Most wine education focuses on nouns. A wild pack of them exists, naming grapes, places, flavors, and it’s daunting in its variety and classification. The job of wine educators presumably is to arm the drinking public with sufficient information-firepower that they can understand them all.
And if you find yourself enjoying wine enough to want to learn something about it, the noun-based approach is important. At some point, you’re going to be better equipped, not to mention happier, having a decent sense of the landscape and its inhabitants.
Then come the adjectives: qualifications along spectra of dry/sweet, fruity/mineral, young/old, light/deep and, of course, like/dislike.
But the more I talk to people who have a desire to learn, the more I realize that most of them need verbs and adverbs before nouns and adjectives. That is, they need some grounding in what’s happening, and how. Mechanics. The most pressing questions are what I’ll call “process-based,” rather than “product-based.” They’re about how to actually live with wine.
So, here are some questions I’ve repeatedly received, along with answers I’ve given.
Does it matter what glass you drink out of?
Unfortunately, yes it does. Dramatically. There’s a whole trend out there, part of the well-intentioned effort to make wine more “approachable,” of serving wine in stemless glasses or jelly jars. “See, it’s all good. We’re just hanging out here, not hung up like those old guys …”
Fine. But you want a reasonably decent set of speakers or headphones through which to hear music, you clean your eyeglasses before you go to the Louvre or a First Friday gallery. Same with wine. Buy – or more realistically, hint to someone that you ought to receive as a gift – the thinnest, most bulbous vessels you can find, with a stem.
Riedel is good; Stolzle makes you want to use Riedel for orange juice; Zalto makes anything else feel like a carpentry tool.
Shape matters, too, but not until later on. For now, focus on thinness and volume.
What does it mean for a wine to be “corked”?
There are several ways for a wine to be tainted, but the most frequent is taint by a chemical compound (either TCA or TBA, by abbreviations), the combination of airborne fungi and chlorophenols, which has either gotten into the cork or been transmitted through it. The cork industry says roughly 1 percent of bottles for sale are corked. Less subjective studies show it’s closer to 6 or 8 percent. That’s close to one bottle in every 12-bottle case.
Obvious cork taint is instantly recognizable, but there are subtler manifestations as well. I remember tasting with two world-class tasters once, and one was convinced a wine was corked and the other was convinced it wasn’t. Sometimes people call out a wine for being corked to try to show how fine their palate is. Either way, you’ve probably drunk corked bottles before.
If you’re suspicious, don’t be afraid to mention it to your server, sommelier or retailer; the cost of returns is, or ought to be, factored in by producers who use natural corks.
All of this leads to the next question …
What’s with all the screw caps?
Those are Stelvin closures. They are no longer found only on cheap bottles of wine. Most people who study the issue say that it’s a closed case: Stelvins are superior, and the only reason for natural corks at this point are unexamined traditionalism and deference to nostalgia.
Stelvins do protect against oxidation, which over time could ruin wines, and since there is no cork, there’s no possibility of cork taint.
Several winery directors I’ve spoken with claim they have conducted controlled tests (same wine, same vintage, same storage conditions, different closures) that prove Stelvins are best. Other wineries (not many, though one of them is Château Haut-Brion) claim this is true only until a decade or so of aging, after which the plastic in the Stelvins goes brittle.
There’s also the possibility of Stelvins leading to excessive reduction (the utter prevention of oxygen transport), which can affect flavor and aroma for the worse.
I’m pretty much in the pro-Stelvin camp. (Almost no one defends synthetic corks, by the way.) The romance of a skilled tableside cork removal is not enough to outweigh the risks of cork taint.
How many days can an open bottle of wine remain good?
Leaving aside for now the Coravin, a $300 tool (plus the cost of canisters) that is the first successful technology for preserving opened bottles for weeks or more, and which is revolutionizing the restaurant industry in providing opportunities to offer more and more interesting wines by the glass, here’s the answer: It depends.
First, stack the deck in your favor: reseal, either with the Stelvin cap or the cork (in my experience, the Vacu Vin type of “winesavers” do not make a noticeable difference), and put the bottle of white, pink, orange or red in the back (not the door) of your refrigerator.
Do not leave it in direct light, or anywhere near your stove (same goes for your olive oil, by the way). And, a slight tangent to answer a question few ask but more should, regarding temperature: Drink your reds cooler than room temp, and your whites warmer than fridge temp. Twenty minutes in the refrigerator for the former, and out of it for the latter, is a good start.
Many, if not most, good wines will taste better over time. (Until, of course, they don’t. But following a wine’s inexorable arc toward death is what you’re in it for, anyway.)
In my experience, wines where the flavors are primarily of fruit have the shortest life: a couple of days at most. When the wine flavors are more earthy, woodsy and mineral, or the acidity is strong, there’s an inherent structural integrity that not only preserves the natural traits of the wine but extends and elaborates those traits. In such wines, I’ve found the sweet spot after three or four days, and I’ve enjoyed trickles of its maturity for a week or more.
What’s the best way to learn more?
That might sound like an imagined set-up, a “plant” in the audience to allow me to say what I want, but I promise that this is what I get asked the most. And of course, there are all sorts of legitimate responses. Drink. Read. Drink something else. Start a tasting group. Keep drinking.
But the most practical advice I can offer is to buy more than one bottle, of different wines, at a time.
Almost all wine is opened the day it’s purchased. When you have a few bottles at home, you start thinking more consciously about your own mood, compatibility with the food you’re expecting to eat and how a certain bottle might compare with the other bottle(s) you have. You feel less rushed, and more grounded. You become more considerate of context and companions.
When you plan on buying more than one bottle, you engage more with the person you go to for buying advice, asking more questions and learning all the while.
But yeah, the most obvious answers are the most useful: drink, differently, and keep drinking.
Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at: