The Nuts and Bolts of Drinking, Buying, and Tasting Wine
How do you drink wine? As Lauren Bacall might put it, you just pucker up your lips and sip-right? After all, meaningful, authentic, even enviable wine experiences have been had by millions-and especially millions of peasants involved in harvesting grapes-who did no more than that. However, since our goal here is to learn, gain insight, and class up the joint, we're going to do a little more.
Two at a Time
The fastest way to learn about wine is to taste two similar wines at the same time. If you're a haphazard or casual drinker, it's really hard to remember what that Sauvignon Blanc you had six months ago was like. However, if you have two in front of you at the same time, it's easy: This one is lemony, this one is fruity. This one smells of pepper, and this one smells of pepper. Drinking two bottles at a time- two Sauvignon Blancs, two Zinfandels, whatever-will put you on the fast track.
What You Will Need to Get Started Tasting
Nitrogen or Argon in a Can
Of course, drinking two bottles at a time leads to the problem of having two bottles open at a time. The reason wine goes bad when it's open is oxygen. You'll probably remember from your high school chemistry class that oxygen causes all sorts of problems in the world. It's what makes rust, fuels fire, and generally changes stuff. One stuff it really changes a lot is wine, via a process called oxidation. Don't believe me? Leave a glass of wine on the counter overnight and taste it the next day. Blech. Oxidation.
A little oxidation can be good-that's more or less what you're doing when you decant wine, or let it "breathe"-but a lot is bad. You can slow or prevent oxidation in an opened bottle of wine in a couple of ways. You can try to suck all the oxygen out of the bottle, using something like the Vacu Vin system or another gizmo that pumps the air out, or you can try to put a little blanket of a gas that's heavier than air on top of the wine to keep the oxygen from getting to it.
Some respected wine professionals prefer the vacuum, but for my money the gas works better. You can buy cans of wine preserver that are mostly nitrogen from just about any wine store. They go by all kinds of brand names: Private Preserve, Cork Pops, and Winelife are the biggest. They cost about $10 and will get you through about a hundred uses. Most of the big, fancy wine bars use a very expensive version of this nitrogen preservation system; that's how they can have so many bottles open at one time.
After you pour your glasses of wine, you stick the little hose jutting out of the top of the can into your wine bottle and spray. Now you've got at least a couple of days to finish it-more if you stick the bottle in the fridge. So for 10 cents you get another week or so to finish your wine. (Champagne and other sparkling wines provide their own gas to prevent oxidation, so there's not much benefit to gassing them. Use a lever stopper, discussed below, to preserve those.)
Put a Cork (Back) in It
Once you spritz a little nitrogen into an opened bottle, you need to seal it. If it's got a screw top, that's easy enough. If it's a regular bottle, replace the cork. If you don't like wrestling with corks, invest in a couple of lever bottle stoppers. They cost between $1 and $7, depending on how high-design they are, and seal bottles with an airtight seal. I like the Zyliss ones because they cost about $3, and last forever. I've had some in my kitchen now for eight years and they're still going strong.
Speaking of Corks
Much ado is made about corkscrews, but any one that works for you is good enough. I like the traditional one with the little arms that lift up; they usually cost less than $10 and will follow you to your grave. I've had a couple of the ones with the Teflon-coated helix (the curly goes-into-the-cork part) that makes pulling corks effortless, but they cost a lot and they always break. They're convenient, though, if you're frequently opening a lot of wine bottles. I admire people who can use a waiter's corkscrew effortlessly, but I'm not one of them (though I keep one in the car for picnic-related emergencies).
All that being said, if you spend more than five minutes in this lifetime thinking or reading about corkscrews, you're wasting your time. Magazine editors periodically assign stories about them, but I think this is mostly because they go to the store and don't know which one to buy, so they think it's an issue that needs getting to the bottom of. It isn't.
Speaking of stuff you don't need, add decanters to the list. Decanters are for people who have old wine-as in, aged wine-that has developed sediment on the bottom. When you decant it, most of the sediment stays behind in the bottle, and then most of the rest stays behind in the decanter.
Sediment is a good thing, by the way. It's the sign of unfiltered, high-quality wine. In the bottle it adds flavor, settling to the bottom as harmless fine silt. (It's more common in reds than whites.) However, it's not particularly fun to have in your mouth. It's like earthworms in the garden: good, but best left in place.
Mostly, wine decanting is about sediment, but the pro-cess also gives the wine time to "breathe," or to come in contact with oxygen, as described above. Wine can breathe just fine in a plain old pitcher, however. I'd guess 90 percent of the decanters in this country are owned by people who think they should own them. If you want to try decanting, just pour your wine into any handy pitcher, or even a vase. Try the wine. Has it improved? If not, congratulations! You just saved $30.
Sometimes in home-furnishing store catalogs I see adorable little wine racks carefully arranged in the sunny front window of a dream kitchen, and I settle back in my chair and muse: "What dopes." Sunlight and its partner, heat, are the absolute enemy of wine. If you want to destroy wine, a cute wine rack in a sunny front window is the fastest way to do that. The ideal place to keep wine is in a cool, dark cellar. Cool is imporant to avoid enemy number one, heat; dark is important because you skip enemy number two, light. If you're living without a cellar, some good places to store wine include: under your bed, in a closet, in a cupboard, in a file cabinet, or under the sink. Wine bottled under a cork is best kept on its side so that the cork doesn't dry out. Corks do dry out: I talked to the sommelier at a super-fancy steak house once, the kind that lines the walls with stock-pot-size ultra-prestigious bottles of wine, and he told me that they used to lay down all the bottles overnight once a month to let the corks get moist-until the morning he came in to find $7,000 worth of Champagne soaked into the rug. All you need to know? Keep your bottles on their sides, in the dark!
The one bit of wine paraphernalia that I do believe in is nice wineglasses. Nearly all of a wine's nuance is in its fragrance, in the little molecules that waft into your nose where you detect them as roses, pineapple, saddle leather, or what not. If you use a juice glass for your wine, those little volatilized molecules coming out of the wine simply dissipate into thin air, leaving you nothing to smell and enjoy. Wine in a tumbler, a juice glass, a rocks glass, a lowball? No matter how cute the glass, you just can't smell the wine. And if you can't smell it, you can't taste it.
Now I know some of you are thinking, "Wait a minute, I've been to Europe and I was served wine in a jelly jar and it was just fine." Indeed, the nice-glass paradigm only holds for nice wines: If you're drinking two-euro-a-gallon wine, by all means, stick it in a jelly jar, that's the best way to make lousy wine go down easy. (Also, put ice in it, which helps prevent the scent compounds from volatilizing.)
However, if you actually want to enjoy the wine you drink, you need a glass with a stem, which keeps the wine in the glass from warming in your hand, and a bowl that is broader at the bottom and narrower at the top. That gap between the top of the glass and the surface of the wine is where the aromatic compounds get trapped so that you can smell them.
How much you spend on a good wineglass is up to you. Personally, I really like drinking wine out of nice Riedel stemware, and I think I like it half because it improves the wine and half because it makes me feel special and fancy. I get the basic ones that run $10 to $15 a stem; I don't think there's a great difference between those and the bigger, more expensive ones, which break more easily and therefore stress me out more. However, the point of a wineglass is the same whether it's an $8, $15, or $50 stem: They're there to keep the wine at the right temperature and to capture its fragrance. The big difference between the $10 ones and the $50 ones tends to be the quality of the glass itself, and whether it was machine-made or handmade. If it makes you happy to have a $50 handblown stem-have that thing! If it doesn't make you happy-skip that thing! I've gotten lovely Riedel glasses at Target and seen charming ones at Pottery Barn. If you told me there were good-enough glasses at Wal-Mart I wouldn't be surprised. The basic Riedel white wine stem is wonderful for whites, and I think it's nice to have both a Burgundy ball shape and a taller Bordeaux shape for reds. My final thought: Get some nice wineglasses. You won't regret it.
Smell is such a huge part of taste that you should swirl if you want to get real pleasure from wine. When you swirl the wine in the glass, what you're basically doing is creating a tiny little tornado, a bit of uplifting wind over the glass that moves the scent of the wine- that is, the compounds in it that can become airborne-up away from the wine and toward your nose.
If it makes you feel weird at first, do it at home where no one can see you. Or try keeping the base of the stem on the table and moving it in a slow circle, never picking it up.
Temperature, Especially Cellar Temperature
Serving wine at the right temperature is a big deal. It's generally said about Americans that we drink our whites too cold, because we have them at refrigerator temperature, and our reds too warm, because we have them at room temperature.
Red wines should be served at "cellar temperature," that is, about 55 degrees, halfway between refrigerator temperature and room temperature. If wine is too warm, the alcohol smell dominates, like warm vodka. If it's too cold, the volatile compounds that give wine its good scents stay in the wine and don't give you the full flavor. White wines generally should be served a little colder, in the 45-50 degree range, like a colder cellar. For all the wine tastings in this book it's utterly important that the wines be served at the appropriate cellar temperatures. If you have all your Rieslings sitting out in the hot sun and taste them at 80 degrees you'll learn nothing, and waste a lot of money too. Cellar temperature! Words to live by.
In addition to temperature there's the issue of seasonality. Some people like to drink their wine with the seasons, big bold reds in winter and light crisp whites in summer. Some don't. What's the correct thing to do? The answer is personal. If you want to eat a hearty stew in August, go for it! It's your life. Case closed.
Shopping for Wine
There's a reason every critic tells you to find a specialty wine shop: Big box wine stores like Costco or Sam's Club and discount shops like Trader Joe's are confusing and haphazard even for bona fide wine professionals. They're often stocked with odd lots, discounts, one-off labels made specifically for the store (see the "Money, Money, Money" chapter later on for more details), or really big name national wines.
Some of these wines may change over the course of a year, or vintage to vintage. One year some generic Hawk's-View-Ridge-Crest-Mt.-Hollow red wine might say Cabernet Sauvignon on the bottle and be made with 90 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 10 percent Merlot, and the next year it might be made with 75 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 25 percent Syrah, depending on what's cheap and available.
Furthermore, because importers and distributors make less profit on individual bottles (though more on volume) at big box and discount stores, they don't send the most highly sought after wines there. For the wine tastings in this book you're going to need some of those highly sought after wines. You will never find the six major styles of Riesling or Chardonnay in a big box store, so if you're only shopping at big box stores you'll never learn what various wine styles are like, much less your own taste.
Independent wine shops usually have one guy sweating over every case: "Am I going to make money on this one, or lose money?" It tends to clarify their decision making. There are two easy ways to find a good wine shop. You can ask people who care, like the general manager at your favorite nice restaurant; or you can call a shop and ask questions culled from the following wine chapters, such as: "I need to find two single-estate Zinfandels from the same producer, like Ridge or Edmeades. Is that something you carry?"
Once you get started on the tastings in this book, you will actually need to ask this question and a few others that only someone knowledgeable can answer. If the person you're talking to can't answer, move on. If they can, congratulations! You have found a good wine shop.
The aging of wines comes up in every wine article and reference book, and on many bottle labels. Here's what you need to know about aging wine. Wine collectors are the main driver of high-end (over $20) wine in the United States; in 2009 a group called Pointer Media Network estimated that a mere 5.2 million Americans buy 80 percent of the high-end wine imported into this country. These people are buying wine not just to drink, but to age. This matters to you, because what happens if you buy wine meant to age, but instead drink it right away? Your whole mouth will prickle up and you'll feel like you've been sucking on a leather jacket. (Some wines meant to age, and thus best to avoid for a new wine drinker: Bordeaux, Reserva Rioja, and Barolo. Basically, if wine is very expensive, it's probably meant to age.)