Questions & Answers
Appellation/Region of Origin
Q: Do countries like Canada and Great Britain have a good reputation for wine making?
A: Yes. Although the wine industry is much larger and more successful in Canada than in Britain. Britain specializes in aromatic white wines, which can be excellent. Canada produces a wide range of wines, from sparkling to late harvest. In particular, Canada is known for its richly-flavored ice wines, produced in British Columbia and Ontario. They generally are quite expensive, selling for $25 and up per 375 m.l. bottle.
Characteristics of Wine
Q: How old can a Merlot be before it's not drinkable?
A: Very few merlots will cellar for more than ten years, though some of the best like Beringer's Howell Mountain Merlot will last close to 20 years.
Q: What wines are sweeter than others? Do you have a scale of which wines from sweet to bitter? I'm a beginner at drinking wine and have not yet come to enjoy wines. I'd first like to get used to the sweet flavor of wine and move on from there.
A: Certainly wine types and wines are typically made in a sweet style (they all could be made into dry wines, if the producers wished).
Generally, wines from these types are made in a lightly sweet style (with many exceptions, of course): white Zinfandel (rose); Riesling; Gewurztraminer; Chenin Blanc; Moscato (Muscat). Wines that are labelled "botrytis" or "late harvest" are generally sweet to very sweet.
Dry wines are simply those that contain little unfermented grape sugar after fermentation. The driest wines are usually considered to be extremely crisp white wines (Muscadet from France, some white Burgundies) and red wines that are somewhat tannic in style (Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo, Petite Sirah).
Food & Wine Matches
Q: I would like to know if you could recommend a basic starter group of wines that one would keep at home for cooking purposes. I would also like your recommendations for a "starter collection" of wines general consumption.
A: Wines that you would cook with are ones that you may have on hand for several weeks, if not months. Therefore, both dry and sweet fortified wines recommended, which are not expensive.
Dry Sherry, especially one designated as "Fino", to cook with (deglazing, stocks, finishing sauces). Sweet fortified wines, use Ruby Porto (from Portugal), Bual or Boal Madeira (also from Portugal), and Australian Tawny Ports. These wines all can last up to a year after opening, and generally cost between $6 and $10 a bottle.
For starter wines to enjoy at home, it is recommended that you purchase California wines—with one exception, noted below—in different styles and from different grape varieties, so that you can become familiar with the major ones. Try versions that cost between $6 and $10 for each of these; then, once you find a varietal wine you like, move up to higher priced versions as you deem appropriate.
- Dry White Wine - Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc (or Fume Blanc)
- Off-dry White Wine - Riesling, Gewurztraminer
- Rose - White Zinfandel, White Merlot
- Lighter Red Wine - Pinot Noir, Beaujolais (from France)
- Heavier Red Wine - Merlot, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon
Q: What is the proper way to hold a wine glass?
A: By the stem - it keeps fingerprints off of the glass, and makes it easier to raise the glass into the proper position to enjoy the bouquet.
Q: Which wines should be served chilled and which wines should be served at room temperture?
A: A general rule of thumb when it comes to serving wine is as follows:
- Champagne/Bubbly: 45-50 degrees F
- White wine: 50-55 degrees F
- Red wine: 55-65 degrees F
- Some red wines are better chilled even further — Gamays and Beaujolais are good examples.
Q: Does it make any difference if a red wine is stored upright or on its side?
A: Yes! If you're cellaring a wine, you want to keep it on its side to keep the cork moist. This helps keep the seal airtight. If you're dealing with an older wine that has probably "thrown" sediment, you will want to stand the bottle upright for a few days prior to opening it to allow the sediment to sink to the bottom of the bottle, then decant carefully to remove the sediment.
Q: What is the longest you can store a white wine and still be able to enjoy it.
A: White wines don't generally have the longevity of some of their more colorful brethren. There are a few, and most are in the dessert wine class — try a Sauternes from France or an Eiswein or TBA from Germany.
Q: Is the date on the front of the bottle the year the grapes were picked or the year it was put in the bottle?
A: The date on the front of the bottle, or the "Vintage" is the year the grapes were picked. After picking and fermentation, wines can spend up to two years aging before they are bottled. And some Ports stay in the barrel for longer than that!
Q: Does the alcohol content/level vary from different ages of wine? How is the alcohol content/level achieved? What is done to monitor the alcohol content/level in wine?
A: Alcohol content of a wine is a direct result of the amount of sugar present in the juice and the length of the fermentation process. Sugar levels can be measured from the juice after pressing, and in some cases sugar will be added if the potential alcohol content might not be high enough- it's easier to stop the fermentation if alcohol levels are getting high, but without adding sugar, there is a point when the alcohol level "maxes out." The process of adding sugar is known as "chaptalization," and is most common in some of the lower-quality German wines, though it is by no means limited to them. Chaptalization can be used with any wine the winemaker deems in need of a little help.