Taste wine like a pro

How can you tell if a wine is corked? What are legs? Get answers from Sunset wine editor Sara Schneider

Taste wine like a pro

Sunset wine editor Sara Schneider

E. Spencer Toy

We talked with Sara in Sunset's wine cellar, surrounded by 2,500 bottles of Western wines.

Q. What's the best way to pick out wine in the supermarket?

A. Go with better known labels, the ones you've heard of. I wouldn't recommend trying obscure bottles or imports from the supermarket. Stick with American wines for the most part. If you want an import, some grocery stores (like Safeway) offer good Australian wines such as Syrah.

Most supermarkets organize their wines in a way that is predictable. The expensive bottles are on the top shelf, mid-range wines are on the middle shelf, and magnums and jug wines are on the lower shelf. Don't rule out the bottom shelf, you can find good-value bulk wines there.

Look for special wine displays out on the floor. These are often the wines the store has gotten a good deal on and can be the best buy.

Q. How should you store wine if you don't have a wine cellar?

A. You don't need perfect conditions to store wine. The experts say that 55° is the ideal temperature, although those without a wine cellar shouldn't be discouraged. An inner closet in your home could work just fine.

When storing wine at home:
 1. Maintain a constant temperature, a cool place is best. You don't want to put wine in a place that has temperature swings that go from 60° to 85° 10 times a season.
 2. Keep wine out of bright sunlight.
 3. Store wine in a place that is fairly still. You wouldn't want to store wine on top of a refrigerator because the vibration could damage the wine.
 4. Store wine on its side or upside down. It's important to keep the wine in contact with the cork ― this keeps the cork moist. You want to prevent the cork from shrinking and drying out, which can cause air to get in and oxidate the wine too fast. If you buy a case, place it on its side or turn it so the bottles are upside down.

 

Q. Do stored bottles of wine need to be turned?

A. No, it's not necessary to turn wine bottles.

Sparkling wine and Champagne are the only wines you turn before the bottles are corked. Riddling is an old French tradition that was done by hand as part of the Champagne-making process. It's turning a bottle that has been stored for a length of time and acquired a line of sediment on the bottom side. The capped bottle gets rotated about ¼ turn every few hours and is slowly tilted so it ends up completely upside down. This moves the sediment into the neck of the bottle. The sediment is then frozen into a plug and disgorged from the bottle before the cork is inserted.

Q. How do you know when wine is ready to drink?

A. Most winemakers are producing wines that are ready to drink when the wine is released. Our red Steal of the Year for 2006 was a Cabernet, which you would think is a red wine that can be aged. The winemaker's advice was to age it in your car on the way home from the supermarket.

Big structured red wine will get more interesting with age. It tastes different from what most people are used to. The fruit flavors soften and slowly fade as secondary flavors such as soy sauce and leather come to the front.

The standard aging time that I think works for West Coast wines that are age worthy is a minimum of five years. That's when the effect of aging kicks in. You won't want to go beyond 10 years for most of those wines. That's not gospel, you'll have those that will still be beautiful at 25 years. They'll have all those secondary flavors going on with very little fruit, but it will still be a really interesting wine.

Age-worthy red wine:
Wines that are going to age well will have three elements in balance: solid tannin (it's a preservative), good acidity, and solid fruit flavor.

Age-worthy white wine:
Most white wines aren't built for aging. Some exceptional Rieslings will age.

One of the best ways to determine which wines to age is by opening a bottle and trying it. If it's not a well-balanced wine now, then it's probably not going to be great 10 years down the line.

The half-case experiment:
• Drink a bottle now.
• Drink a bottle at three years as a sneak preview.
• Drink a bottle at five years.
• Drink a bottle at seven years.
• Drink a bottle at 10 years; if it still tastes good, hold the last bottle.
• Drink the final bottle at 20 years and see what you have.

 

Wine tasting:
 1. Swirl. Gently swirl the wine in the glass to release the aromas.
 2. See. Look at the wine's color; it sets up expectations. Red wine picks up color as it picks up flavor from the skins and seeds. Wine with an intense color is likely to have an intense flavor. Keep in mind that red wine lightens with age, and white wine darkens with age.
 3. Sniff. Get your nose in the glass, you can't be polite about it. The first sniffs tell you the most; it's best to take a few quick sniffs instead of one long sniff.
 4. Sip. Keep the wine in your mouth to taste it for 3 to 4 seconds, swirl it around all over your tongue. Experts pull air through the wine while it's in their mouths.

Q. Is there a proper way to open wine?

A. Cut the foil first. It's not always easy to cut it cleanly. Next, use any number of wine openers as long as the worm is a helix ― a coil wrapped around a cylinder. That shape ensures that the screw follows the path of the point exactly, causing as little damage as possible to the cork.

The Butlers Friend is a two-pronged wine opener. It was used by butlers to open wine without placing a hole in the cork. The butler could drink a little wine, fill the bottle with something else and replace the cork without detection.

Q. Which are better, corks or screw caps ?

A. I think the world needs more screw caps. All white wines should be in screw caps with maybe the exception on a really good Riesling that has a chance of aging. Whites stay fresher with screw caps.

Q. Do you really need different glasses for different types of wine?

A. One good set of wine glasses is fine. Some types of glasses are better for certain types of wine but they are not so much better that you should waste anxiety over it. A rule to follow is never use a glass that's more expensive than you can afford to break.

The glass you choose should have a big enough bowl to swirl wine in without it splashing out of the glass. Both red and white wine should get swirled to release aromas before drinking. It's also nice to have a thin rim on the glass. Wine going over a thin rim just seems more fun than it going over a thick rim. Thin-rimmed wine glasses are usually more expensive than thick-rimmed glasses.

Wine glass guidelines:
• Glasses with a wider bowl are good for red Burgundy (made from Pinot Noir grapes). It's a delicate wine without a heavily tannic structure.
• Wide but vertical glasses are good for Bordeaux, Cabernet, Merlot, those varieties that are more tannic.

Q. How much wine should you pour?

A. Most people overfill the glass. As a rule of thumb, fill the glass no more than ⅓ full. This leaves enough space to swirl the wine.

Q. Are lead crystal wine glasses safe?

A. There seems to be little evidence that lead leaches from glass in the amount of time it takes to consume a glass of wine. It's officially considered safe by the government.

They have done a lot of tests. It's true that if an acidic beverage like wine sits in a lead crystal vessel for a long long time, the lead can start leaching out of the glass. It's probably not advisable to let wine sit in a lead crystal decanter for a long time.

The benefit of lead in glass is that it makes the glass much more brilliant. It seems to make your wine better.

 

Q. What wines should be decanted?

A. Young tannic reds and old reds both benefit from decanting.

Young tannic red wines should be decanted to soften the wine and release the aromas. Splashing the wine through the air and mixing it with that oxygen softens the tannins in the wine. The term for this is opening up the wine.

Old red wines should be decanted ― after sitting upright for a number of hours ― by pouring very slowly and carefully to get the wine off its sediment. There's a process that involves a little bit of useful ceremony and a little bit of voodoo. Sommeliers set a decanter in front of a light source, it's often a candle. The candle may seem like voodoo but it allows the sommelier to see through the wine as it's being poured, to see where the sediment begins.

Most of us could stand to decant a lot more wines than we do. You don't need a fancy container for decanting; a clean mayonnaise jar will work just fine.

Wines that should be decanted:
Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Bordeaux blends (sometime called Meritage blends), and sometimes even big, tight Syrahs.

Wines that should not be decanted:
Delicate red wines and most white wines.

You don't want to decant delicate reds because they will oxidize too fast. The oxygen will destroy the wine. It's a love hate relationship wine has with oxygen. Sometime you don't want it in there and sometimes you do. It can be a friend or foe.

Q. How long should a decanted wine stand before it's served?

A. The bigger structured the wine is, the longer it should sit. You may even notice a wine's taste improves if you pour it in a glass and swirl it occasionally while having a conversation. The Alban Vineyards Syrah Reva 2004 that we are drinking has changed drastically from being in a glass for just 20 minutes. It's a blend of Rhône grapes, Syrah, and Grenache. It's not incredibly tannic but it was fairly dense and needed to open up.

Some wines can be double decanted or decanted the day before serving.

 

Q. What are legs?

A. Wine legs are residual wine that sticks to the side of a glass and runs down it. It's caused by changes in surface tension due to the differing evaporation rates of alcohol and water.

The Spanish call them tears; the Germans call them church windows. There's a lot of interest in them but they really tell you very little about the wine's quality. They do provide a clue about a wine's alcohol content level. Heavier legs indicate a higher alcohol content level, which is neither good nor bad.

Today, wineries are asking growers to let the grapes hang on the vine longer. This makes the sugar level in the grapes rise. Yeast eats sugar, so higher sugar levels in the grapes means the wine will have a higher alcohol content level.

Winemakers are required by law to list the percentage of alcohol in each bottle on its front label. If you see it listed on the back, that's because they are legally treating the back label as the front.

Q. Are there rules of etiquette for receiving a bottle of wine in a restaurant?

A. The waiter will show you the wine bottle, open it, and place the cork on the table in front of you. You don't need to do anything with the cork.

The custom of placing the cork on the table started in the 1800s when restaurants were known for uncorking expensive bottles of wine, selling it, and putting less expensive wine in the bottle. This prompted wineries to brand their corks. Waiters began putting the cork in front to the customer so they could check to make sure the brand on the cork matched that of the wine label.

A cork that smells musty is an indication of a natural compound called TCA (trichloroanisole); if TCA levels are high enough to be detected, the wine is described as corked ― it's no longer good. You can't usually smell corkiness on the cork in a restaurant. Also, white crystals (tartrates) on the cork are not necessarily bad and a dried out cork doesn't always mean the wine has gone bad.

Next, the waiter will pour a small amount of wine in a glass and expect you to see if it's sound. (You are not tasting the wine to see if you like its flavor.) If a wine is corked or prematurely oxidized, those are reasons to send it back.

Steps to see if wine is sound:
 1. Swirl the wine.
 2. Smell it, and don't be shy. You need to stick your nose far into the glass. Wine that is tainted with TCA (also known as corked) will smell musty, murky, or like a wet dog. If a wine has been prematurely oxidized it may smell like aged sherry.
 3. It is customary to taste the wine but you really don't need to taste it to tell if it's sound.

Q. How has technology influenced winemaking?

A. We are unimaginably lucky these days because winemakers know so much about making wine. They rarely make bad wine anymore. There's more interesting wine and so-so wine but there's a heck of a lot of good wine out there. It's harder to go wrong now than it ever was before. It's a good time to be drinking wine.

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