Become a wine expert for Valentine’s Day

In his 2008 book Outliers Malcolm Gladwell wrote that the key to achieving world-class expertise in any skill is pretty much down to practising for about 10,000 hours.

It’s a big commitment, which probably explains why most of us aren’t experts in anything. But never fear - if you want to become a wine expert in time for Valentine’s Day we’ve got some top tips for how to bring out your inner sommelier.

Spot the best

Did you know it’s possible to identify a good wine without even opening the bottle?

Most wine experts agree that wine doesn’t have to be expensive or vintage to be good, and don’t be put off by flashy labels either.

This is where common sense prevails. Have a good read of the label on the back of the bottle. This is the easiest way to get an instant impression of what the wine is going to taste like, where it is from, what foods it pairs well with, and even the history of the winery that made it.

Also look out for any awards, medals or stamps of approval on the bottle – all of which are indications of a good quality wine. And don't be put off by a bottle of wine with a screw cap rather than a cork. Because around 8 percent of wine sealed with cork becomes ‘cork-tainted’ many wineries choose to bottle their wines with a screw cap to protect the quality of their product.

Try before you buy

Wine is one of the things that you can try before you buy – or at least you can if you take advantage of free wine tasting events hosted by your friendly wine merchant or local winery. You can search for events near you online and sign up for email invitations for forthcoming tastings, and most sellers give generous discounts on purchases made on the day.

This time of year is also a great time to visit a winery because winter is a quieter part of the production process for them, so you might be able to catch up with the winemaker or their own in-house wine expert for a chat.

Taste wine like a pro



A quality wine is made up of the sum of its parts, so another way to look like a proper wine expert is to do the swirl, sniff and sip test with a glass of wine.

Start by holding the glass firmly and swirling the wine around inside it and have a decent sniff. What does it smell like to you? It could be oaky, smoky, floral, have a scent of apples or citrus – as long as it doesn’t smell like vinegar you are off to a good start.

However, unlike with some spirits you are not looking for what wine experts call ‘legs’ or ‘tears’ – the lines of liquid that drip down inside the glass. With wine, these are only an indication of the alcohol level rather than its quality.

Next, it’s time to do your best wine expert impression and have a sip. Hold the wine in your mouth and let it roll around your tongue. Does it taste like how it smelled to you? The more you can taste the more ‘complex’ the wine, and the longer the flavours linger in your mouth the better.

If you’re at a wine tasting event it’s up to you if you use the spittoon. It’s not compulsory and no one will think you are being rude if you don’t spit out the wine – or if you do!

Wine tasting words

You’ve probably heard lots of fancy adjectives used to describe wine. Although over-using them can make you sound pretentious rather than a real wine expert, it’s handy to know what the most common wine tasting words mean:


  • A ‘big’ wine has a flavour that really blankets your mouth and tongue

  • A ‘buttery’ wine has been oak-aged in oak and has a rich, creamy texture and smooth finish

  • A wine with ‘chewy tannins’ dries out the inside of your mouth, making you do a kind of chewing movement to clean your palate

  • A ‘complex’ wine is one whose flavour changes in your mouth from tasting to swallowing

  • If you like buttery wines you’ll probably like ‘creamy’ too, as these are also aged in oak

  • ‘Crisp’ wines are simple, easy drinking wines that are usually white

  • ‘Oak’ is a dimension of flavour that comes to red and white wines from being aged in oak barrels, rather than from the taste of the grapes themselves. Oaked reds can have spicy, vanilla tones, and whites are buttery and vanilla tasting

  • ‘Unoaked’ wines don’t have these flavours, so unoaked reds are more tart, and whites more citrusy


Age ain’t nothing but a number

Older wines aren't necessarily better, though more reasonably priced wines are meant to be drunk rather than ‘laid down’ in your wine cellar. As a general rule of thumb, wine experts advise that white wines are drunk one to two years after they have been bottled, and reds after two or three years.

However, higher-end wines can last up to a decade or more. If you really want to fine-tune your wine expert skills then with a little bit of research you can find out which years had the best weather conditions in the regions where your favourite wine comes from, and invest in some of those vintages.

Remember what you like

After all this time spent on tasting and research, it doesn’t hurt to make a note of which wines you like. This means the next time you are shopping for a wine you can tell the wine seller what you prefer, and why, and they can recommend other wines for you to try.

And if you want to branch out and add to your wine expertise, think about choosing a wine from a grape variety you know you already like, but from a different part of the world.

Making friends with your local wine merchant or winery means they may even start to put bottles aside to recommend to you on your next visit. What better way to make you feel like you’ve attained wine expert status, and in a lot fewer than 10,000 hours. We’ll say ‘cheers’ to that.