( Photo: with Tim Mondavi)
-By Ranjith Chandrasiri-
Learning about wine is as much about gaining experience as it is about gaining knowledge. It is about sensation, feeling, the occasion, the food as well as about memory. Wine appreciation is the experience of all these things. For the appreciation of wine, there are some skills and knowledge to be mastered that provide you with a framework to which you can relate your existing and future experience of wine. More often than not, wine experts gain their expertise through informal study or experience gained as amateurs. Journey through the world of wine is a fascinating experience. Sometimes you might stumble and sometimes the experience will be exquisite. As you explore new territories, you will come across things that you might (or might not) want to know about wine but too afraid to ask. Often I receive questions on wine from my readers. Following are some of the frequently asked questions that I like to share with you all.
Q: Do the glasses one uses for sampling/drinking wine influence the drinking experience?
A: Absolutely the glasses make a difference. They don’t have to be expensive, but the basic wine-glass should be tulip-shaped; the wider bowl lets you swirl the wine without spilling and the narrower rim helps concentrate aromas.
To see what a difference a glass makes, try the same wine out of a tulip-shaped glass, a water glass and a plastic cup. See if the wine doesn’t taste markedly different from the three different glasses.
Q: How long will a dessert wine or Port stay fresh after the bottle is opened?
A: Sweet dessert wines generally hold up better than dry wines once opened. Two or three days shouldn’t affect the quality too much, even up to a week, depending on the wine.
Other dessert wines, like Sherry, Tawny Port or Madeira, maintain their integrity for a longer period of time because they have been exposed to oxygen during the winemaking process and the alcohol, which acts as a preservative, is higher. A week, maybe two, should be no problem once they are open.
To help maintain freshness, opened wines should always be kept in the refrigerator.
Q: Why are single vineyard wines significant? Are they always better than blends from multiple vineyards?
A: Like the lead singer in a Broadway musical, a single-vineyard wine tends to have its own unique character and charm. When assessing character, “better” comes down to personal taste; the character might appeal to you, or it might not. Quality is a separate issue and, for the most part, only exceptional vineyards are used to produce single-vineyard wines. These wines usually reflect the quality of the vineyard, but may occasionally have an off-vintage (or an off-night, to continue the analogy). On the other hand, wines blended from multiple vineyards are more like the musical’s chorus. The character may be less exciting, but if one of the singers is having an off-night, the rest make up for it. Finally, when it comes to compensation, both single-vineyard wines and true stars are rare and both command higher prices than the chorus.
That is a simplified explanation, but if I went any further I’d be talking about terroir. That’s another topic.
Q: What are the sparkling crystals you sometimes find floating in wine?
A: Those are tartrate crystals, which are natural and not at all harmful. They sometimes form in wine in the bottle, particularly in wines that have had minimal manipulation in the winery.
Q: I have been amazed at the different tastes and nuances that I have been able to pick up in red wines. What causes a red wine to taste like tea, mint, or especially, chocolate?
A: Wine is an incredibly complex beverage which can contain scores of different volatile elements — the aldehydes, esters and miscellaneous compounds which make up the elements we interpret as flavours. Some of them share exactly the same molecular structure as elements present in other foods, such as cinnamon, vanilla, and butter, so you might say we are actually tasting “vanilla” in the wine. Other elements, either alone or in combination, simply resemble aromas that we associate with other objects, from gum drops to sweaty gym socks. The “chocolate” flavour probably results from a combination of these effects. What’s amazing to me is how often different tasters independently discover the same complex taste associations in a wine.
Q: Is there an easy way to remove wine labels for storage with my tasting notes?
A: One simple way is to soak the bottle in hot water with a dash of ammonia. Make sure the bottle is full of hot water also. Another method is to apply wide Scotch tape across the label, rub thoroughly with a solid, flat object , then pull the tape off & trim the edges.
Some labels just will not come off, no matter what you do!!
Q: What’s the difference between a double magnum and a jeroboam?
A: Although bottle sizes are standardized in many countries, there is some regional variation in the names associated with bottles of different capacities. In Bordeaux, a double magnum is traditionally considered to be 3 liters, while a Jeroboam is 4.5 liters. In Champagne and Burgundy, however, the Jeroboam is generally understood to be 3 liters , and the term “double magnum” is not often used.
Q: I keep reading about soft tannins, or pleasant tannins, or lots of tannin. My question is simple: What are tannins?
A: Tannins are substances that get into the wine from the grape skins and seeds. They can be bitter and can add rough texture to a wine–think of over-brewed tea, which has lots of tannin in it–but they benefit wine, too, by preserving it from early oxidation. Good winegrowers know how to manage the tannins in the vineyard and the winery to strike the right balance, so that a wine has a pleasant velvety, soft texture, instead of being too rough. As wine ages in the bottle, some but not all of the tannin will drop out of solution and form sediment.
Q: My question is, don’t you need to swallow the wine in order to judge the length and complexity of the finish?
A: As far as analytical tasting goes, swallowing is not essential. By breathing out through mouth and nose after spitting, virtually all of the flavours and aromas can be experienced and judged. And the gain in concentration makes up for whatever small loss there is. But as far as pleasure is concerned, swallowing is highly recommended!
Q: Why is Sauvignon Blanc usually so much cheaper than Chardonnay?
A: Prices for wines have as much to do with image and demand as they do with production costs. However, Sauvignon Blanc grapes cost less than Chardonnay grapes–partly because of higher yields–and the wines require less investment in new oak barrels. Also, Sauvignon Blancs are ready to drink after four to eight months; Chardonnays generally take one to two years before release. Time is money, too. But mostly, it’s the perception of SB as less aristocratic than Chardonnay.
Q: What exactly is claret?
A: “Claret” is a conventional term that traditionally refers to red wine from the Bordeaux region of France, but it has no official, legal definition and is often used as a generic term to refer to dry red wines. It derives from “clairet,” the name for a certain type of light red wine that was exported from Bordeaux in the Middle Ages and became quite popular in England. The wine, because of its light color, was known as “vinum clarum,” “bin clar” or “clairet.” It bore little resemblance to the wines that are characteristic of Bordeaux today–but the name endures.
Q: What is noble rot?
A: Noble rot–known in France as “pourriture noble” and in Germany as “Edelfaule”–is the common name for Botrytis cinerea, a beneficial mould that grows on ripe white wine grapes in the vineyard under specific climatic conditions. The mould attacks the grapes and dehydrates them, leaving them shrivelled and raisinlike, and concentrates the sugar content in the berries. The wines from these berries have a rich, complex, honeyed character and are often high in residual sugar. The botrytis mould contributes to the unique flavours of wines such as Sauternes from Bordeaux, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese Riesling from Germany, and an array of late-harvest wines from other regions.