Feb 09

Wine: Storing Before Pouring

red-wineWine, like anything else, will always change over time. The trick is to control the rate and types to produce desirable changes and avoid harmful ones. The variables needing to be controlled are air, temperature, light, vibration and humidity.

Nothing spoils good wine faster than too much air — it causes wine to age rapidly, oxidizing and losing freshness. Before long you have vinegar. Fortunately it’s not necessary to build a vacuum chamber, glass is impermeable to air for centuries and a good cork will keep air exchange to a minimum for years.

Still, there’s some air in the bottle to begin with — this is good, since it’s essential to a proper aging process — and corks can go bad. Keeping wine bottles stored horizontally helps keep corks moist, preventing cracking or shrinking that admits air.

Storing wine at around 70 percent humidity is important to keep corks properly moistened — too low humidity dries them out, but higher humidity encourages growth of mold and mildew which injures racks, casks and spoils cork tops.

Even more importantly, proper temperature keeps corks from shrinking when too cold and wine from aging too quickly when too warm. In a cellar of 25 percent whites, 75 percent reds, 45-55F (7C-13C) is preferred. Some areas are blessed with natural conditions in this range, but most will need some kind of refrigeration unit. For smaller collections, wine cabinets can be purchased.

Almost as important as the actual temperature is the rate of change. A ten degree change over a season is harmless, but frequent and rapid changes can severely damage wine, even when stored within the desired range.

Not surprisingly, the higher the storage temperature the faster a wine will age. Conversely, colder storage temperatures slow the aging process. Adjust for the type of wine stored.

Along with controlling temperature and humidity, light exposure should be kept to a minimum. Though modern bottles have good UV filters, some can still penetrate — leading to a condition called ‘light struck’, which shows up as an unpleasant aroma. Incandescent bulbs produce less ultra violet light than fluorescents, so the former are preferable.

Vibration interferes with aging, stirs up sediments and in extreme cases can cause racks to deteriorate faster. Try to avoid moving bottles until ready to be served.

Bottle size plays a small part, since a larger bottle has a smaller ratio of air to wine. Purchase or use larger bottles when possible. Once a bottle has been opened transfer the leftover wine to a smaller bottle if the remainder isn’t consumed within a few days.

Wine Aging Table:

The following contains some types of wine and the approximate period they should be aged for optimal flavor. In general, more expensive wines are designed to be aged longer. Cheap wines should be driven off the market by not being purchased at all.

Type   Cost  Age (from vintage date)

Cabernet Sauvignon $12-$25  5-6 years    >$25  7-15 years

Merlot   $12-$25  3-4 years    >$25  5-12 years

Syrah/Shiraz  $12-$25  3-5 years

Chardonnay  $12-$25  Consume within 5 years

Calif. Riesling  $12-$25  Consume within 3-4 years



Dec 24

Wine Serving Simplified

Red Wine PourIt’s possible to get a college degree in Wine. Absent from most curricula, though is a good course on serving the right way. So, préparez vos crayons (get out your pencils)…

Red wines and whites, not to mention sparkling wines, have different optimal storage methods, serving temperatures and opening and pouring procedures — even different ideal drinking glasses.

Reds, it’s often said, should be served room temperature — but that refers to a room a bit cooler than the average Mediterranean villa in summer. Start at 65F (18C) and adjust to taste.

Reds should generally not be stored in a refrigerator. Apart from being too cold, if the bottle is corked food flavors can seep into the bottle. Wherever stored, be sure to keep the bottle on it’s side, in an area with 80 percent humidity if possible.

Whites, as well as some fruitier reds, should usually be served substantially cooler. Cooler, not cold. A range of 52-55F (11-13C) is a good beginning. Colder and you will start to mask the flavors. The average refrigerator is around 40F (4C), so remember not to serve immediately after opening, if stored there.

If you need to achieve the proper temperature in a hurry, or don’t have handy a wine cooling cabinet, a large serving bucket with both water and ice will do. The addition of water helps to keep the ice close to the bottle and also to conduct heat away more effectively. Fifteen to thirty minutes is usually enough.

While the wine is cooling to optimal serving temperature, you can prepare the glasses. The ideal glass for a red wine will have a thin rim, a largish bowl, and a stem with a wide base for holding and stability. Whites are better experienced from a slightly narrower bowled glass. Avoid heavy cut glasses, so that clarity and color can be viewed well.

Of course, glasses should be clean, but also remember to keep fingerprints away from the rim by holding down on the stem. As much as possible, dust should be kept from the interior or any other portion where the lips and tongue will come into contact with it. Both dust and oils alter the perceived taste.

While not the most important aspect of wine serving, using the proper shape and size (one able to hold at least several ounces), helps to convey the wine to the optimal areas of the tongue and palette for the different types.

Now everything is ready.

Using a corkscrew that fits your hand well, try to insert it into the cork at a slight angle to get more pulling leverage. Once the spiral is fully inserted, give the handles or the corkscrew a little jerk — dynamic friction is less than static. Be careful not to splinter the cork into the bottle.

Decant any heavier reds (port or older wines) that show evidence of sediment, by allowing them to settle then pouring carefully or using a cheesecloth if needed. Allow them, and red generally to breathe (i.e. remain open to air) for 15 minutes or so.

Pour no more than one third to half a glass to leave plenty of room for swirling. Sniff gently.

And, the most important step: taste!


Dec 24

Selecting A Fine Wine

wine bottlesQuickly, bring me a beaker of wine, so that I may wet my mind and say something clever. – Aristophanes

For those more interested in finding a delectable drink to savor than being clever, the following might be useful.

Obviously the selection of a specific type, year and brand of wine is a matter of individual taste. But differences aside, there are some broad guidelines on which there is agreement, within the confines of price.

Happily, with the growth of vineyards around the world and wine-related Internet sites, availability is no longer a problem. A person in California or Caracas can order a New Zealand Syrah not carried by a local merchant as easily as anyone in Auckland.

Ignoring questions of pairing with food, are you looking for a full red or a light white? Some find Madeira too heavy, others see a German Riesling as too dry. Most readily available wines are meant to be consumed shortly after purchase, but those with the desire to taste the finest, patience really is a virtue. Cabernet Sauvignon would better suit those willing to age than a Pinot Noir.

A cool climate Chardonnay, such as those from Canada, will interest those who enjoy a young wine with prominent acidity. But it can also be favored by those who want to experience it’s nutty, honeyed character that comes with aging.

Descriptions by class can be helpful. Class 1 wines, often labeled ‘Light Wine’ or ‘Red Table Wine’ will have an alcohol content between 7% and 14% by volume. Class 7, by contrast, will have an alcohol content of not less than 15% by volume. This type has usually been compounded with Brandy and flavored with herbs. Those with greater concentrations are considered ‘fortified’.

Look on the label for a declaration of the amount of sulfites. Sulphur is often added during the winemaking process to guard against growth of unwanted organisms, but some may introduce more than an individuals taste prefers. Sulphur dioxide is also sometimes sprayed on the grape itself to reduce pests and can leach into the skin. Some wine drinkers are unknowingly sensitive to sulfites and can experience an allergic reaction. Concentrations of below 10 parts per million are fine for most.

When testing a wine, cool to the proper temperature — around 52F (11C) for whites, 65F (18C) for reds — and use a thin rimmed glass that is free of dust. You can clean it by rinsing carefully and drying with a lint free cloth.

Pour to no more than about 1/3 of a glass, held by the stem to keep fingerprints away from the rim and to prevent heating the bowl.

Look for a clear color by viewing against a white background. A Pinot Noir will have the lightness of a ruby, Cabernet Sauvignon more violet. Those from grapes grown in a hot summer and dry fall will result in a darker color; those from a cool summer and rainy fall will be lighter.

Swirl gently, sniff and taste.


Dec 24

Wine: Ancient Art, Modern Science and Global Business

Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur grapes

Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur grapes

In one form or another wine production has been carried out for thousands of years. Pottery discovered in Persia (present-day Iran), dated at 5,500 BC show evidence of grape use for winemaking. Jars from Jiahu in China containing wine from wild grapes date to between 6000 and 7000 BC.

But whether ancient or modern, many of the same conditions are required and similar techniques used. The chemistry of grapes is eternal.

Wine grapes grow, with few exceptions, only in bands delineated by latitudes 30-50 degrees North and 30-45 degrees South of the equator. Unlike most crops, grapes don’t require fertile soil. The thinness of the soil restricts the quantity of the crop, producing fewer grapes of higher quality.

Paradoxically, soils too rich in nitrogen and other nutrients —highly beneficial for most plants— can produce grapes unsuitable for winemaking. Fine for eating, but lacking desirable quantities of minerals, sugars and acids.

The best wines are produced from soil that would be considered poor quality for other agricultural purposes. The stellar wines from Bordeaux are made from grapes grown in gravelly soil, atop a base of clay or chalk. Fewer grapes are grown, but high in quality. The pebbly earth allows for good drainage — grapevines require access to adequate, but not excessive, water. As the roots reach down further, more complex minerals are absorbed.

Vineyards are most often founded in river valleys, with slopes that provide abundant sunshine. Vines there are most often of the European species vitis vinifera, from which many common wines are made, such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot.

Viticulture, the practice of growing grapes for wine, is today one of the most complex agricultural undertakings. A master vintner (today, sometimes called an oenologist), must be an expert in soil chemistry and fermentation, climatology and several other ancient arts and modern sciences.

In addition to categorization by variety, the products of these vines are classified by vinification methods – sparkling, still, fortified, rosé, blush — or by region — Bordeaux, Burgundy and Alsace — and of course by vintage, as well as a dozen other methods.

After the farmer, chemist and manufacturer have had their say, the businessman must take over. In 2002, 595 million gallons of wine were sold in the U.S. alone, representing over $20 billion in consumer spending. France led the pack with 22% of export volume, with Italy a close 20% behind.

The bold artists of wine must possess a sensitive nose and palette and balance dozens of time-sensitive factors such as when to harvest, how long to ferment and age, when to bottle. And that’s before considering modern manufacturing and marketing requirements, not to mention legal restrictions.

An art, a science and a business definitely not for the timid.