Frequently Asked Questions About Wine - Wine FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions About Wine - Wine FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions About Wine - Wine FAQ

Questions and Answers

We will be adding to this FAQ as often as possible, here are some common questions we have fielded over the years along with some answers that we think will guide in the right direction. Remember, wine is all about personal taste, so look at this FAQ as more of a guideline rather than the hard and fast rules of wine. If you have any questions of your own, please feel free to contact us and we'll try and get them answered as soon as possible!

If I don't have a wine cellar, what's the best way to store my wine?

Is there actually a big difference between Chardonnay and Chablis or between Chardonnay and Riesling? How would you describe the differences between similar wines?

How can I preserve leftover wine?

Should I serve wine warm or cold?

Must wine be expensive to be good?

Q: If I don't have a wine cellar, what's the best way to store my wine?

A: If you've invested in a bottle or two of the good stuff, you aren't going to want to leave it just lying around the house. You will want to store it lying down on its side in a cool place without much temperature variation throughout the day. Since hot air rises, generally it would be better to store it closer to the floor than to the ceiling. There are many small wine racks out there; some can hold a single bottle of wine, while others will hold a dozen or more. Once you figure out what kind of wine you really like, you're going to want to get one of the larger wine racks, but in the beginning we suggest starting out with a smaller one until your tastes are a bit more refined.

Q: Is there actually a big difference between Varietals?

A: Define "big difference." There are usually some consistent characteristics that give most wines made from Chardonnay grapes, for instance, a family resemblance -- kind of an apple-like or tropical-fruit quality and a rather rich, full body. Riesling wines are most often made a little sweet, and I often find kind of musky, cantaloupe aromas in them or even something aromatic like a nice whiff of pine needles. Sauvignon Blancs are usually very dry and tart (which is why they're so good with fish or seafood, but a little harder to like all by themselves), and they tend to fall into either of two categories: Citric, like grapefruit or lemon-lime, or "grassy," an odd but pleasant scent that might smell like fresh-cut grass or green beans or asparagus or even green chili peppers.

It's similar among red wines: Cabernet Sauvignon is usually a dry, tart table wine with aromas that might remind you of black currants or sour cherries, and it's often "tannic" (astringent) in flavor when it's young. It makes a great match with beef or lamb. Zinfandel is full of fresh berries and immensely fruity, so it's really easy to like. Merlot, currently very popular, is somewhat similar to Cabernet but generally softer and more sippable. It often reminds me of black cherries.

"Chablis" is a little bit of a different story since it's not actually a grape. In France, it's a Chardonnay made in the region called Chablis, and it's fairly expensive. For a long time, inexpensive white wines made in the U.S. were called "Chablis" also, even though they weren't made from the same grape. Nowadays, this practice has almost died out, except for a few "jug" wines like Almaden Mountain Chablis (which is a pretty nice cheap picnic wine, by the way), so you won't see an American wine called Chablis much anymore, and if you do, you're probably better off to avoid it.

Q: How can I preserve leftover wine?

A: The question of how to keep leftover wine, and how effectively it can be stored, is the source of never-ending debates among wine lovers. The bottom line, we're sorry to say, is that wine, once opened, starts to deteriorate rather quickly on exposure to air, and it is simply not practical to keep it for very long.

Some relatively inexpensive wine accessories are available, including the Vacu-Vin system (a small plastic pump that extracts air from the bottle through a special stopper) and Private Preserve (an aerosol can that you use to squirt inert gas into the half-full bottle, forcing out the oxygen, before resealing with the original cork).

A cheap but finicky alternative is to have available a sparkling clean 375-ml wine bottle ('half bottle' or 'split') and, immediately after opening your wine, decant half of it into the clean bottle, filling it up, and corking it immediately. This may be the most effective option of all, and wine stored in the half bottle should keep for at least a few weeks.

Finally, the simplest procedure is to put the wine in the refrigerator for storage. This works great for whites, which need chilling anyway; forreds, it's a little more trouble, as you've got to take the wine out several hours before dinner to let it warm up again. But just as refrigeration slows the spoilage of fresh fruit, it does the same for fresh wine. In any case, I'd advise drinking the rest of the bottle reasonably soon. No matter what preservation system you use, it will work better for a day or two than for several weeks.

Oh, and one final thought: A lot of better wine shops are increasingly stocking fine wines in 375 ml bottles. You might want to check the better shops in your region and see what's available in the smaller size.

Q: Should I serve wine warm or cold?

A: It's customary to serve white wines well chilled and reds at room temperature, but why? Never one to accept the conventional wisdom without question, we decided recently that it would be fun to put this old wine rule to the test. Locating a couple of decent but inexpensive table wines -- the red and white "Jaja de Jau" from the Languedoc region of Southern France -- I popped one of each into the fridge for a few hours, while leaving the others out on the kitchen counter.

When I served the cold and lukewarm wines side-by-side, it became clear that this particular bit of folk wisdom is firmly based on reality.

The chilled white wine was refreshing and tasty. The room-temperature white had a riper, fuller aroma, almost like honeysuckle, but that advantage was offset by a soft, almost sweet flavor that made the wine seem cloying. The chilled white just plain tasted better; the cold actually became an element of flavor that seemed to snap the wine into focus.

The reverse held true for the reds, but here things became a little more complicated. The chilled wine showed almost no aroma at all, and it tasted odd and dank. The room-temperature glass tasted about as you'd expect of a modest country-French red: Fruity and ripe, a tasty match with Easter ham. But in between, while it still held a slight chill, the red tasted best of all.

Our advice: Follow the rules, but don't take them too far. A good white wine is best lightly chilled, maybe around 45 degrees, but not so icy cold that it will stun your taste buds. A red, on the other hand, may be cooled just a bit with a wine chiller (especially on a hot day, but never use ice as this will water down the wine). Chill it just enough to bring it down to "cellar" temperature -- in the 60s, maybe, not cold but just slightly cool.

Q: Must wine be expensive to be good?

A: This is a good basic question, which can be restated, "is there a linear relationship between the price of a wine and the quality of a wine?"

In our opinion, there is some relationship, but it's far from exact. As a general rule, wine pricing is a classic free-market situation, in which the finest wines are in great demand but relatively limited supply, and thus can command higher prices than the lesser stuff.

The key variable, in our opinion, is the quality of the grapes from which the wines are made. Over time, certain geographical areas have been found to produce the most excellent grapes, which in turn produce the finest wines. Bordeaux, for example, is generally known for good red wines; the Medoc region within Bordeaux generally enjoys its best reputation; the Pauillac and Margaux communes within the Medoc are thought of as being even better; and specific chateaux (wineries) like Ch. Margaux and Ch. Mouton-Rothschild are the best-reputed, and most expensive, of all. Same goes for California to Northern California to Napa Valley to Rutherford to Martha's Vineyard.

Grapes grown outside these areas make good wine -- and, occasionally, great wine -- but these are the exceptions; further, as outstanding wines from unexpected places become known, the demand for them rises, which in turn increases the price.

Other influential factors include the skill of the vine grower and the wine maker; wines that have developed a long-term reputation for excellence are in higher demand, and again the price goes up.

The boom in U.S. demand for wine in the past couple of decades has also caused wine prices in general to increase faster than inflation. And, on the other side of the curve, that demand has prompted some mass-market wineries to "overcrop," which means to force the vines to grow far more tons of grapes on an acre of vineyard land than they really should. For sound agricultural reasons, overcropping results in bland, flavorless fruit. You get more grapes, which means more bottles of wine, so it can be sold cheap, but it's not necessarily good wine. The finest vineyards, on the other hand, scrupulously prune back the vines, maintain appropriate spacing, and don't try to squeeze more juice out of the vineyard than nature intended. The result is excellent fruit, excellent wine, and limited quantities. Supply-and-demand comes into play again, and the price goes up.

This is a pretty simple sketch, but we think you get the idea.

The good news, for wine lovers like us, is that the relationship isn't exact. Many wines stand out for good "quality-price ratio," for a variety of reasons. Some older family-owned wineries are able to grow their own grapes and thus don't need to pay a farmer for them; this reduces their costs, and they may pass that saving on to the consumer. Further, some excellent wine regions simply haven't been "discovered," so in the absence of high demand, the prices stay low. The wines of Chile and Argentina, and those of the Languedoc-Roussilon region in Southern France fall into this category; ditto for South Africa and many of the wines of Australia; to some extent, the same is true of Alsace and the Loire in France, although prices are rising.