This is a compendium of wine-related questions that people have posed to me over the years. They run the gamut from French wine regions to wine tasting etiquette to the best books to learn about wine. Read 'em and learn!
A Simple Way to Learn About Wine: Q&A Style
Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this question, because it’s all a matter of personal taste. A good wine consists of color, aroma and flavor that all fall in line with personal preference. If you’re new to wine, you will more than likely lean towards sweeter wines, but as you explore deeper into the wide, wide world of wine, you might develop a broader palate. If you don’t, no worries. Tayloreason.com is a “drink what you like” zone.
There are hundreds, probably thousands, of wine guides and books out there on the shelves. I have read only a fraction but can recommend a few good ones if you’re just starting out:
– Windows on the World Complete Wine Course by Kevin Zraly. This book is written on a down-to-earth level, without pretension or big, fancy wine words.
– Wine For Dummies by Ed McCarthy and Mary Ewing-Mulligan. Bordering on a little too much “wine attitude,” these authors still cover a lot of wine ground in fairly concise manner.
If you’re beyond the beginning, there are a few other tomes that should sit on a veritable wine geek/wine nerd/cork dork’s shelf:
– Jancis Robinson’s Wine Course by Jancis Robinson
– Matt Kramer’s Making Sense Of Italian Wine by Matt Cramer
– The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil
Winemakers start with one (or more) of several hundred wine grape varieties. Once a grape vine is chosen, the vine takes at least three years to bear fruit and the vine can produce grapes for over 100 years, depending on conditions of soil, climate and grape variety. During the winter months, the winemaker tends the vines religiously, and when the temperature reaches about 60 degrees Fahrenheit, a little bud appears. In May (in the Northern Hemisphere), the vine has completely flowered and at this point winemakers are the most concerned about weather. One night below 30 degrees Fahrenheit (or extreme weather like hail or strong rain) and the whole crop could be ruined. During July through September, the grapes appear on the vine and begin to mature and grow in sweetness. Depending on the warmth of the region, harvest takes place between late August and end of October. Harvest for “late harvest” wines begins at a later date (usually 3 -4 weeks), when the grapes have a concentrated sweetness and have begun to rot. During harvest, many wine regions of the world (but not the U.S.) follows laws concerning how many grapes can be harvested to make wine, because the accepted rule is: “lower quantity means higher quality.”
Making White and Rosé Wine
Pressing: In this first stage, winemakers use either white grapes for white wine or red grapes for rosé. When the grapes arrive at the winery, they’re placed in a large wooden or stainless steel wine press, stems, seeds and everything intact. A small dose of sulphur dioxide is added to the crushed grapes to prevent premature fermentation, and to serve as an antiseptic to prevent bacteria growth. This mixture is left to soak or “macerate” for up to 24 hours, depending on the strength of flavor and color (for rosés) the winemaker wishes to attain. The stronger the desired flavor or color, the longer the mixture is left soaking.
Filtering/Stabilization: Additional clarification is needed to remove any impurities or unwanted solids that might be present in the wine. Winemakers attain this using a centrifuge or filter, as well as other natural sources such as egg whites, gelatin or benzonite, a powdery clay substance. These natural filters work by clinging to solids that are too light to sink, and carrying them to the bottom. In stabilization, tartaric acid is added to wine before bottling. This is a vital ingredient to the balance and flavor of all wines.
Bottling/Aging: At this stage of the wine’s life, the winemaker must decide which wine will move to aging barrels, and which wines will be bottled immediately. Normally, the better vintages will be aged for a certain period of time in new, neutral oak or stainless steel.
Making Red Wine
Crushing: Red wine grapes are not pressed at the same time as white wine. The initial stage of red wine production involves removing the stems, then immediately placing the juice, skins and seeds in fermentation tanks. Sulphur dioxide is added to prevent premature fermentation or bacteria growth.
Fermentation: After removing the stems and skins that can produce bitterness and, if necessary, adjusting the acidity level of the juice, the mixture is transferred to another vat (usually stainless steel but sometimes oak) for fermentation. The addition of active yeasts (or encouraging preferred conditions for wild yeasts) starts the transformation of the natural sugar into alcohol. To produce sweeter wines (Rieslings, Gewurtzraminers, etc.), winemakers will either stop fermentation by cooling the wine or ferment completely, then add a sweet juice.
Pressing: By the time fermentation is finished, a majority of the wine will be separated from its solids and will flow freely from the vat. The remaining mixture will be pressed.
Filtering/Stabilization: In these stages, red wine is processed the same as white.
Aging/Bottling: The majority of red wine needs to be aged to even out tannin and acidity level. During the aging process in barrels, red wine frequently undergoes a second fermentation known as malolactic fermentation. This form of fermentation is performed by bacteria which feed on the malic acid found naturally in the wine and converts it to lactic acid and carbon dioxide. This process accomplishes several things: 1) lowers the acidity level; 2) increases stability; 3) and further smoothes out the wine’s flavor. Red wines mature in barrels anywhere from three months to five years, depending on the type of wine, the region and the winemaker’s wishes. During the maturing process, the wine is tasted and cared for quite strenuously before bottling. Some whites also undergo malolactic fermentation, most frequently chardonnay, and the process gives a buttery flavor.
An appellation is a wine’s official title that indicates where the wine was produced, by whom and under what circumstances. Several other categories are also measured, depending on the region. In the U.S., the appellation – or American Viticulture Area (AVA) in the U.S. -- tells the buyer where the grapes were grown, so that one can compare wines of similar regions. France has some of the strictest laws concerning appellation. Whether it be IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée) or the new version of A.O.C. defined by the European Union, A.O.P. (Appellation d'Origine Protégée), someone official in France has analyzed the wine at some point towards the beginning of its life. 20 - 25% of French wine is A.O.P., and it must pass a rigorous set of analyses by the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine des Vins et Eaux-de-Vie (INAO). The appellation A.O.P. is determined after seven conditions are met: where the wine was produced, what kind of grape, the condition of the land where the grapes were planted, how many grapes were grown per acre, the degree of alcohol, how it was aged, and a tasting.
More about appellations:
From AVA to Vintage: How to read a wine label
The Sweet Spot: Terroir, where grapes grow best
What are the wine regions in France?
There are eight basic regions in France that produce wine: Alsace, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Cotes du Rhone, Jura-Savoie, Loire Valley, and Midi de la France or Languedoc. In France, wine production is heavily policed, with only certain grape varieties allowed to grow in each region. Although there are several different grapes in each region, here are the most popular grapes grown in each area:
Alsace is mostly white wine: Riesling, Gerwürztraminer, Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc
Read more about wines from Alsace
White = Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc
Red = Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Cabernet Franc
White = Chardonnay, Aligote
Red = Pinot Noir, Gamay
Read more about Burgundy wines
White = Chardonnay
Red = Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier
Read more about Champagne here
Cotes du Rhône grows over 30 types of grapes, but the principal grapes varieties are:
White = Marsanne, Roussane, Clairette, Viognier, Muscat
Red = Syrah, Grenache, Cinsaut, Carignan
Jura-Savoie (rarely seen in the U.S.)
White = Chardonnay, Savignin, Pinot Blanc
Red = Poulsard, Mondeuse, Pinot Noir
White = Chenin Blanc, Muscadet, Sauvignon Blanc
Red = Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon, Chenin Noir
Learn more about wines from Loire Valley
Midi de la France/Vins de Pay d’Oc
Practically every grape you’ve heard of - winemakers grow willy nilly there... because they can.
Read more about Languedoc wines
First and foremost, you choose what you like and what is in your price range. More often than not, you will end up choosing a wine you have heard or read about that sounds up to your personal standards. Vintages vary from country to country, so you can read up on vintages or learn on your own, but in the New World (U.S., Australia/New Zealand, South America, South Africa) vintages rarely matter enough to keep up with it. The New World makes consistent wine year after year because of their steady climates, whereas France and other European countries can have dramatically varying climates. As a general rule, red wine is best at least two years old (with exceptions such as Beaujolais Nouveau, which is meant to be drunk immediately). since the tannins could be overwhelming and the wine will bite back. White wines have a different rule: drink them younger rather than older. Having less complexity, white wines do not need aging as much because they rarely have tannins or flavors that need to mellow. There are, of course, exceptions to the above rules, especially in classic Chardonnays or late vintage wines.
Sommeliers and waiters are definitely useful when it comes to an unfamiliar wine list. Sommeliers are the most helpful because they are professional wine people. They often undergo rigorous training and/or certification classes in order to help diners with wine decisions. Just tell them what you’re used to, what you enjoy and your price range, and more often than not, they can recommend an appropriate wine selection. Other smart restaurants hold wine tastings for the wait staff, so some waiters can be quite knowledgeable and lead you in the right direction.
Read my tribute to sommeliers and when you should use them.
Quite a subjective question, but often asked. In recent years, the entire subject of wine and food matching has been revised. Sometimes, people choose a meal according to what wine they will drink. For years past, there were stringent social rules concerning proper etiquette of serving red wine with red meats and white wine with chicken and fish. Now, the matching comes through what you like to drink, what sauce is served with the meat, and how the dish is cooked. A good rule is that the stronger the flavors in the dish, the stronger the wine should be. However, chemically, there are some reasons you might want to choose certain wines for certain foods. Avoid drinking wine with any dish containing vinegar: it destroys any flavor a wine might have to offer. Citrus fruits follow the same rule, unless you choose a tart sauvignon blanc. The acids in white wine enhance the flavor of fish, whereas red wine reacts disastrously with fish oil and can leave a metallic taste in your mouth. The tannins of strong red wines like cabernets are best matched with protein-rich meats because their flavor could overwhelm any lesser dish, and the tannins are also softened by the meat’s protein and fat.
Mix n' Match: Food and wine pairings as an an art, not a science
A Waste of Taste: Bad food and wine pairings
The Cheesy side of wine: Cheese and wine pairings
Decanting — the act of transferring wine from its bottle to another vessel — exists for two reasons. One is to introduce oxygen to tame monster tannins. It doesn’t actually change the tannin level, just our perception of it. The air alters the wine’s chemical makeup, molding it into an easier-to-drink beverage. It’ll take an hour or two before the fruit will tell you it’s ready to drink. Wines that benefit include cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, big Spanish (Rioja, Ribera del Duero), as well as Italian reds (Barolo, Brunello, Barbaresco), syrah and well-made merlots. Young, robust pinot noirs improve with a few sucks of air, but mostly you can leave them alone. And softer, delicate pinots, Chianti and lighter-bodied reds — you can let ’em rip right out of the bottle. The second is to separate a wine from its sediment that develops during aging. In general, only red wines need to be decanted.
More about decanting:
Decanting: Step by step
A vintage-dated wine is made from grapes of which at least 95 percent were harvested in that year. A wine's taste, complexity and quality can vary one vintage to the next, mainly influenced by weather, especially in areas with varying climates and severe watering restrictions - like France. For instance, their 2003 vintage, when all of Europe succumbed to 100-plus degree heat during the summer, produced completely uncharacteristic wines. They were higher in alcohol, with in-your-face ripe fruit - a far cry from their normal austerity. So that's why it behooves you to pay attention to the vintage in French wines. In warm, sunny regions like California and Australia, where the weather is fairly consistent and there are few government restrictions on vineyard management, vintage dates don't matter so much. Due to the lack of weather extremes during harvest, wineries can produce more consistent product year after year. Unless some kind of natural disaster occurred during a particular harvest - hail storms, fire or floods - the wine in the bottle is probably pretty close to last year's version. Of course, there are better years - like the 1997 vintage in California - but all in all, we're safe.
Timing is everything: Connoisseurs know vintage matters
95% of the world’s wines are meant to be consumed within one year after bottling. The remaining 5% are sweet, late vintages (Sauternes, late harvest rieslings, German dessert wines); full-bodied whites (good vintage chardonnay, well-made muscat); and red wines with a high concentration of tannins (cabernets, some Italian reds, Burgundy region pinot noir). The decision on whether to cellar a bottle or not depends on the vintage, the type of grape and several other factors. Thus, to answer the question, there is no easy answer except to look at vintage charts like this one..
By law, only sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France can be called “Champagne.” The French stuff, as well as many other sparkling wines around the world, is produced using a process called Méthode Champenoise. Three grapes, in various blends, are used to produce Champagne: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay. The harvest occurs in late September or early October in the Champagne region of France.
Pressing: Three grape pressings are allowed and the juice from each pressing is categorized: the first pressing is the highest quality, and the second and third are made into inexpensive Champagne or sold to other firms.
Fermentation: After adding yeasts, the first fermentation takes about three weeks, when the sugar is converted into alcohol. Carbon dioxide, a by-product of fermentation, is dissipated into the air.
Blending: At this point, the winemaker must decide which grapes will go into a particular Champagne. Champagnes are usually a blend of all three grapes varieties, except for Blanc de Blancs, which is 100% chardonnay. It is also at this point that a winemaker decides whether a Champagne will be a vintage Champagne or not. Most Champagnes (75%) are not vintage, and wine cannot have a vintage date on the label if all the grapes did not come from the same year. It is also at this stage that rosé Champagne is created. To make a rosé, a small amount of red wine from a Champagne region called Bouzy is added to give the rosé color.
Bottling/ Liqueur de Tirage: After the wine is placed into heavy bottles, a blend of sugar and yeast called Liquer de Tirage is added to begin the second fermentation in the bottle. The bottle is then sealed with a cap that resembles a beer top.
Second Fermentation: During this fermentation, the carbon dioxide stays in the heavy bottle, creating the bubbles associated with Champagne. The second fermentation also leaves sediment in the bottle, which is tackled in the next step.
Riddling: The wine bottles are now placed in a rack with their necks pointing towards the floor. Over a period of six to eight weeks, a riddler (a person who turns the bottles) turns each bottle a quarter turn each day. This is to move the sediment towards the neck so it is easier to remove. This step is also completed using a machine in some Champagne houses.
Aging: Depending on whether it is a vintage-dated selection or not, the Champagne must be kept at least one year in the bottle. Vintage Champagnes cannot be sold under three years old.
Degorgement: After sufficient aging, the sediment must be removed from the bottle. The neck of the bottle is dipped into a brine solution to freeze it, then the cap is removed. The sediment, due to the force of the carbon dioxide, quickly vacates the bottle.
Dosage: This step determines the sweetness of the wine. There are four levels of sweetness: Brut = the driest; Extra Dry = less dry; Sec = sweet; Demi-sec = sweetest. After the dosage is added, the Champagne is recorked.
Sulfites are natural chemicals found in both red and white grape skins that are suspected to cause headaches. Sulfur, a natural bacteria-fighter, frequently gets blamed for causing everything from chronic fatigue syndrome to headaches. The FDA estimates that only 3% of people exhibit a true sensitivity to sulfites. And headaches don't equal “allergic” to sulfites. Those who are really sulfite sensitive experience difficulty breathing and break out in hives when exposed. White wine contains almost twice the amount of sulfites than red, so if you're getting headaches with only red wine, you're probably sensitive to the higher histamines or tannins instead.
Sulfites are also found in sulphur dioxide, the chemical added to crushed grapes in order to prevent premature fermentation and bacteria growth. It has been suggested that cheaper wines are likely to have more sulfites to substitute for careful grape selection and wine making. But more advanced winemakers continually strive to use very little or eliminate the use of these chemicals, and some wines claim to be sulfite free. These wines, however, will still have some minute form of sulfites, as they exist on the grape. U.S. law requires that wine with over 10 parts per million of sulfites state "contains sulfites.”
Red wine starts with red grape varieties, and then it is fermented with both the skins and seeds (occasionally its stems) that develops its deep red color. White wine starts with white grapes and is fermented after the skins, stems and seeds have been removed, leaving only the white juice to ferment. Rosé wine starts with red grapes and is fermented in the white wine fashion, but attains its color during the crushing and pressing stages.
Corks are not presented to be smelled, but to be inspected for their condition. A cork that is too moist, or even moldy, is a sign of bad stocking, and a cork that is too dry is a signal that the wine was stored upright rather than laid down and could mean air got into the bottle (and the wine could be oxidized).
Wine glasses have different shapes for a reason. Red wine glasses have wider mouths to facilitate swirling and to allow the wine to breathe and develop flavor. White wine glasses have smaller, narrowing mouths that help concentrate the smell of the wine. Champagne glasses should be tall and narrow so that the bubbles will remain in the liquid.
Sending back a wine bottle in a restaurant is a source of mystery and anxiety for most people. There are several valid reasons to send back a bottle of wine. The wine could be “corked,” or smell of sulfur. It doesn’t take a lot of wine experience to detect them -- they are strong, distasteful flavors that are painfully obvious. Once detected, there is no reason why you should have to pay for a bottle of wine that has gone bad.
Although there are different opinions surrounding decanting wine, the majority of people say this: decant red wine older than 10 years. For more information about decanting, see Decanting: Step by step
Breathing is the practice of allowing the wine to come in contact with air before consumption. It is usually a practice reserved for red wines, and most people believe the majority of wines do improve with breathing. However, the long-standing practice of removing the cork to let the wine breathe is really useless, as it allows very little air to enter. Have the server pour some wine into your glass and allow it to breath for a few minutes.
Etiquette tips on how to bring your own wine to a restaurant
Etiquette at large wine tastings
Wine starts to deteriorate when oxygen hits it. Generally, a wine will remain fresh and tasty about a day if left opened in a kitchen and up to two days in the refrigerator. But there are neat, inexpensive gadgets you can buy to preserve wine longer than that. For instance, the VacuVin system uses rubber stoppers and a pump-suction system to remove the oxygen from the bottle. The system will keep a bottle fresh for about four days and because of its new-found popularity, you can find it lots of places. There are systems a little more expensive such as Private Preserve that involve inert gases and others that are geared more towards the professional or serious wine drinker, so ask your local wine merchant for advice about these.
When you're at the restaurant or, after the fact, call the restaurant and ask: 1) the exact name and maker of the wine; 2) the local distributor that they buy from; and 3) if they can give you anyone’s name or phone number. If they will only give you the name, then you can contact the winery itself and ask them who distributes the wine in your area. If you already have the name, you can ask your local wine store to special order it for you.
Wine has numerous vitamins: Vitamin C, Vitamin B2, Vitamin B3 and Vitamin P.
On November 17, 1991, the TV show 60 Minutes aired a segment called “The French Paradox.” The show talked about how the French eat loads of fat, smoke unfiltered cigarettes and rarely exercise, yet they have one of the lowest heart attack rates in the world. Their consumption of red wine was given as the main reason for this phenomenon. This 60 Minutes segment virtually turned around the wine industry in the United States, and prompted hundreds of studies looking into the actual cause of this.
Thus, numerous articles have emerged with proof revealing that people who consume moderate amounts of alcohol (no more than 2 drinks a day) have fewer heart problems than either alcohol abusers or non-drinkers. The positive effect of alcohol appears to be “related to an increase in serum HDL (the good cholesterol), a decrease in serum LDL (the bad cholesterol) and inhibition of arterial blood clot formation.” But some studies have singled out wine as the best alcohol to drink, because of flavonoids, an organic chemical present in fruits, vegetables and red wine. A French research team wrote: “Wine, as compared to spirits, seems to supply natural antioxidants that inhibit the rebound effect, preventing the clumping of blood platelets in the arteries that can cause heart attacks.”
Posts on wine and health:
What are wine's health benefits?
Sip don't sniffle: Red wine might prevent colds
The Skinny on wine: Fitting wine into a healthy diet
Champagnes, sparkling wines, white late harvest or dessert wines: 42- 46 degrees
Rosés: 46 - 50 degrees
Most white wines, Beaujolais, light red wines: 50 - 54 degrees
Italian reds, younger pinot noirs: 55 - 57 degrees
Cabernets, zinfandels, Chianti, older reds, late harvest reds: 57 - 63 degrees
I don't know about your fridge, but mine is set at 36 degrees. To drink it at the best temperature, I pull my white wines out about 30 minutes before I want to drink them (not sparkling wine though – pull and pop!). Since my home’s thermometer is set about 76 degrees, I put my reds in the fridge about 30-45 minutes to chill them down a bit. Test your own tastes by experimenting.
When a wine has distinct taste of cork, mold, vinegar or sulfur, the answer will be obvious. Wine that is too young will taste bitter, pucker your mouth, dry out your tongue or be too tart.
Tartaric acid crystals: Little clear crystals. a harmless malady that forms after the bottle has not been properly stored.
Black tannic deposits: a deposit of tannin and other colored materials that form after years of aging. Affects mostly red wines, and is not a sign of bad wine. Not particularly tasty thought. There are other maladies that can affect wine’s quality, but they are very rare.
A hangover headache is caused when your brain becomes dehydrated; the nausea and vomiting are a combination of alcohol's effect on the stomach and the central nervous system; and the fatigue and general lousy-feeling are caused by alcohol’s depressant effect and build-up of acids in the blood. Another cause of hangovers could be congeners. Congeners are by-products of distillation and fermentation, and it seems that the more congeners a liquor contains, the worse the hangover. Vodka and gin have the least amount of congeners, while bourbon and red wine have more. The best way to avoid a hangover is prevention. Drink responsibly and try some of the following preventative techniques:
- Have a substantial meal before or during drinking that includes fatty foods, milk or cheese and bread
- Intersperse alcoholic drinks with water
- Take a multi-vitamin before drinking
- Before drinking, eat anything with high levels of fructose in it (fruit or honey), which helps metabolize alcohol
- A high dose of thiamine (at least 100mg) at least an hour before drinking, supposedly helps to break down
alcohol in the blood
- Know your alcohol limit and abide by it
- Pace yourself : consume a recommended 1 drink per hour
- Avoid carbonated drinks, they speed up intoxication and heighten hangovers
- Don’t mix alcohols, i.e. scotch and beer in the same night
Myths: There are hundreds of so-called “cures” for hangovers, and most are myths. There is not an existing, medically-proven way to get rid of a hangover, except time and rest. Here are some common myths: 1) Aspirin will relieve a headache but it will not decrease the amount of alcohol in your system; 2) Food will not help your body “absorb” the alcohol any faster; 3) Coffee will only make you a more awake, hungover person; 4) Exercise will help you get your mind off your misery, but it will not help your body metabolize the alcohol any faster (approximately 1/3 oz. per hour); 5) There are no studies that prove vitamins, after the fact, help your body recover from a hangover. But I swear by a B-complex vitamis before the evening and the day after.
Since sweetness is very relative, a few years ago, I began giving each wine review a "sweetness rating." The hope was that if someone bought a recommended wine, he/she would have some idea of the perception of sugar on the tongue. Sweetness ratings range from "1", which is completely dry to "10", which is syrupy like canned peaches. Of course, this is still relative to my palate but you'll know my palate after a couple of wines.
For the average wine drinker, a grape is a grape. But there are thousands of clonal differences in each grape variety, which are mutations in the genetic code of the vine. They occur naturally and spontaneously over time, starting with a single cell and subsequently spreading to take over the entirety of the vine. Pinot Noir is so fragile that it's very prone to mutation and thus why there are so many different baby Pinot offspring running around. But when grapegrowers talk about clones, they mean something a bit different. You have that mutated “new” vine which ideally has an interesting clonal difference (flavor, skin toughness, etc). This “mother” vine can then be asexually propagated, via cuttings and graftings and planted just about anywhere the grapegrower wants. With luck, the mother vine will not mutate and can remain a source of consistent new clones to share with the world (and many wineries have clones named after them because of this).
This is a second fermentation in wine production. This naturally process converts the tart malic acids from the new wine into creamier lactic acids, creating the creamy, buttery taste you find in wines like Chardonnay.