12 Commonly Asked Wine Questions Answered by Our Expoerts
We never imagined a day when the world’s health crisis would force us to hit pause on our popular in-store tasting events. During these unprecedented times, ABC Fine Wine & Spirits went virtual with tasting events to keep the sampling and educating going. Winemakers, master distillers and industry experts joined us to live stream their knowledge to guests who Zoomed and sipped comfortably as a shared experience from home. The silver lining to this virtual way of tasting was that we got to have longer conversations with guests to find out more of their pressing questions. Turns out, we heard a lot of very similar questions that our experts were happy to answer. In case you missed these tastings, here are some of the most common wine questions we heard, with answers from our wine experts.
Should I decant wine before I drink it?
Decanting serves two main purposes: First, it separates the wine from any sediment that may have formed over time. Most red wines will throw a sediment as they age. This is nothing to fear, just a natural by-product of aging and is actually desirable. What you don’t want, however, is for that sediment to get stirred up before serving your wine. It will make the wine cloudy and can leave a gritty, bitter aftertaste. The second reason for decanting would be to aerate the wine, opening up aromas and flavors. Many age-worthy wines such as Bordeaux, Barolo and Napa Cabernet will benefit from some time in a decanter even before they begin to form any sediment. The exposure to oxygen will soften the tannins and enhance the aromatics.
Decanting wine is an uncomplicated ritual that is often shrouded in misunderstanding. The process of slowly pouring wine from the bottle into a different container without disturbing the sediment at the bottom is a simple act. All you need is a corkscrew, a clean, dry vessel and a reason to drink some wine.
The overwhelming majority of wines purchased in our stores are intended for immediate consumption and don’t need to be decanted. That said, decanting a simple everyday quaffer will not hurt the wine so why not have some fun with your Wednesday night pizza wine and decant it.
What is the best way to store wine?
Having a wine collection to share with friends and family is one of life’s great pleasures. I love pulling out a bottle of well-aged vino that not only impresses but is a delight to drink. Just recently, I have been purchasing all the 2015 Brunello and 2016 Barolo I can fit into my budget. Of course, I don’t plan on drinking these wines until they have aged for a few years so proper storage is essential. Living in Florida certainly presents its challenges to storing wine long term. Most of our homes don’t have cool, dark cellars, but that shouldn’t prevent you from following a few simple tips for storing wine effectively.
Proper temperature is the most important factor to consider. In general, the ideal temperature should be around 55 degrees Fahrenheit and be kept as stable as possible. Bottles should be stored horizontally to keep the corks from drying out. Care should be given to avoid light and vibration. A final consideration should be made to the proper humidity, between 60 –70 percent. At low humidity, corks can dry out. With too much humidity, labels can mold and begin to peel off.
Assuming you do not have a romantic, chilly, subterranean cavern in your backyard, what’s the best way to keep your wine cool, dark, still and lying on its side? If you are storing wine for just a few days or even weeks, it’s not necessary to follow all these guidelines, however heat and light are never kind to wine. A dark, room temperature closet is sufficient to store wine short term. As you become more serious about collecting, select ABC Fine Wine & Spirits stores lease wine lockers by the month. I’ve rented a locker for over ten years now and have never regretted the investment. Visit abcfws.com/contact-us to check availability near you. Another option is an in-home storage unit, which are available in a variety of sizes.
At what temperature should wine be served?
In short, serving temperature has everything to do with the wine’s style. A good analogy is this: Would you drink lemonade warm? Of course not! That’s why white wines taste better chilled. It’s because their sugar, acidity and alcohol structure make them better suited for colder temperatures.
For sparkling wines, I suggest serving them cold, between 38 and 45 degrees. For white wines, slightly warmer, between 45 and 50 degrees. As for red wines, lighter-bodied reds, such as Pinot Noir, are best served cool - between 55 and 60 degrees. And fuller-bodied reds, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, should be served slightly below room temperature (between 62 and 68 degrees).
Should I pay attention to wine ratings? What do they mean?
When it comes to wine ratings, I always suggest guests use these strictly as a guide. Keep in mind that these ratings are the opinion of one person, and their own personal taste in wine can influence what they will score, high versus low. For example, one of the most famous wine critics, Robert Parker, LOVED big, rich, high alcohol, full-bodied wines. If you also enjoy this style, odds are you would love most wines that he scored well.
What’s considered a good score? Most people seem to agree that anything 90 points or above is outstanding, but only if it’s a style you like. I would caution you not to overlook anything in the 85-89-point range. Again, use ratings for guidance, but always pay attention to the source and try to note which sources you agree with. And do not be disappointed if you find a source whose highly rated wine you didn’t enjoy; it just means your taste buds and theirs are different. That is all a part of the experience of drinking and enjoying wine.
What are sulfites? Are they bad?
Sulfites, or sulfur dioxide (SO2), are chemical compounds that occur naturally at low levels during the fermentation process of winemaking. They can also be added in by winemakers themselves. Their antioxidant, antimicrobial and anti-enzymatic properties make them a popular resource to help the preservation of wine. In the last 100 years, sulfites have been used in different stages of the winemaking process. They are traditionally added before and after fermentation to inhibit yeast and bacteria from producing undesirable compounds, and before bottling the final product.
The amount of sulfites in a wine can differ depending on a number of variables. In general, dry wines require less sulfites than sweet wines. Wines with higher sugar require more sulfites to combat secondary fermentation of the remaining sugar. If a wine is labeled organic or biodynamic, they must follow a set of regulations that limit the amount of sulfites. Find more on those regulations here. Natural Wine is a fairly new category, that excludes the addition of sulfites, or any other additives that do not naturally occur during the fermentation process. They use new techniques that forgo the use of preservatives completely, and at the same time deliver fresh and stable products. Wines with little to no sulfites must be consumed very soon after bottling. Due to a lack in sulfites, very few of them have a 1-2-year shelf-life.
Once you have chilled wine, do you need to keep it chilled?
A chilled wine can go from the refrigerator to the table and back again without suffering any negative effects to the quality of the wine. It is a common misconception that a gradual temperature change will damage a wine. While it is true that wine does not like heat, it’s only when those temps are excessively warm or rapid that any wine would suffer adversely. Think of a wine left inside an unairconditioned car on a hot Florida day or stored in a sweltering summer garage. A wine exposed to temperatures approaching 120 degrees Fahrenheit for any considerable time would most likely be compromised.
Here is a practical scenario to back my assertion: Many wine lovers, myself included, own wine fridges or cellaring units to age their wines. The optimal cellaring temperature is 55 degrees Fahrenheit for all wines, both red and white. Before a dinner party with friends, I might select a few red wines from my cellaring unit and leave them on the table to gradually come up to proper room temperature for drinking. Should a bottle happen to not be opened for some reason, I would not have any reservations about returning it back to my wine fridge to resume cellaring and be enjoyed at a future date.
How long will wine last once it is opened?
The amount of time a wine will last after opening really does depend on the wine; meaning the type of wine (still or sparkling, and red, white or Rosé) and the individual varietal. It’s never as long as we hope, though we have certain tools that can help us keep open wines fresh longer. Country of origin can also have an impact as most New World wines go through a secondary malolactic fermentation to soften the reds and make the whites more buttery. This shortens their lifespan after opening compared to more acidic European wines that usually don’t go through this process. The short answer is usually 2-5 days and no more, though I would debate this with my mom who thought open whites could last weeks in the fridge. This really is not the case. Instead, the cold just hides the less fruity characters that emerge after exposure to oxygen. All wine wants to become vinegar and oxygen is the catalyst, but oxygen is also what opens up a wine to bring on softer flavors (why we let them “breathe”).
Generally, heavy tannic reds last longer after opening, especially if they come from Europe. Densely sweet wines also tend to last longer after opening. Sparkling wine, due to bubbles, tends to last the shortest time unless you use a special bubbly stopper to help keep bubbles in. This is why we have products like Coravin to keep wine fresher longer after opening. Heavy tannin and higher acid red wines keep better after opening, and can last a full 5 days, but fruity young red wines tend to keep less well and so we look to 2-3 days only. I put most whites and Rosés in this 2-3-day category as well, though if they have more acid or more sugar, they can go a little longer.
If you choose to decant your wine (because it’s a big, heavy red) the wine will last even less time, as you’ve put the entire bottle through a marathon of oxygen. If you want to keep your reds longer, then just pour a glass or two and quickly recork the bottle and store in the fridge. The cooler temperatures will slow down the chemical process of oxidizing. Just remember to let it get warmer in the glass before serving! Most of the time you should try and drink your wine bottles within 3 days to get optimum pleasure.
What wine is best to serve for a large group?
Serving wine at a party or large gathering can be a daunting experience, but by following a few helpful tips, it should all come out smoothly and should be fun. The first thing to consider is whether you will be serving just wine at your party, or will there also be spirits and beer? If you are hosting a party with other alcoholic beverages, figure on a half of bottle of wine per person over two hours. Should there be only wine at your party, it is best to allow for one bottle per person. And remember to have more wine than you need. It’s always better to have too much than run out. Here are a few more tips to help:
Make sure you have at least one decent wine glass per person. Two would be better if your guests will be moving from whites to reds.
Chill the white wine beforehand. Take white wine out of the fridge fifteen minutes before serving. Put red wine in the fridge for fifteen minutes before serving.
It is always a good idea to start the evening with some sparkling wine. It doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive Champagne. You can get a very serviceable Prosecco or Cava for $10 - $15. Starting with bubbly turns any party into an occasion, and it truly breaks the ice.
No need to break open your collection of expensive boutique wines. A party is a casual event and the emphasis is on fun and easy-going wines. It is always good to serve at least one white and one red wine. Choose from the crowd-pleasers – Pinot Grigio, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, or a good red blend. You may also want to have a Moscato or some other sweet wine for those who only drink sweet.
If you are serving wine in an order for your guests to taste, always go with white before red, light before heavy, and dry before sweet.
If you are pouring restaurant-size serves (5-6 ounces) you will get 4-5 glasses of wine per bottle. For sparkling wine in a flute glass, you will get 5-6 servings per bottle.
Have water on hand so your guests can hydrate, and don’t forget the nibbles.
Enjoy yourself! And remember to keep an unopened bottle of bubbly for yourself afterward. You deserve it!
Need extra assistance planning your next party? Book a free consultation through ABC’s Concierge Service today.
How can you tell if a wine is bad when you open it?
There is not a worse feeling for wine lovers than opening that bottle you have been anxiously waiting to try, only to find that it is spoiled. You can use your senses, yes, even hearing (think champagne) to determine whether a bottle of wine is good to drink or not.
Let's start with our eyes and what they can tell us about a wine. As red wines age, they tend to lose color. All the things that give wine flavor and texture start to slowly bond together and drop to the bottom of the bottle as sediment, leaving the wine lighter than it was before. Red wines go from purple, to ruby, to garnet, to tawny and finally to brown. As for white wines, due to oxidation, they gain color with age, going from lemon green, to lemon, to gold, to amber and ultimately to brown.
Now let’s use our noses to identify some of the major flaws a wine may have. First things first, we need to talk about cork taint. Just because a wine smells bad, it does not necessarily mean the wine is “corked.” Cork taint, or TCA (trichloroanisol) is a frustrating flaw that makes a wine smell musty, like wet cardboard. It occurs when a moldy cork or winemaking equipment get sealed up into a finished bottle of wine. It can even get under a screw cap. The biggest problem with cork taint is that people have different sensitivities to it. In small doses it can make a wine smell more boring than bad. Many people do not even recognize when a wine has a slightly tainted cork, and just continue drinking it feeling mildly disappointed.
There are many other wine flaws that have various strong odors and are easily identified. Such odors include burnt matches, rotten eggs, garlic or onion, nail polish remover, rancid butter and barn yard. If any of these smells come up from your glass, consider dumping it and opening something else.
As far as taste is concerned, if the wine smells bad, it will most likely taste bad as well. The easiest flaws to taste are again, cork taint (will taste like wet cardboard), heat damage (will taste cooked or baked) and oxidation (will taste overly nutty, with no fruit character whatsoever). Use your nose first, before you go putting potentially bad liquid in your mouth.
Just for fun, let’s discuss hearing. This will only apply to opening sparkling wines, but here we go: If a bottle of Champagne or sparkling wine has been improperly stored, it will most likely lose its lovely carbonation. You will have no opportunity to hear the delightful “POP!” when ceremoniously opening the bottle at a celebration or dinner. No hiss or pop = no fun. It may still be ok to drink, but it certainly will not have the expressive exuberance you were hoping for.
Why do some wines give me a headache?
The first major cause of wine-related headaches is tannins. Tannins are naturally occurring preservative compounds found in the seeds, stems and skins of grapes. They provide flavor and texture to big red wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Barolo. To see if you are susceptible to tannin headaches, try brewing a cup of black tea and let the tea steep for five-to-ten-minutes. Since black tea is very high in tannins, this will help to identify whether or not you have a tannin sensitivity. If you believe tannins are the culprit of your headaches, avoid high tannin wines.
The second cause of the dreaded wine headache is sugar. When you drink alcohol, your body will essentially convert it to sugar to digest it. This process takes lots and lots of water to achieve. If you have not had enough water throughout the day, your body will pull it from other parts of your body (like your head!), resulting in an unpleasant headache. Sweeter wines like Riesling, Moscato or any wines labeled as semi-dry should be avoided if you think sugar is the problem.
The third and most important contributor to wine headaches is histamines. Think of the symptoms of allergies: runny nose, dry eyes and of course headaches. As it turns out, foods and drinks that have been aged can cause our bodies to release histamines. Often a big, rich Cabernet Sauvignon can cause your nose to get stuffy almost immediately. A simple remedy for histamine headaches is to take a mild histamine blocker before you indulge in a glass (or three) of a bold red wine.
What is a tannin? Is it good or bad?
Tannins are a group of chemical compounds found in a lot of the foods and drinks we enjoy every day. You will find them in coffee, tea and dark chocolate, as well as different fruits like grapes. Grapes have tannins in the skin, seeds and stems. In white wine, the freshly pressed juice is most always separated immediately from the remaining skins, seeds and stems and is then sent directly to tanks to preserve freshness. This also prevents any maceration, or breaking down of the grape‘s skin from moisture, which would introduce tannins into the juice. It is just the opposite in red wine making, where grapes are crushed and allowed to spend time with the tannin rich pomace (skins, stems and seeds) in order to extract color, flavor and the all-important tannins. These tannins act as a preservative, helping the wine fight off the effects of oxygen and assist in the wine’s development and aging.
Some grape varieties are naturally high in tannins, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot. Others are relatively low, most notably Pinot Noir, Grenache and Gamay. Once these grapes become wine, they are usually aged in oak barrels, which add another level of tannins.
Good or bad? Well, good in any case unless you don’t like the feel of them. Some tannins are described as ‘green’ and can be astringent or bitter, which is not everyone’s favorite. But in other cases, depending on the amount maceration or aging, the wine may display elegant or fine tannins which are less aggressive and typically much more pleasant. High levels of tannins dry your mouth immediately, which is usually the reason not everyone prefers them. However, those same tannins can assist in cleaning your palate of oily or fatty food, which is precisely what you do want in your red wines when serving them with meat and game.
What is the difference between Old World and New World wine?
The simple answer is Old World wines are European and New World wines are everything else. But this has little to do with geography, and everything to do with history and tradition.
Europe is the cradle of winemaking. Its people are the creators of techniques and styles developed over hundreds, sometimes thousands of vintages. So many aspects of wine growing were perfected in European countries and their contributions to operating vineyards and wineries are to be honored.
Then there is the region’s climate, geology and geography. Grapes grown in European vineyards are historically higher in tannins and lower in sugars. Because of this, the wine often displays an earthy quality and needs time to come together. Most require food. Many can be astringent, closed-up or just not very pleasing until they mature. Over time, wonderful nuances, layers and complexities not found in young wine are revealed.
European vine growers did most of the early innovation. New World producers learned from them and added modern technology. Countries like the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina and South Africa maintain cutting edge technology and their wines are brilliant. Perhaps the biggest difference would be that New World grapes are harvested with more ripeness and higher sugars. This gives a more fruit-forward style of wines with slightly higher alcohols and more residual sugar or sweetness.
A few final thoughts on this based on my experience: Twenty-five or thirty years ago, the structural and stylistic differences between New and Old World were much more obvious. I believe today, thanks to improvements in every aspect of winemaking and shared technology, the difference between the two has narrowed. I have tasted hundreds of European wines that are deeply extracted, ripe and rich and easily mistaken for New World. Conversely, I have tasted plenty of elegant, earthy and age-worthy New World wines.