, genuinely, good?

Go native. The most obvious answer is that which is the same for choosing the best food and the best restaurants; do what the locals do. The wine and food traditions of all the European vinegrowing regions have grown up hand in hand for centuries, and the taste of the two components are almost guaranteed to complement each other. If you’re eating foie-gras in Aquitaine, then perhaps try the local sweeter wines of the region (think Sauternes, Loupiac or Monbazillac), or drink a cold glass of Gavi or Picpoul de Pinet with a big bowl of prawns on the Mediterranean coast. Drink Muscadet or white Bordeaux with mussels, and an Alpine white with a creamy tartiflette.

Restaurants and shops in wine producing areas tend to keep their inventories local, and by straying too far afield you can run the risk of choosing a less well-sourced bottle from a bigger, cheaper negociant, on the menu simply for those with money to pay for it, or for an expectation that it should be there. If you’re in the Languedoc let’s say, and you fancy a bottle of sparkling, you’ll probably be better off choosing a local bottle of Cremant de Limoux, rather than that one, big name Champagne on the wine list. Vice versa, naturally, for when dining in Champagne.

The same applies for when holidaying in the New World. Although the local cuisines may not be quite so directly applicable to the wine styles being produced in the area, it’s a much better idea to choose a local bottle than one imported from Europe – unless dining in a notable restaurant, the available Old World wines are likely to be those of the bigger brands and particularly expensive. Small producers (in fashionable wine parlance; boutique) also offer value for money, to some extent at least.

These outfits are often small teams with small vineyards and wineries, focusing on producing a certain style to a high level of quality, without money spent on extravagant branding and marketing campaigns. Although there are larger producers making very good quality wine in big volumes, boutique wineries usually offer a chance to taste local grapes made in a regionally specific, artisan style.

Outside of the restaurant, buying wine can be a more democratic matter. In places such as California, New Zealand and Australia, wine tourism is big money, and most producers, whatever their size, will offer tastings of their whole range before purchasing. Some wineries also offer sizeable discounts for customers buying in bulk, as well as advice or money-off freight services home. Shifting wine across oceans is unavoidably expensive however, and most wine-buying UK holidaymakers are those who will be stacking the cases high in the boot of the car. This is where those artisan wines so enjoyed at the restaurant aren’t quite so suitable – that one-man, biodynamic Domaine Whatsit from Cahors is never going to taste as good on a damp Tuesday night in England.

If you want to buy wine that still retains some of its magic, then a bit of broader consideration is required. The quality has to be good of course – 4 euro bottles are 4 euros for a reason. They may be good value to a UK wine drinker, but they’re still bottom shelf in France. A significant difference in stamp-duty between the UK and much of southern Europe (as well as the general cost of wine and food at large) means that you will still be saving considerable money on a 7/8 euro bottle as well. It’s the translation between source and sink that must be compatible however – the wine is, after all, likely going to be consumed alongside some form of English food.

Do you really want lots of the aforementioned Picpoul de Pinet with bangers and mash on an autumn night? A case of good Cotes du Rhone is probably the best bet. There are hundreds of unique grape varieties all over Italy, but how well will that Ribolla Gialla, Susumaniello or Falanghina actually go with the cheddar smothered spag bol and lasagne that habitually comprises most of our Italian home-cooking repertoire? A few bottles of decent Chianti or a spicy Primitivo may be the answer.

One of the great joys of being a wine lover abroad is the fact that it is often simply everywhere. An integral part of many a national and regional culture, wine is synonymous with the everyday event of eating. Much of the jargon involved with wine labels has been established to protect these places of origin, proving on behalf of both the consumer and producer that a wine really does, for example, come from Bordeaux.

Often this language and its associated abbreviations (AC/DOCG/AVA) can be confusing, and therefore perhaps the number one trick for buying wine abroad is to do a little bit of reading beforehand. School up on some of the regions, grapes and terms and the wine list won’t look quite so unintelligible. Armed with some knowledge and with an eye on the locals, a little bit of judicious choosing will mean you really can enjoy your holiday wine at home in the UK, even if it is raining, the BBQ doesn’t work, and you’ve resorted instead to the trusty Great British trio of ham, egg and chips.