About Wine:Ten Common Questions 1. What’s the best wine? This is probably the question customers ask most frequently in wine shops.
The retailer usually responds with a barrage of questions, such as:
“Do you prefer red wines or white wines?”
“How much do you want to spend for a bottle?”
“Are you planning to serve the wine with any particular dish?”
As all these questions suggest, the “best wine” depends on your taste and circumstances.
There’s no single “best wine” for everyone. Hundreds of very good wines can be found in most wine shops. Thirty years
ago, there were far fewer — but winemaking and grapegrowing know-how has progressed dramatically, to the point that there are now few poor wines. You won’t necessarily like every one of those good wines, however. There’s simply no getting around the fact that taste is personal. If you want to drink a good wine that’s right for you, you have to decide what the characteristics of
that wine could be. And then get advice from a knowledgeable retailer.
2. When should I drink this wine? Wine retailers frequently hear this question from customers, too. The answer, for most wines, is “Any time now.”
The great majority of wines are ready to drink when you buy them. Some of them may improve marginally if you hold them for a year or so (and many of them will maintain their drinkability), but they won’t improve enough for you to notice, unless you’re a particularly thoughtful and experienced taster. Some fine wines are an exception: They not only benefit from aging but also
they need to age, in order to achieve their potential quality.
3. Is wine fattening? A glass of dry wine contains 80 to 85 percent water, 12 to 14 percent ethyl alcohol, and small quantities of tartaric acid and various other components. Wine contains no fat. A 4-ounce serving of dry white wine has about 104 calories, and 4 ounces of
red wine has about 110 calories. Sweeter wines contain about 10 percent more calories depending on how sweet they are; fortified wines also contain additional calories because of their higher alcohol.
4. What grape variety made this wine? Most New World wines (from the Americas, Australia, and other continents besides Europe) tell you what grape variety they’re made from right on the front label — it’s often the very name of the wine — or on the back label. Traditional European wines blended from several grape varieties usually don’t give you that information a) because the winemakers consider the name of the
place more important than the grapes, anyway, and b) because often the grapes they use are local varieties whose names few people would recognize.
5. Which vintage should I buy? This question assumes that you have a choice among several vintages of the same wine. Most of the time, however, you don’t. Nearly every wine is available in only one vintage, which is referred to as the current vintage. For white wines, the current vintage represents grapes that were harvested as recently as nine months ago or as long as three years ago, depending on
the type of wine; for red wines, the current vintage is a date one to four years ago. Classified-growth red Bordeaux wines are a notable exception: Most wine shops feature several vintages of these wines. A few other fine wines — such as Burgundies, Barolos, or Rhone wines — may also be available in multiple vintages, but often they’re not because the quantities
produced are small and the wines sell out. A red Rioja or a Chianti Classico may appear to be available in multiple vintages,
but if you read the label carefully, you see that one vintage of the Rioja could be a crianza (aged two years before release), another may be a reserva (aged three years), and another may be a gran reserva (aged five years) — so they are each actually different wines, not multiple vintages of the same wine. Likewise, a Chianti may be available in an aged reserva version as well as a
non-riserva style. Most of the time, for most wines, the vintage to buy is the vintage you can buy — the current vintage.
6. Are there any wines without sulfites? Sulfur dioxide exists naturally in wine as a result of fermentation. It also exists naturally in other fermented foods, such as bread, cookies, and beer. (Various sulfur derivatives are also used regularly as preservatives in packaged foods.)
Winemakers use sulfur dioxide at various stages of the winemaking process because it stabilizes the wine (preventing it from turning to vinegar or deteriorating from oxygen exposure) and safeguards its flavor. Sulfur has been an important winemaking tool since Roman times. Very few winemakers refrain from using sulfur dioxide, but some do. Your wine shop may carry a few wines whose sulfite content is so low that their labels do not have to carry the phrase Contains Sulfites (which the U.S. government
requires on the label of any wine that contains more than 10 parts per million of sulfites).
If you wish to limit your consumption of sulfites, dry red wines should be your first choice, followed by dry white wines. Sweet wines contain the most sulfur dioxide.
7. What are organic wines? The new standards of organic agriculture established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2002 contain two categories for wine:
Wine made from organically grown grapes; these are wines whose grapes come from certified organic vineyards.
Organic wine; these wines come from organically grown grapes and are also produced organically, that is, without the addition of chemical additives such as sulfur dioxide during winemaking. These categories apply to imported wines sold in the United States as well as to domestic wines. Many more brands, by far, fall into the first category than the second, because most winemakers do use sulfur dioxide in making their wines.
But not all wines from organically grown grapes are labeled as such. Some winemakers who are deeply committed to organic farming prefer to promote and sell their wines based on the wines’ quality, not the incidental feature of their organic farming. For them, organic farming is a means to an end — better grapes, and therefore better wine — rather than a marketing tool. Also, the
fact that a national definition of organic did not exist in the past disinclined some wineries from using that word.
Now that formal categories exist, many more producers who farm organically will perhaps begin using the “O” word on their labels. But the number of wines in the more rigid Organic wine category will probably remain small, because of the sulfur dioxide restriction.
8. What is a wine expert? A wine expert is someone with a high level of knowledge about wine in general, including grape growing, winemaking, and the various wines of the world. A wine expert also has a high degree of skill in tasting wine. Until fairly recently, most wine experts in the United States gained their expertise through informal study, work experience, or experience gained as amateurs
(lovers) of wine. Although accredited wine courses did exist, they were university programs in enology (winemaking) and viticulture (grapegrowing) — valuable for people who plan to become winemakers or grape growers, but scientific overkill for people whose goal is breadth of knowledge about wine.
9. How do I know when to drink the special older wines I’ve been keeping? Unfortunately, no precise answer to this question exists because all wines age at a different pace. Even two bottles of the same wine that are stored under the same conditions can age differently. When you have a specific wine in mind, you can get advice in several different ways:
Consult the comments of critics like Robert Parker, Michael Broadbent, or Steve Tanzer, who almost always list a suggested drinking period for wines they review in their newsletters and books ; their educated guesses are usually quite reliable.
Contact the winery; in the case of fine, older vintages, the winemaker and his staff are usually happy to give you their opinion on the best time to drink their wine — and they typically have more experience with the wine than anyone else.
If you have several bottles of the same wine, try one from time to time to see how the wine is developing. Your own taste is really the best guide — you may enjoy the wine younger, or older, than the experts.
10. Do old wines require special handling? Like humans, wine can become somewhat fragile in its later years. For one thing, it doesn’t like to travel. If you must move old wine, give it several days’ rest afterwards, before opening the bottle. (Red Burgundies and other Pinot Noirs are especially disturbed by journeys.) Older wines, with their delicate bouquet and flavors, can easily be overwhelmed by strongly flavored foods. Simple cuts of meat or just hard cheeses and good, crusty bread are usually fine companions for mature wines. If you’re going to drink an older wine, don’t over-chill it (whether it’s white or red). Older wines show their best at moderate temperatures. Temperatures below 60°F (15.5°C) inhibit development in the glass. Decant red wines or Vintage Ports to separate the clear wine from any sediment that formed in the bottle. Stand the bottle up two or three days before you plan to open it so that the sediment
can drift to the bottom. An important concern in decanting an old wine is giving the wine too much aeration: A wine in its last stages will deteriorate rapidly upon exposure to air, often within a half hour — sometimes in 10 or 15 minutes. When you decant an old wine, taste it immediately and be prepared to drink it rapidly if it shows signs of fading.
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