February 27, 2008

Zinfandel: Where's it from?

Zinfandel is a quintessentially American grape even if - like most American citizens - its roots are almost certainly found in Europe.

The origins of this grape are shrouded in mystery and considerable legend. For many years, the standard story held that Count Agoston Haraszthy -- a notable and colorful figure in Northern California during Gold Rush days and indisputably a key figure in the development of the Napa Valley wine country -- brought this rare grape to the U.S. from his native Hungary some time after 1849.

As it turns out, however, very little research was needed to show that Zinfandel (or, sometimes, "Zinfindal" or even "Zeinfindall") was widely planted as a table grape in the Eastern U.S. decades before Haraszthy set foot in Napa, turning up on exhibit in a horticultural fair in Massachusetts as early as 1834.

Then wine sleuths noticed that Primitivo, a traditional grape from Apulia in the "boot heel" of Southern Italy, looked a lot like Zinfandel and produced a somewhat similar wine. Sure enough, DNA studies at the University of California at Davis show that Zinfandel and Primitivo are identical! So, is Zinfandel Italian? Not likely. Zinfandel apparently was known in the U.S. before Primitivo grew in Italy. Did Zin make its way back to the old country, or do both grapes simply share a common ancestor? This is the latest path of inquiry, and scientists thought they might have found Zin's parent in Plavac Mali, a wine grape of Dalmatia in Croatia. Once more, though, the mystery deepens, as DNA testing indicates that Plavac Mali is a cousin, not a parent.

It's most likely that a rare vine grows someplace in the Balkans, an anonymous ancestor that gave birth to Zinfandel.

Wine tasting:
Strategy for a large tasting event

One of the most effective ways to gain a lot of wine knowledge in a hurry is to wangle an invitation to a large trade or commercial tasting where scores of wines are being served. But the scene at such a tasting can be daunting, with hundreds of participants jammed around dozens of tasting tables, reaching out their wine glasses like baby birds demanding tidbits from their Mom.

How can you get the most out of a major event like the huge October 1999 tasting sponsored by the Schneider's of Capitol Hill wine shop at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., where some three dozen importers and distributors were offering samples of more than 200 wines?

There's no practical way to taste them all, so your options are clear: Take a random walk, sampling whatever you encounter (not entirely a bad idea) ... or spend a few moments making a coherent plan before you dive in to the mob scene. Here's how I handled the Schneider's tasting:

  • Scan the list of wines to spot specific items that you really want to taste. I knew my pal Peter Finkelstein would be there, representing Philadelphia-based World Shippers and Importers Co., so I made a note to drop by Peter's table and taste what he was pouring. I also added to my "must" list the fine Spanish wines Pesquera and Condada de Haza, two favorites from the Ribera del Duero; and I highlighted the Feuillate Champagnes in hopes of finding bubblies of exceptional value.
  • Focus on broad categories. Realizing that I wouldn't be able to try all 200-plus in the tasting, I decided to stay mostly with reds - and, frankly, primarily the most expensive and sought-after items, wines that I would be unlikely to purchase on my own.
  • Don't be ashamed to spit and dump. Being serious about wine doesn't make you immune to alcohol impairment, and a few dozen tiny sips can add up quickly. That's why professional tastings always have plenty of buckets available, and no one is insulted when you use them.
  • Avoid the crowds that gather around the "cult" items. Unless you're desperate to try a specific wine, avoid the traffic jams at the tables with the most sought-after items and enjoy the relative calm around the rest.
  • Take plenty of notes. Use the sheets that the tasting organizers provide or bring your own notebook. Either way, jot down your impressions of the wines you like, a procedure that will help fix them in your memory as well as giving you a written shopping list to use later.
  • Finally, if you're not in the wine business, don't despair of your chances at getting in to tastings like this. While many are limited to people in the industry, other major tastings - like this one - are open to any interested wine lover. Get to know the folks at your local wine shop, express your interest in tastings, and chances are they'll let you know when the next one comes along.
  • I took notes on no more than two dozen of the wines at this tasting and left feeling that I had done a good job of culling the list. My tasting notes are too voluminous to include here, but if you'd like to read them, they're archived on The Wine Lovers' Page at www.wine-lovers-page.com/wines/wt100999.shtml.

Ullage, what is it?

This French term - pronounced "ull-idge" in English - refers to the air space in the neck of an unopened bottle of wine. This air bubble will be entirely within the neck of a normal bottle, but older bottles that have lost some of their contents may be described as having a "mid-shoulder fill" or even "low shoulder fill."

Unfiltered wine: What and why?

In modern times, many wines - especially mass-produced labels - are run through a fine-pored filter aimed at removing any tiny particles that may remain in suspension and give a hazy appearance to the finished wine.

Some wine makers, especially those at smaller, artisanal wineries, believe that this process may strip subtle aromas and flavors from the finished wine, along with the haze, and so they make their wines by more traditional processes. The clarity may suffer (although most well-made wines come out clear even without filtering), but these wines are certainly as good, and perhaps even better, than the industrial-type wines.

If you notice a small amount of sediment in the bottom of the bottle, don't worry - it can't do you any harm. But it's not particularly pleasant to drink, so it's a good idea to pour carefully and try to keep the sludge (if any) in the bottle.\r\n \r\n

Value of old wine

One of our most frequently asked questions come from folks who've been holding a wine for many years, or recently inherited, found or were given a very old wine.

In many cases, sadly, older wines are past their prime or were never intended for aging. For more information on this, see our Questionary article on "Old wine: Is it still any good?"

If your older wine is a legitimate collectible, however, and if it has been stored under reasonably good conditions, it may have value. Although we're not equipped to appraise collectible wines on The Wine Lovers' Page, you can find good resources online.

For the quickest and best way to determine the current retail value of collectible wines, click to Wine-Searcher.com. This worldwide reference is so complete that if you can't find your wine there, it probably means that there's no market for it.

The Chicago Wine Co., a wine-auction house, publishes the "hammer prices" of all the wines it sells at auction, and this is a good way to what other wines similar to yours have commanded in recent sales. Check its Website at www.tcwc.com and, once there, click on "hammer prices" and then on the vintage of your specific wine for a complete list of sales prices for wines from that year.

Tasting notes: Why to take them.

Anyone who's serious about the intelligent enjoyment of wine would do well to get in the habit of routinely jotting down tasting notes (TNs) and, ideally, keeping a log book, for his or her own education and enjoyment.

I think the simple process of note-taking helps you focus on the wine, remember it better, and develop your "palate memory."

And once you've done that, I also think it's great to share the results with a group like the Wine Lovers' Discussion Group.

Sharing your comments on wines benefits the online wine-loving community in general by providing vicarious enjoyment and buying advice; and also, frankly, putting your notes online in a friendly environment gets you feedback through comparing notes and getting reality checks from fellow wine lovers.

Temperature: Proper serving temperature for wines?

The customary practice is to serve red wines at room temperature and white (and pink) wines cold. Experience has shown that they usually taste best this way; red wines seem dank and flavorless at cold temperatures, while most white wines are more refreshing that way.

If it's a hot summer day, though, it's certainly acceptable to stick your bottle of red in the refrigerator for 30 to 60 minutes to cool it slightly. Conversely, very fine whites shouldn't be served ice-cold, as freezing temperatures may "stun" your taste buds and diminish your enjoyment. Take good whites out of the fridge or ice bucket at least a half hour before serving.\r\n

Terroir: What does it mean?

The French have a name for it: "Gout de Terroir" or, more or less, "the taste of the soil;" and the most ardent advocates of this theory argue that the actual flavor of the soil in which the grapes are grown literally communicates itself to the wine. Chablis, by this line of thinking, gains a steely mineral character from the chalky soil of its Burgundian vineyards; the wines of Graves in Bordeaux acquire a "stony" quality from the region's gravelly plain.

Most of us find this a bit extreme, but there's ground for a more serious argument when we expand the definition of "terroir" to incorporate the overall effect on wines of the soil and microclimate in which the grapes are grown. Do Chardonnay grapes grown in Burgundy (for instance) produce wines with a consistent, identifiable character that distinguishes them from the same grapes grown in California, or those in turn from Australian Chardonnay? Does the vineyard matter, whether the grapes in question are grown on the other side of the road or the other side of the world?

This is material from which serious wine fanciers can build extended and joyous debates, and there's little question that the wines of specific regions - especially historic wine regions like Burgundy or Bordeaux - often show recognizable qualities that makes it possible (if not necessarily easy) to pick them out in a "blind" tasting, without the taster being aware of the specific wine being tasted.

But the wine maker's skills, and the decisions made between the grapevine and the bottle, are significant too. Should Chardonnay be aged in oak barrels, which impart strong and characteristic flavors, or in stainless steel, which is neutral? Should the wine maker put the wine through "malolactic fermentation," which reduces the wine's perceived acidity and typically adds rich and buttery flavors? These processes, commonplace in the New World but relatively rare in France, make a significant difference in the nature of the finished wine, but it's not "terroir."

Tastevin: What is it?

TastevinHave you ever wondered why the sommelier in a fancy restaurant often wears what appears to be a silver ashtray around his neck?

In fact, it's a wine-tasting cup, an ancient tasting tool called a "Tastevin," which is pronounced "Taht-vahN" with a nasal French ending and means, well, "taste wine."

It's actually quite a historic item. Two hundred years or more ago, cellarmasters in Burgundy in France (where a very high-level wine society is called the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin) developed this cup to sample wine down in the cellar where it was dark, lit only by candles. The angular nooks and crannies in the shiny silver cup are designed to catch and reflect the light to make it easier to check the color and clarity of the wine.

In these days of electric light, it's no longer necessary to do this, and the tastevin has very little practical purpose any more. But it remains in use as a traditional "badge" for the sommelier, and a number of wine-accessory shops actually sell them for wine lovers who want a little piece of history for their own collection.

I doubt that anybody uses them to drink out of any more, although I did visit a winery in Georgia a few years ago that used an aluminum version for guests in the tasting room. I didn't like it at all ... too small and shallow, and the metallic cup made the wine seem to taste funny.

If you've just got to have one, though, I found three online shops that sell them to wine lovers. Artisans on the Web wine accessories, http://aoweb.com/frameset.html, has three, ranging from $17.99 for a plain silver cup to $20.99 for a tastevin with ribbon set and $22.50 for a tastevin with chain set (pictured). Wine Enthusiast, http://www.wineenthusiast.com, offers a cup and chain for $24.95. And in the UK, Waiter's Friend, http://www.waitersfriend.co.uk/gift.htm offers a tastevin for £9.50.

Tannins: What are they?

Take a sip of strong black tea, and notice that puckery sensation as it coats your mouth with an astringent fuzziness.

Now take a taste of a young Cabernet Sauvignon, and chances are you'll feel a similar sensation.

What you're tasting is tannin (tannic acid), a natural chemical that's sometimes found in tree bark, wood, and the skins, seeds and stems of some fruits - in particular some red wine grapes.

Tannins are used to "tan" animal hides to turn them into leather, and that's actually the process you feel when the tannins in tea or wine start to work on the proteins inside your mouth. Think about that the next time you enjoy a youthful Cabernet!

Tannins in wine come primarily from the grape, although aging wine in oak barrels can also impart a dose of the puckery stuff.

A healthy dose of tannins in a young wine can make it less than a pleasure to drink, and for this reason, certain wines - in particular red Bordeaux and other young Cabernet Sauvignons, the Nebbiolo-based reds of Northwestern Italy, and such less-widely known wines as the Tannat of Madiran - are customarily held in the wine cellar until they mature. During the maturation process, the tannins polymerize (combine into longer-chain molecules), and as a result of this process, the wine develops a bit of sediment in the bottle as its flavor evolves from harsh and astringent to mellow and complex. Tannins also act as antioxidants, naturally preserving the wine during its maturing years.

Not all tannic wines evolve into stylish maturity, however. If a wine is merely tannic without fruit in its youth, it isn't likely to become a thing of beauty with age. Balance is the key.

Finally, if you must "rob the cradle," as wine enthusiasts say of drinking an ageworthy wine before its time, this is the one case in which "breathing" - or better yet, decanting your wine with lots of splashing to mix it with air as you pour - may help soften its rough edges a bit. And serving a youthfully tannic wine with rare red meat will also go a long way to ameliorate that rough tannic astringency.

Sulfites: What's the warning label about?

All wines contain sulfites, which are both a naturally occurring by-product of fermentation and a natural preservative that wine makers have used for thousands of years. A few wines are billed as "low sulfite" or "no sulfites added," but this is a bit of a scam meant to take advantage of consumer hysteria, and these wines generally either (1) spoil very quickly in the bottle or (2) use some kind of synthetic preservative in place of sulfites.

Unless you have been diagnosed by a physician as a severe asthmatic with a sulfite sensitivity - a condition that affects fewer than 1 in a million people - there is absolutely no reason for you to be concerned about sulfites. If you're simply worried about the warning label on U.S. wines, I'd frankly encourage you to relax and not worry about it. If you actually are one of the unhappy minority who is allergic to sulfites - and have received this formal diagnosis from your physician - then you really need to stick to your doctor's advice, which will be to avoid all wines, as well as all beers, most sausages, greens from salad bars, many cheeses, and a wide variety of other foods that are routinely treated with sulfites.

If you'd like to read more on this topic, it's covered in the March 29 edition of our 30 Second Wine Advisor.

Sweet wines for those who don't like "dry"?

It's surprising how many people ask me to recommend an inexpensive everyday wine that's sweet.

This is not as simple as it seems. You see, most fine table wines are "dry" (unsweet), because wine is intended as a beverage to be drunk with food, and in that setting, dry wines seem to work best. Dry wine is an "acquired taste," though, one that it takes some experience to get used to. Sort of like coffee, which most people think tastes horrible when they first drink it but later come to enjoy.

If you're sipping wine by itself, like a cocktail, it's not surprising that it may seem a little tart, sour or even bitter. So one approach is to continue trying to develop your taste for traditional dry wines, but do this by serving your wine with appropriate food - beef or lamb with dry red wines, seafood and fish with whites.

It might also be that wine is just not your drink, and there's no shame in that.

And there are some sweet wines, ranging from very expensive (dessert wines like Port and Sauternes, for example) to quite modest. You'll also find "pop wines" like the Italian Lambrusco, which is slightly fizzy and quite sweet, or White Zinfandel, a sweetish pink wine that finds more favor among casual sippers than serious wine fanciers.

One more good alternative for people who really can't warm up to dry wines is the amazing world of German wines. The great white wines from the Rhine and Mosel valleys, most often made from the Riesling grape, are almost always at least slightly sweet, but it's a gentle flavor, more like the snappy sweetness of fresh fruit than the syrupy sugar of a candy bar. If you're giving up on wine because you need a little sugar in your life, give German wines a try.

Servings: How many in a bottle?

If you're serving wine with dinner, you can get five generous (5-ounce) pours out of a "fifth" (750 ml) bottle. For a wine tasting, where people are taking smaller sips of several wines, count on at least a dozen 2-ounce tastes, or, if you're really stretching to share a taste of a prized wine with a large group of friends, perhaps 20 tiny tastes of a little over 1 ounce.\r\n


Serving temperature for wine?

White wines should be served chilled and red wines at room temperature. This is one of the most basic of the many "rules" about wine, and like most of the rules, it usually makes good sense. Most red wines seem dank and flavorless if they're served ice cold, opening up at warmer temperatures to display their aromas and flavors. Whites, in contrast, seem crisp and refreshing when they're served with a chill; many of them seem bland and almost cloying if they get too warm.

But what's "room temperature"? In the U.S., it's not unusual for it to reach 80F (27C) even when the air-conditioner is running; but I remember a trip to Scotland one fine autumn when my host's rooms have hovered around a brisk 18C (65F).

I submit that there's no harm in placing your red wine in the refrigerator for a short stay before dinner. Don't leave it too long -- 20 to 40 minutes on the refrigerator shelf is about right for most reds, up to possibly an hour for light and fruity styles like Beaujolais. An hour in a typical home refrigerator should bring your wine down to the natural temperature of an underground cellar (54F or 12C), which isn't really too cold for most reds; but don't worry if you miss the mark. It doesn't take long for it to come back up again, and the wine won't be damaged. \r\n

Rotating bottles in your cellar: Don't do it!

If you're sleeping soundly, cocooned in cozy blankets on a cold winter's night, would you enjoy it if someone came into your room and unceremoniously flipped you over?

I don't think so ... and believe me, your wine doesn't like it either.

A reader's question inspired me to address this enduring myth: I frequently hear from folks who've heard that wine bottles aging in the cellar should be rotated periodically, a procedure that is thought in some mysterious way to improve its development.

In fact, this is simply not so! Wine is best left undisturbed as it ages. Rotating the bottles would serve no purpose except the negative one of stirring up the sediment that gradually forms along its lowest side.

So if you're aging wine, please don't turn your bottles. There's no need for it in the short term, and if you're saving bottles for the longer term, it can be bad for the wine.

Sangria, how to make it

Any self-respecting wine snob would sooner quaff Night Train Express than mix fruit juice or sparkling water into his wine. But I don't see any wine snobs around here, and there certainly are none in Spain, where folks take their wine anything but seriously and have absolutely no qualms about turning their vino into the immensely quaffable sangría.

Sangría makes a tasty quencher for a lazy, hazy summer afternoon, but there's no need to limit it to sweat season. There's still plenty of sangría-sipping weather left before mulled-wine time. And it's easy to prepare.

In a punch bowl or similar vessel, pour one standard (750 ml) bottle of dry red wine and an equal amount (more or less, to taste) of club soda, seltzer or sparkling water. Add a generous amount of thin-sliced citrus fruit -- limes, lemons, oranges or a combination. You're adding peel as well, so be sure to rinse it well. If you want to give it a little zing, add a shot of brandy or an orange-flavored liqueur like Grand Marnier. Some folks like a little sugar for sweetening. If you're in the mood, you can even make it with white wine and substitute kiwis (peeled), strawberries and table grapes for the citrus. Sangría is a forgiving punch -- it doesn't care if you change the rules in the middle of the bowl.

The wine you use to make sangría should be palatable, of course, but it's silly to waste expensive wine on this kind of drink. \r\n

Punt: What's that dent in the bottom of the bottle?

Pick up a wine bottle sometime and take a close look at the bottom. Chances are that you'll find a deep, conical indentation rather than a flat surface. This dent is called a "punt" in English (just like the kick on fourth down in American football).

An obscure word, unknown even to many wine enthusiasts, its origins are lost in history. But wine fanciers have plenty of theories:

  1. In the early days of modern bottle making, glass blowers learned that a deep indentation made the bottle sturdier.
  2. Or, a somewhat similar explanation, the mechanism that glass blowers used to hold the bottle while it was being made left this indentation when the job was done.
  3. Bottles were made this way intentionally so the sharp crease around the conical shape would form a crevice where the wine's sediment could collect and solidify.
  4. Finally, if you're a cynic, you may suspect that the indentation serves the same purpose as the cardboard packaging inside a candy bar wrapper: It makes the bottle look like it has more wine in it than it really does! \r\n

Restaurant ritual:
how do you deal with the wine waiter?

Does the wine-pouring ritual at a fancy restaurant make you nervous? A lot of people find it daunting, or at least touched with the sense of awkwardness one feels when attending an unfamiliar religious observance and not knowing exactly when to stand, sit or kneel.

Relax! It's really all based on common-sense traditions, and the simple fact is that the diner is under absolutely no obligation to do anything in particular but sit and wait for the wine to be poured.

Let's go through it step-by-step: After you've chosen your wine (and it's certainly appropriate to ask the wine waiter or sommelier for advice -- that's why he's there), the server will bring out the bottle and show you the label. This is simply to ensure that you're getting the exact wine you ordered. Should it be a different wine, different vintage, or in any way not what you ordered, simply say so, and it should be replaced with the correct bottle. (Or, at a minimum, the waiter will explain why he brought a substitute - but he should really have asked you first.)

Then the waiter will pull the cork. The bottle should never be brought to the table already opened. In older days, by all accounts, culinary chicanery was commonplace, and the tradition of opening the bottle in your sight was established as a way to prove that no one substituted "lesser" wine for the contents of your bottle when it was out of your sight.

Once he's removed the cork, he'll offer it to you for inspection. This worries a lot of people, who fear that they're expected to perform in some way. All you really have to do is put it down, out of the way. If you want to pick it up, sniff it, look at it knowingly, put it in your pocket as a souvenir, feel free. In theory, you might be able to get a hint of the wine's condition if the cork is soft, crumbly, wet or smells funny, but you'll learn nothing here that won't become evident in the glass. Also, in older times, you could double-check the maker's name on the cork to ensure that the wine bottle wasn't re-filled with other wine and the original cork replaced with a substitute.

The waiter then pours a small taste into your glass. Swirl it, sniff it, nod and smile -- if you like it -- and he'll then pour around the table, returning to fill your glass last.

In the unlikely event that you feel something is wrong with the wine -- particularly if it has that dank, musty, "wet cardboard" or "damp basement" aroma that indicates it was afflicted by a bad cork -- you have the right to send the wine back and request a replacement. In practice, however, this is rarely a problem in modern times.

That's all there is to it! It takes longer to explain than it takes to endure at the table. Most important, bear in mind that the purpose of the "ritual" isn't to embarrass you or show you up as a non-expert; it's really all just tradition, based on giving you, the diner, every opportunity to make sure that you get the wine ordered and that it's good.

Production: Which countries make the most wine?

Source: Office International de la Vigne et du Vin (OIV)
reported in The Oxford Companion to Wine

United States16,538 17,71017,121I5,620
South Africa6,2978,6498,5729,998
ex Yugoslavia6,6946,1255,8874,5621
China 1,5017,7343,100
Slovenia   8851
New Zealand363500464416
England & Wales  726
Other countries15325323593
World total326,036333,568292,777300,517
1Slovenia became independent from Yugoslavia in 1991
2This figure excludes wine destined for brandy production.

Online wine buying: Why and why not?

I recommend buying wine locally rather than on the Web or by mail order if at all possible. In my opinion, buying online or by phone makes sense only if you're looking for expensive rarities that you simply can't get any other way. There are several reasons for this, but it mostly comes down to three:

  1. Even if you find an excellent discounter online, the costs of shipping and handling and insurance add substantially to costs.

  2. There's some hazard in shipping, not only because of the possibility of loss or breakage but because wine may be overheated or frozen during shipment, and this kind of damage may be difficult to prove or to collect damages on.

  3. Depending on where you live, receiving wine from out-of-state sources may be an impossibility. Under pressure from the wine and liquor distribution lobbies, many states are criminalizing Internet alcohol sales, and most merchants will only ship to the relatively small number (13 at last count) of states that specifically permit it.

All that being said, I think the best online merchants are those that have already established a reputation for service and price as traditional wine shops. Two such merchants (both of which, I should disclose, are advertisers on The Wine Lovers' Page) are K&L Wines in the San Francisco Bay area (www.klwines.com) and Garnet Wines in New York City (www.garnetwine.com).

Old wine: Is it still any good?

Although some of the finest and most expensive wines are designed to benefit from careful aging at controlled temperatures, 95 to 99 percent of all the wine produced in the world is intended to be drunk up promptly, while it is young and fresh.

Most often, when people find a dusty old bottle of wine in a cabinet, closet or basement, the best that can be said for it is that it's old. Wine that's past its time rarely turns to vinegar, as in older times, but it turns brownish, flat and dull, oxidized to the point where it resembles bad cheap Sherry.

How can you tell whether your old wine is still good? The ultimate test is simple: Pull the cork and take a taste.

As a general guide, the wines that usually reward aging are the robust reds - the better Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhones from France, their counterparts (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Syrah) from the New World; sturdy Italian reds; and the rich, strong dessert wines like Port, Sauternes and the fine late-harvest Rieslings from Germany.

Storage is also a consideration. The ideal "cellaring" temperature for fine wines is 55F, about 13C. If your wine has been kept at much warmer temperatures or subject to extremes of temperature and sudden variations, it is much less likely to have survived many years than a wine kept under constant cool conditions. If your wine bottle appears significantly less than normally full, that's a bad sign. So is evidence of substantial leakage around the cork or excessive sediment in the bottle.

If you're feeling adventurous, old wine can't hurt you. It doesn't turn toxic or unhealthy with age. But if you're planning to try your old wine for a special occasion, it's wise to have a "backup" bottle around to pinch-hit if needed.

For more information on this subject, see these Questionary features:


Non-alcoholic wines?

We're often asked about non-alcoholic wines for those who wish to avoid alcohol.

I'm sorry to say that the word on this is not promising. There are only a few brands of de-alcoholized wine, and after repeated tastings, I don't consider any of them satisfactory.

The two U.S. brands I have tried are Fré and Ariel. These brands are widely available in wine stores, but I've found the whites to be bland and the reds actively unpleasant. It's my opinion that three issues are at work here: First, the de-alcoholizing process is intrusive and seems to damage the wine, even though the makers claim otherwise. Second, alcohol is a key component of the customary flavor (and texture) profile of wine, and wines without it seem to be missing something; they seem lightweight and thin. Finally, to be blunt, these are inexpensive wines made from marginal grapes.

My best advice to people who want to take a break from wine is to skip these near-wine beverages and go directly to more interesting and flavorful non-alcoholic alternatives: Quality fruit juices, sparkling water, good coffee or tea.

Maybe it's my border-South roots, but I find a fresh, well-made iced tea, strong and unsweetened with a squirt of lemon or lime, to come about as close to what I'm looking for in wine as any non-alcoholic beverage can: It's fruity and floral, with natural tannins and crisp acidity, and that sounds almost like a wine-tasting note.\r\n

Old wine: How much is it worth?

One of our most frequently asked questions come from folks who've been holding a wine for many years, or recently inherited, found or were given a very old wine.

In many cases, sadly, older wines are past their prime or were never intended for aging. For more information on this, see our Questionary article on "Old wine: Is it still any good?"

If your older wine is a legitimate collectible, however, and if it has been stored under reasonably good conditions, it may have value.

Although we're not equipped to appraise collectible wines on The Wine Lovers' Page, you can find good resources online.

For the quickest and best way to determine the current retail value of collectible wines, click to Wine-Searcher.com. This worldwide reference is so complete that if you can't find your wine there, it probably means that there's no market for it.

The Chicago Wine Co., a wine-auction house, publishes the "hammer prices" of all the wines it sells at auction, and this is a good way to what other wines similar to yours have commanded in recent sales. Check its Website at www.tcwc.com and, once there, click on "hammer prices" and then on the vintage of your specific wine for a complete list of sales prices for wines from that year.

Mulled wine, how to make it

There are a variety of recipes for mulled wine, but basically what they all have in common is citrus peel and aromatic spices like cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and allspice, heated (but not boiled) in red wine, with a little bit of sugar. It's best to use whole spices rather than powder so you can strain them out. If you don't have things like cinnamon stick, whole nutmeg, whole cloves and whole allspice in your pantry, you may end up spending a few bucks for the set, but one can or jar of each of the above will provide enough spices to make mulled wine for years.

Here's a simple recipe, derived from one by Craig Claiborne in The New York Times Cookbook:

Mix one "fifth" of dry red wine in a saucepan with the peel (yellow part only) of one lemon and one orange, 1 tablespoon sugar, and any combination of 2 or 3 inches of cinnamon stick, 1 whole nutmeg (crushed), 6 whole cloves and/or 6 allspice berries.

Heat to the simmer, but don't let it boil, and hold just below the boil for 5 to 10 minutes. Strain out the spices and serve the wine hot.

While I wouldn't use a wine so cheap that you wouldn't drink it, it doesn't really make sense to use an expensive wine in this procedure. A decent red "jug" wine or inexpensive varietal like a Merlot or Zinfandel in the $5 range would be my choice.

Making wine at home: How-to-do-it links

I don't profess to have much expertise in MAKING wine ... I generally let the professionals finish with it before I take it on. But here are links to three of my favorite wine-making Websites. The good folks here can help the budding home wine maker get started, and offer good advice and tips to experienced wine makers as well.

Matching food and wine: Here's how

Worried about finding the right wine to go with a special dinner? Don't fret! Humans have been making wine for more than 5,000 years, and since Bronze Age days, it has been made for the primary purpose of washing down food. Most wines go very nicely with most foods. Drink what you like, eat what you like, and you won't go far astray. The basic rule is simple: The only taste buds you have to please are your own.

Generalizations are always suspect, especially in the world of wine. Still, the old saying "red wine with red meat, white wine with white meat," works as a simple guide. A powerful, tannic red wine would overwhelm delicate white fish, while a light, ethereal white like a fresh Viognier would seem mighty wimpy alongside rare roast beef.

Here's another hint: Look for a wine with characteristics that evoke the flavors of your entree. A slightly sweet, rich seafood like lobster or crab makes a wonderful marriage with a slightly sweet, rich white wine like a big Chardonnay. Add a sprig of rosemary to your pan-grilled steak and watch it wake up with the herbal qualities of Cabernet Sauvignon.

For more details on the principles of matching food and wine, along with dozens of specific examples, see our copyrighted Food and Wine Matching Engine. For further reading, see our articles Red \r\nWine and Beans? (matching wine and vegetarian fare) and Chinese Food and Wine.

Mad cow disease: Is it a danger in wine?

"I just read an article about Mad Cow Disease and French wine," writes reader Chuck R. "It makes me nervous there is a tiny chance I could go mad from my 1991 Chateau Mouton Rothschild. Please comment on how safe French wines are."

With my apologies for taking on a rather unappetizing wine-related topic, this is a fair question that deserves a straight answer. The short answer is, "Don't worry: The French wine you'll find on retail shelves around the world is safe."

If you'd like a little more information about the possible connection between French wine and mad cows, stick with me for another 30 seconds or so.

The underlying issue involves a wine-making trick called "fining," in which a protein is mixed into wine in vats or barrels to attract colloidal materials that could make the wine cloudy or hazy. These proteins fall to the bottom of the vats and the wine is siphoned away from them; in theory, at least, none of the fining material remains in the clarified wine. Traditional fining agents include a variety of odd substances, including isinglass (made from fish bladders), egg whites and, in some parts of the Rhone Valley in France, dried oxblood or blood albumen.

These old-fashioned practices are somewhat dying out in any case; most modern wineries, including virtually all larger wineries, now pass wine through bentonite (clay) filters rather than using organic finings.

Because of legitimate concerns about the epedimic of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), popularly called "mad cow disease," which became epidemic among cattle in Britain during the 1990s and which has been associated with the human brain disorder Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the European Economic Community banned the use of oxblood for wine fining in 1997.

That's why a publicity storm arose in 1999 when French authorities "raided" 14 small wineries in the Rhone region near Avignon, seized several hundred pounds of dried oxblood and albumen, and confiscated 100,000 bottles of suspect wine.

The uproar prompted the Chinese government briefly to ban French-wine imports (the ban has since been lifted). Three United States senators also proposed a warning label be required on French wines, a proposal that apparently received no serious attention and promptly died.

In fact, experts offer the following reassurances:

  • The only French wines implicated in the mini-scandal were made by tiny wineries whose products (labeled "VDQS" under the French wine regulations) are sold as generic table wine and rarely exported. None of the "better" wines labeled "appellation controllee" or "vin de pays" are believed to be affected.
  • Even among the "suspect" wineries, no charges have been made that oxblood was actually used to make wine since the 1997 ban. What's more, only sporadic outbreaks of BSE - a reported 60 incidents in all French cattle since 1984 - have made it across the English Channel to the Continent. Quick action has apparently confined the epidemic to the United Kingdom.
  • Finally, as noted above, "finings" don't remain in the finished wine, save perhaps in molecular quantities far below the level of tolerable risk.
  • \r\nUltimately, every consumer must make his own choice about what's safe. But I can't see any imaginable risk.

Longevity of wine?

How to choose a wine that will last for 20 or 25 years, as a long-range plan to celebrate the 21st birthday of a newborn child or the silver anniversary of a newlywed couple? This is one of the wine questions I hear most often; but unfortunately, it doesn't have an easy answer.

The vast majority of the world's wines are meant for immediate consumption, not for aging; and most of the rare beauties that will hold out for 25 years require specialized storage at a constant 55F (13C) -- too cold for air conditioning but too warm for a refrigerator -- in order to show their best after all that time.

Luckily, however, one relatively affordable wine is almost indestructible: Madeira. This strong wine, fortified with brandy, was developed to survive, and even improve, during long ocean voyages from its island source off North Africa to thirsty markets in East India and the New World. Strong and warming, Madeira ranges from dry to very sweet, with burnt-sugar, earthy and caramel flavors, always with a firm, even steely acidity; and it will almost literally last forever, even under very poor storage conditions. What's more, Madeira remains surprisingly affordable for an ageworthy wine, generally ranging from $20 to $35 for a recently produced bottle sold in the U.S.

So if you're looking for a wine to hold for a celebration in the distant future and you don't own a wine "cellar," you can hardly do better than a Madeira for a wine that's likely to last.

For more information on this subject, see these Questionary features:

How can I tell if a wine is dry or sweet?

Readers often ask if there's a simple way to tell sweet, light, dry or fruity wines by looking at the label. In fact, save for dessert wines, most table wines are "dry" (unsweet). But some dry wines are more fruity than others, and this fruitiness may communicate itself as slight sweetness.

There are many exceptions, so be aware that this list is only a general guide. But it offers a broad summary of popular wine grapes and types that might help give you a general idea of what's in the bottle:

SWEET: Dessert wines. Port, Sauternes, Cream Sherry. These are strong and very sweet, intended to sip after dinner, not to drink with meals.

LIGHTLY SWEET: German whites, Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Gewurztraminer. "White" Zinfandel.

DRY, FRUITY REDS: Merlot, Zinfandel, Beaujolais


DRY, TART REDS: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Syrah, many Italian reds.

DRY, TART WHITES: Sauvignon Blanc (Fumé Blanc), many Italian whites.\r\n

How long will wine keep in an open bottle?

How long will wine keep once the bottle has been opened? This may be the one wine question I hear most often; and the short answer, I'm afraid, is, "not very long." Wine, like fresh fruit, is perishable, and air is its enemy. Once you've taken out the cork and exposed the liquid to oxygen, it starts to deteriorate fast.

Wine shops sell a variety of preservation systems that suck the air out of opened bottles or squire inert gases in, but in my opinion, it's just about as effective simply to jam the cork back into the half-finished bottle. It will hold at room temperature for a day or two before its flavor starts to deteriorate seriously. Pop it in the fridge, and it might last for a week or more. Fortified wines like Port or Sherry may last a little longer, but much more than a week is pushing it.

Your best bet is simply to finish your wine within a couple of days ... use the leftovers for cooking ... or invite friends over to share.

One reassurance: Even if your wine gets too old to enjoy, it can't hurt you. It may lose its flavor and become flat, dull and unenjoyable, but it won't turn toxic.

How long will wine keep on the wine rack?

How long will wine keep on your wine rack? There's no clear-cut answer, because so much depends on the specific kind of wine in question and on the storage conditions under which you are able to keep it.

In fact, very few wines are meant for aging. About 99 percent of the world's wines -- particularly those from the budget shelf -- should be drunk up promptly, while they are young and fresh. Most wines don't mature gracefully with age but simply lose their fresh fruit and become dull and tired. They are best enjoyed within a year of purchase.

The few wines that do merit "cellaring" are the sturdy reds, ranging from French Bordeaux and Rhones to the high-end Cabernet Sauvignons from California and Australia and some of the best Italian and Spanish reds. These are the wines most likely to mellow into a memorable, balanced complexity, given careful aging under good cellar conditions.

Fine wine should be kept in a cool, quiet place, lying on its side so the cork stays wet. A constant temperature of 55F (13C) is strongly preferred, but hard to attain in a modern home unless you have a natural wine cellar or expensive wine-refrigeration unit. Lacking this, if you can't keep your wine below 70F (21C), I don't recommend trying to cellar your wines for longer than five years or so. (Keeping wine in the refrigerator is not recommended for the long term, because it's too cold, and the frequent vibration of the compressor motor may be bad for the wine.)

For more information on this subject, see these Questionary features:


Investing in wine: Is it a good idea?

I'm sure you've read the stories about investors who've filled their cellars with California Cabernet and the Rothschilds' Bordeaux in hopes of making a killing. Maybe you've even thought about taking a flyer in this market, figuring you can always drink your losses!

But the wine-loving bulls of Wall Street to the contrary, wine as a financial investment is a very risky thing. Fine wine is far less predictable than more traditional investment commodities. What's more, the would-be wine investor also must consider long-term storage. Temperature-controlled cellaring facilities are critical -- either a naturally cooled or electric cellar unit capable of storing all of your wine at a constant 55F (13C). Even then, a power failure can wipe out your inventory; while a negative review from a major wine critic can impose a paper loss from which you'll never recover.

My advice? Anyone who views wine as a mere investment would be better advised to get into more traditional markets that hold a more substantial hope for success. But if you're investing in wine simply for your own pleasure, looking for your profits in tasting enjoyment, then you can hardly lose.

For more good advice on investing in wine, see Natalie MacLean's comprehensive report, Bottled Blue Chips, and Bryan Loofbourrow's thoughtful commentary, \r\nCan wine be an investment?

Labels: How to remove and save them

If you like to save the labels from special bottles of wine you've enjoyed as souvenirs, you've likely been frustrated by the wine industry's widespread move to modern labeling machines that affix labels with super-sticky glue.

Sometimes it seems that dynamite won't remove these things, but if you're keen on trying, here are a few tricks I've tried or heard of:

  • Use very hot water and give the bottles a long soak. If hot water alone won't do the job, try adding a cup of ammonia.
  • As soon as you remove the bottle from the hot water, attack the label with a hair dryer, which may help soften the glue.
  • Try gently coaxing the edges of the label with a single-edge razor.
  • Some wine-accessory shops offer a gimmick involving sticky-backed clear\r\nplastic that you place over the wine label, press down and peel. One source of this item is Wine Enthusiast, www.wineenthusiast.com.


Labels: How to understand them.

For the new wine lover, few things about fine wine are more daunting than the wine-bottle label. All that small print! All those foreign words and terms! But bear in mind that information brings knowledge, and lots of print conveys lots of information. Learn to decode the label, and you've armed yourself with the tools you need to be a savvy consumer.

The Wine Lovers' Page comes to your rescue, though, with our new Wine Label Decoder. Click this link to go straight to a straightforward, detailed tutorial keyed to pictures of labels from five different countries.\r\n

Lead poisoning - is it a concern with wine?

There have been brief bouts of publicity in recent years over issues involving the presence of lead in wine (and other alcoholic beverages).\r\n\r\nOne concern has to do with expensive decanters made out of crystal, which does contain a tiny amount of lead (apparently because it makes the glass extremely clear and bright). Some research suggests indicates that if you use lead crystal to store strongly alcoholic beverages (liquor) for a long period (months), they may leach a perceptible amount of lead into the beverage. Even in this case, the amounts involved are marginal, but since lead can cause brain damage, it's worth erring on the side of caution. So, if you use a crystal decanter, it's advisable to use it only for the evening, then put any leftover wine or liquor back into its original bottle for storage.

A second publicity flap came about around a decade or so, involving the possibility that the lead foil formerly used in wine-bottle "capsules" (the colorful foil or plastic sheath over the end with the cork in it) might contaminate the wine with lead. A widely publicized study showing startling amounts of lead in wine was flawed because the test protocol specifically forebade wiping the bottle neck clean before pouring. In any case, this concern resulted in the entire industry abandoning lead capsules almost overnight, replacing them with aluminum or plastic or, in some cases, no capsule at all. If you have an old wine bottle (vintages in the 1980s or earlier) and it has a foil capsule, it's not a bad idea to wipe the bottle neck carefully before pouring.

One other related issue goes back to ancient times: According to an old story, possibly a legend, well-to-do people in the times of the ancient Romans became sick and sometimes died because the luxury dinnerware and goblets of the time were made of lead. And you'll also occasionally hear of dinner plates from Mexico and other places being banned for import into the U.S. because of lead content. Again, though, this won't normally be an issue with your wine.\r\n

Learning to taste wine:
Finding a local course

Unfortunately, it's not possible for us to keep track of (or evaluate) specific wine-tasting courses in all parts of the world and nation. But, especially if you live in or near a large city, it should be fairly easy to find a good course in your own community.

I suggest checking with two sources: The management of fine-wine shops is generally in touch with the wine-education scene and can often recommend good courses, and may even have course information posted on bulletin boards.

\r\nAlso, local adult-education courses - most often run by community colleges or public-school boards - often feature wine tasting courses open to the public.

Finally, announcements of upcoming courses may be listed in calendars of events in metro or alternative newspapers and magazines.

Learning to taste wine:
Online resources

Our recommended starting point for new wine lovers is the Quick Wine Tasting Course, a series of articles that I wrote for The Louisville Courier-Journal. We believe it offers a good starting point for newcomers to wine appreciation as a wine-tasting tutorial that you can save to your computer's hard disk, print out or read online.

You may also enjoy our Wine Lovers' Lexicon, an online dictionary featuring more than 500 common wine and grape names and wine-tasting terms, with simple, plain-English definitions of each; and, for the non-English words and phrases, a simple American-English pronunciation guide complete with MP3 sound files so you can hear them pronounced.

Our Wine Tasting Toolbox offers tips on organizing a group wine-tasting party, including a variety of tasting forms that you can print out and use.

And for more wine lovers' views on beginning wine, we refer you to two excellent articles by John Juergens, wine writer with the Oxford Town News in Mississippi, Wine Basics 101 and Wine Basics 102; and an enjoyable discussion of "winespeak" by the Honolulu Advertiser's wine columnist, Randy Caparoso, "Winespeak" decoded.\r\n

Grapes: How to grow them for wine making

For the best online resources we know of for viticulture from the hobby to the professional level, we recommend Michel White's excellent Grapesrus E-mail list. This link will take you to the registration page, where you can join a friendly, international group of grape growers.\r\n

Headaches from wine: Why?

Headaches resulting from wine are almost certainly not the result of sulfites, which occur naturally in all wines and are added to wines as a natural preservative by wine makers around the world. You can't buy a wine without sulfites; and if you were one of the 1 in 1 million people who has an allergy to sulfites, you wouldn't suffer headaches but serious, life-threatening breathing difficulties if you consumed any product containing them.

If you suffer headaches after drinking wine, here are some thoughts to consider:

Have you noticed any relationship between headaches and the amount of wine you consume? Even if you're only having a glass or two, sometimes a second or third glass will leave you with a headache aftereffect even if you didn't drink enough for impairment. Many people tell me that they get wine headaches at home but not when traveling. If you're like me, the sense of excitement and fun while traveling is sufficient to give you an extra shot of adrenaline that might carry you through that third glass without feeling the effects as much as you might at home.

Do your wine-consuming habits vary? For example, if you normally get headaches after drinking wine as a cocktail, without food, try having your wine with dinner instead; consuming wine and food together will certainly make a difference in its effects on you.

Finally, do you have seasonal pollen allergies? If so, you may be sensitive to "histamines," which also occur naturally in wines. Histamines are more concentrated in red wines than whites, so you might try switching to whites to see if this brings relief.

Friends who are highly sensitive to histamines tell me that common over-the-counter antihistimane allergy products work well to alleviate their symptoms. I would recommend carefully reading the cautions, particularly as they may relate to mixing the medication with alcohol (!), and if you're the cautious type, you might even want to seek your doctor's advice -- assuming your doctor approves of wine.

In fact, any time you have questions about your health and the effect of food and drink on your body, a chat with your family doctor is always a good idea.

Finding a specific wine

Reading about a wine that looks interesting but being unable to find it can pose a truly frustrating challenge to a wine lover. This is probably why one or our most frequently asked questions is, "Where can I find (fill in the blank) wine?"

With wine distribution as spotty and unpredictable as it is, varying among all 50 states of the U.S. and all the nations of the world, it's simply impossible for us to maintain a database of store inventories everywhere.

But here's my best advice on tracking down that elusive bottle: Always try near your home first.

The management of a fine-wine shop in your community can be your best friend in your quest to find a favorite wine. I'm not talking about neighborhood liquor shops but the specialty stores that cater to, and are usually staffed by, people who enjoy wine and like to talk about it. You probably know such a store in your region already, but feel free to check out our Internet Wine Shops Directory to see if we list one near you.

Once you've found your store, don't be shy about calling or visiting and asking the staff to help you locate your wine.

If all else fails, ordering online is an option if you live in a state or country that doesn't forbid (or even criminalize) mail-order shipment of wine. Two good, reliable shops (and Wine Lovers' Page advertising partners) are K&L Wines in San Francisco and Garnet Wines in New York City.

Decanting: How and why?

Most wines don't require decanting, but it is usually done for one or more of these reasons:

  1. To separate clear wine from sediment, in the case of the rare wine (Vintage Port, older Bordeaux) that has "thrown" a large amount of sediment in the bottle.

  2. To mix oxygen in to an ageworthy wine that is being opened while immature, in the hope that this process will somewhat soften its harsh, tannic astringency.

  3. Simply for aesthetics, in the believe that an attractive crystal decanter looks prettier on the table than a bottle of wine. Most wine hobbyists wouldn't do this, since they're more interested in the label than the decanter.

So unless your wine is full of sediment or immature, or if you're planning a very elegant party and feel that a decanter would be an attractive way to decant the wine, there's really no need to do this.

When you do decant a wine, the procedure is fairly simple, but the method differs depending on your purpose.

If you're decanting to avoid sediment, then you must pour very gently from the bottle to the decanter, taking care not to shake the bottle or pick it up and put it down repeatedly, so the sediment will stay at the bottom of the bottle and not mix into the wine. It's best to do this in front of a strong light so you can see when the muddy sediment starts to approach the bottle neck so you can stop pouring. (If you have a very fine wine and don't want to waste a drop, you can pour the last bit into a separate glass through a paper coffee filter.) The sediment, by the way, is harmless, but it's muddy and gritty and not pleasant to get into your glass.

If you're decanting to "breathe" an immature wine, then you should pour vigorously, with the idea of splashing as much air as possible into the wine.\r\n

Crystals in wine: What are they?

The crystals at the bottom of a bottle of wine are usually a sign that the wine is of good quality. They are more common on red wine where they are stained by the wine and are regarded as part of the sediment. In white wine they remain clear, and some people fear they may be glass.

Not so. They are tartrate crystals formed as part of the aging process. Some wines are more susceptible than others due to the climate where they are made and the grape varieties used. German wines are often affected.

Because many consumers are upset by seeing these crystals in white wine and take them back to the retailer, most mass wine producers process the wine to precipitate and filter out the crystals. This process does, of course, result in a less complex and less interesting wine.

Thus I expect the wine you are referring to is a good quality wine, maybe from a boutique winery, that is developing in the bottle.

As long as the wine is stored properly then it should give you delight when you get around to drink it. However I suggest you do not keep the wine for too long.

Please reassure your friend that the crystals are totally harmless. Don't shake the bottle and pour the wine gently and they will all stay in the bottle.

Thanks to Peter May, host of The Pinotage Club on the Web, for providing this question and answer.

Corkscrews: How to get out the cork

Before you can enjoy your wine, you must get the bottle open, and with fine wine, this can be a challenge. For the past 350 years or so, quality wine has been stoppered with a piece of cork, making it one of the few beverages that requires a special tool to open.

Corkscrews come in a variety of forms, from the traditional to the high-tech, but I recommend every wine lover get to know the standard "waiter's model" corkscrew, the inexpensive but functional implement that looks like a pocket knife, with a handle, a fold-out screw, and a lever that swings out from the end to help pry out the cork.

Carefully peel the foil or plastic "capsule" from the bottle neck, wiping away if necessary any sludge that may have accumulated around the end of the cork. Center the point of the corkscrew on the end of the cork and gently screw it in. Place the end of the swing-out lever against the edge of the glass bottle lip, and pry upwards, using no more force than necessary to bring out the cork slowly and gently.

Once you've removed the cork, wipe the neck again if there's any foreign matter on it, then pour your wine.

Cork is crumbly. How can I get it out?

Sometimes when you're trying to remove a cork, especially in an older wine, will start to crumble instead of coming out in one clean piece.

What to do? Don't panic. Proceed slowly and carefully, without haste, as you want to avoid pushing fragments of the cork into the wine if you can. Switching corkscrews to one with a different shape or design of screw sometimes helps. Another old wine steward's trick is to try two corkscrews, pointed in at slight angles to each other; try to work them in from opposite sides until they meet at the bottom of the cork, then pull them very gently.

Another approach: Try one of the simple, two-pronged cork removers commonsly called "Ah So" or "Thieving Butler," working the flat prongs gently down each side of the troublesome cork.

Finally, remember this: Even if your efforts fail and the crumbly remnants of the cork fall into your wine, it's not ruined. Pour it into a decanter or clean glass pitcher through a fine-meshed strainer or paper coffee filter, and all will be well.


Cork taint: What is a "corked" wine?

Corks have been the traditional wine-bottle closure for about 300 years, and when they work well, they make about as good a stopper as anyone has invented. The cork is so enshrined in tradition that most of us chuckle at the very idea of a quality wine closed with a beer cap or jug-wine cap.

But the wine industry isn't laughing. Here's why:

Natural cork is all too often afflicted by a fungus called 2,4,6-tricloroanisole (TCA), a chemical that imparts its flavor to wine and, basically, ruins it. If you've ever tasted a wine with a dank, moldy aroma that reminds you of wet cardboard, a damp basement or mushrooms, that's TCA, and the wine is said to be "corked." By some estimates, as many as one bottle of wine in 20 is tainted by the TCA fungus.

Some wineries have reduced the incidence of corkiness by using expensive corks that undergo intense inspection before use. Even then, however, some afflicted corks get through.

Crown caps and screw tops offer alternatives; another modern solution is the use of synthetic corks made from plastics and other non-cork materials. This is an interesting development, and it's coming into increasing use for less expensive wines, in which it seems to be a perfectly adequate alternative. There are several commercial brands, some of which use a cork-colored product as protective camouflage, while others use bright, bold colors in a sort of reverse-snobbery approach.

It's going to take a lot of experimentation before the wine industry can be certain that synthetics, crown caps and screw tops have the durability to protect wine during long-term storage; and it's going to take a lot of marketing before wine lovers give up our attachment to the traditional cork. But I wouldn't bet that the old-fashioned cork won't eventually go the way of the LP phonograph record.

Champagne (sparkling wine) -
how to pop the cork

Popping a sparkling wine cork is fun, but letting it fly with a bang isn't really a great idea. You might break the china, poke out a pal's eye, or, in any case, make a mess and waste good wine. So here's my alternative method for opening bubbly--a trick that will impress your friends because you end up nonchalantly holding the cork safely in your hand!

  1. Make sure the wine is ice-cold, and avoid shaking the bottle.
  2. Carefully peel the foil and unwind and remove the wire cage that holds the cork in place.\r\n
  3. If there's any gunk around the cork, wipe it off with a damp cloth or paper towel.
  4. Now, here's the trick: Assuming you're right-handed, grip the bottle with your right hand and hold the cork tightly with your left, either bare-handed or using a cloth or paper towel. Hold the cork steady while you gently twist the bottle. The cork will ease loose with a soft hiss, and you'll find yourself holding the cork in one hand and an open bottle in the other.\r\n

Cleansing the palate: What to use?

What is the best way to cleanse your palate between tasting different wines?

Good white bread is the standard palate-cleanser at tastings because it's neutral in flavor. If you watch professional wine buyers doing their work, they'll take a piece of bread and a drink of water between wines in order to judge each one from a standing start.

At social wine tastings, you'll often see cheese or even more substantial snacks like shrimp, roast beef, meatballs or bacon-wrapped chicken livers served, but this is not such a good idea when you're evaluating wines for purchase because wines taste different with food than without it.

You'll sometimes see apples and other fruit served with wine, but I don't recommend it, as fruit may make the wine taste a little sour.

Cellaring ageworthy wines

Storage conditions are important for the long-term storage of fine wines. The optimal environment for cellaring is a constant 55F (13C), which unfortunately is too cool for air conditioning but not cold enough for the refrigerator; so to be very serious about collecting, you may need to invest in a temperature-controlled cellar unit, which isn't cheap.

But sturdier reds, at least, can be kept quite well for 10 years or so at cool room temperature, as long as you can keep them as close to 70F (21C) as possible.

For more detailed advice about the ageworthiness of specific wines, I strongly recommend investing in Hugh Johnson's little Pocket Encyclopedia of Wine, which costs only about $13 and lists maturity and vintage information for literally thousands of wines.

Our "Cellar Builder" features hints from the experts on starting and housing a wine collection, with articles on building your own cellar, converting a refrigerator into a cellar unit or buying, installing and using a commercial unit.

Also online: Bob Ross's free Cellar Spreadsheet, an easy, fast way to track your wine collection.

For more information on this subject, see these Questionary features:


Calories: How many in wine?

Just because wine contains no fat or cholesterol, don't get the idea that you can drink a lot of it without showing the results on your waistline.

The exact calorie content of wine varies depending on both its alcohol and sugar content, so a strong, sweet wine like Port has a much higher calorie load than a dry table wine of normal strength.

But you can assume that your 5-ounce glass of dry red or white table wine is likely to have 100 to 125 calories, while a rich dessert wine could go up to 150 calories or more for a smaller 3-ounce glass.

For more information, see our "Nutritional Analysis" charts for wine.

Carbohydrates: How many in wine?

If you're on a low-carbohydrate diet, you might want to take wine off your bill of fare for the duration.

Wine contains no fat and no protein, but just about all of its not-insignificant calorie content is in the form of carbohydrates and alcohol, which is metabolized much like a carbohydrate.

Wines vary substantially depending on their alcoholic content and whether they have residual sugar, but a 5-ounce glass of dry white table wine may have 1.0 to 1.25 grams of carbohydrates, while a similar portion of red may go up to 2.5 grams, and sweet wines with their high sugar content will have substantially more, up to the range of 10 grams in a 3-ounce serving of a strong dessert wine like Port.

Bear in mind that low-carbohydrate diets may reduce calories, but they do this by adding a frightening level of calories from fat to your daily intake. I suggest a good moderate lifestyle of sensible eating (including wine!) and exercise, and consult your physician for advice if you feel a need to diet.

For more information about nutrients in wine, see our "Nutritional Analysis" charts.

Buying wine: Where can I find ...?

To find any wine, it is always best to check first with the fine-wine retailers in your own city or region. If this is not practical, and if you are fortunate enough to live in a place where direct shipment of alcoholic beverages is legal, you may be able to find an online vendor through Wine Searcher:


Wine Name:

Brett: What's that "barnyard" smell?

In the sometimes slightly wacky world of wine evaluation, it is entirely possible for a wine taster to say, "This wine tastes like $#@*!" ... and mean it as a compliment.

Let's take a look at bad flavors in good wines, and specifically brettanomyces ("Breh-TAN-oh-MY-sees" or just plain "brett" for short). Brett is a wild yeast that's sometimes found on grapeskins and that can get into wine barrels, where it resides and grows and can be almost impossible to remove. When brett appears in a wine, it creates earthy organic aromas and flavors that don't sound appetizing. The aroma of brett-afflicted wines may range from leathery to mousey, wet-fur, or "barnyard" aromas like chicken manure or horse sweat. Some tasters also find a twangy metallic quality in the aftertaste of bretty wines. In short, it's no coincidence that many wine scientists refer to wines with brett as "afflicted" or "infected."

Brett is often found in red Rhone wines and Burgundies, where no less a luminary than Voltaire once commented, apparently favorably, that Burgundy smells like "merde." Chateau Beaucastel and Domaine Tempier, both from Southern France, are two well-known names that almost invariably show brett, but it is not unknown in wines from other parts of the world, even California, where the noted (and expensive) Dominus is known for it. (And, in a slightly different category, the style of Belgian beers called "lambic" also rely on brett for their unusual character; it's reported that some of the most famous lambic breweries dare not sweep the cobwebs from their production rooms for fear of banishing the native yeast.)

Brett is controversial because some wine lovers enjoy a touch of it in wines and feel that it adds complexity, while others consider any trace of it a significant flaw. And just to make things a little more complicated, wines made from certain grapes - most notably Mourvedre - may show a similar-only-different earthiness that's easy to mistake for brett.

Personally, I can take a little of it, as long as that "barnyard" quality forms an elusive overtone that evokes country lanes on damp summer nights; but when it gets excessive (the country lane leads into a working chicken farm), it's a little too much for me!

Have you ever encountered a wine that made you think of barnyards or worse? Is a little brett just right for you or way too much? If you've got an opinion to share, drop me a note.\r\n

Buying wine: How much do you need?

Here's a perennial social question: How much wine should you buy?

It's always hard to predict how a crowd will behave, and a lot depends on whether your friends like to drink, how many of them prefer wine, beer or liquor, how long the party will last, and so on.

But by working with a few basic principles, you can usually come up with a good estimate. The standard "fifth" wine bottle, now turned metric at 750 ml, contains enough wine for five 5-ounce glasses, a fairly standard serving. If you assume that half of your guests will want wine, and that they'll average two glasses each (some drinking only one, others three or four), then you have a starting point for calculating your shopping list.

So, if you're inviting 90 pals to a holiday gathering, you might assume that half of them will take wine; figure an average of two glasses for each and you get 90 glasses, which divided by five makes 18 bottles or 1 1/2 cases of 12. I'd err on the high side by purchasing two cases (choosing a store that offers a discount for case purchases). Beer for the rest -- assume three bottles each -- and soft drinks for the teetotalers in attendance. The chances are that you'll have leftovers to stock your bar; but if you're thrifty (and if local laws permit), you might ask in advance if the wine shop is willing to take back unopened bottles.

Breathing - Does the wine need air?

As a general rule, I consider the practice of giving wine time to "breathe" before it's served to be somewhat overrated.

The idea behind it is simple: Wines that need aging may be shy on aroma and flavor when they're first opened, a characteristic that's sometimes described in winespeak as "closed" or "tight." Give them a little exposure to air, the theory goes, and you're providing a rough-and-ready substitute for the more gentle oxidation that occurs with fine wines as they age in the cellar.

While there's some truth in this, it's worth remembering that it only applies to certain wines. Most wines are fresh and fruity and ready to go as soon as they're put in the bottle, and letting these wines breathe risks missing out on their first blush of freshness. Worse still is the risk you take in breathing an older wine that's fully mature, as some older wines - like some older people - become fragile with age and may give up their spirit very quickly after the cork is pulled.

So I recommend breathing only for young, tannic wines, typically reds (or, even more so, youthful Vintage Ports), as a way to ease the initial "closed" quality or harshness from tannins. But if you do it at all, don't simply pull the cork, which exposes only a tiny circle of wine the size of a dime in the bottleneck to the air. Rather, pour a glass, and do it briskly so the wine gets a good exposure to the atmosphere. Then leave it for an hour or two, and you may find that the wine "opens up" before dinner.

Another approach, of course, is simply to open the wine at the time you serve it, take it as it comes, but if you find it shy, harsh and astringent, push back your glass and enjoy it after dinner, when it's had time to breathe.

Big bottles: What are their names?

Wine may go back many millennia to Bronze Age times, but the wine bottle as we know it today is only about three centuries old. It was only the development of the cork-stoppered, cylindrical glass bottle - which could be stacked on its side, keeping the cork airtight and wet - that permitted the development of ageworthy wines that improve with cellaring.

The "fifth" bottle, originally one-fifth of a gallon, now rounded off metrically to 750 ml., was said to be a suitable ration for one man with dinner, back in the days when men were men (and most wine was quite low in alcoholic strength). One theory holds that this size bottle was actually the largest that early glass-blowers could produce with one full breath.

But even in those early days, for very special occasions, wineries would put up their product in impressive, oversize bottles. For reasons lost to history, most of these bottles were given the names of Biblical figures like the evil king Nebuchadnezzar and the long-lived Methuselah.

The naming conventions varied somewhat among wine regions, with the two standards being Champagne and Bordeaux in France. In case you run into a big bottle, here's a quick field guide to the larger sizes:

Magnum: 1.5 liters (two bottles)
Jeroboam: 3 liters (four bottles)
Rehoboam: 4.5 liters (six bottles)
Methuselah: 6 liters (eight bottles)
Salmanazar: 9 liters (12 bottles)
Balthazar: 12 liters (16 bottles)
Nebuchadnezzar: 15 liters (20 bottles)

Even larger sizes are occasionally seen, although they are very rare:

Solomon: 20 liters (28 bottles)
Primat: 27 liters (36 bottles)

Magnum: 1.5 liters (two bottles)
Marie-Jeanne: 2.25 liters (three bottles)
Double Magnum: 3 liters (four bottles)
Jeroboam: 4.5 liters (six bottles) *
Impèriale: 6 liters (eight bottles)

* Because of recent U.S. regulations limiting larger bottles to even liter sizes, some modern red-wine "Jeroboams" are now 5 liters rather than the traditional 4.5.

Wondering about those Biblical names? Thanks to John Holland's Champagne Magic site for these mini-biographies:

Jeroboam (Founder and first king of Israel, 931-910 BC)
Rehoboam, son of Solomon (King of Judah, 922-908 BC)
Methuselah (Biblical patriarch who lived to the age of 969)
Salmanazar (King of Assyria, 859-824 BC)
Balthazar (Regent of Babylon, son of Nabonide, 539BC)
Nebuchadnezzar (King of Babylon, 605-562 BC)

Bible: What does it say about wine?

Does the Bible condemn the consumption of wine or does it endorse it? In fact it appears to do both.

"Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise," according to Proverbs. But the Book of Judges notes that wine "cheereth God and man." And in his letter to Timothy, Paul advises, "Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach's sake and thine often infirmities."

For every verse about wine that "stingeth like a serpent," there are two more that speak of the joys of wine, and that allude to Christ and his apostles -- not to mention the Old Testament kings and peasants -- enjoying it.

I would respectfully submit that the seeming contradictions simply represent an honest evaluation of a beverage that was a part of daily life for the people of the Holy Land in biblical times, a wine-producing and wine-consuming land. Its people drank wine with every meal and knew it as both a happy element of daily life and a potential source of pain.

From the Old Testament, which has Noah beginning his new life by planting a vineyard and making wine (and suffering the embarrassment of overindulgence) to the lovely Gospel story in which Christ turned water into excellent wine for the enjoyment of the wedding guests at Cana, the Bible both warns of the dangers of overconsumption and expresses gratitude that God made the wine that gladdens the heart of man.

The key, of course, is moderation, and that's something that some people have (more or less) understood from ancient times to the present.

The wines of the world

The wines of the world offer thousands of scents in their almost infinite variety. As an aid to novice wine tasters--and experts too--the wine scientists at the University of California at Davis, one of the leading wine-making and grape-growing schools in the U.S., came up years ago with something called the "aroma wheel."

The oenologists at Davis consulted with scores of wine lovers and wine tasters to list all the descriptive terms they could imagine for the smells of wine. Then they organized them, categorized them, eliminated all that seemed ambiguous or less than clear, and ended up with a list of 12 major categories of wine smells, subdivided into 29 subcategories and in 94 specific terms.

It's called a wheel because it is a circular table, with relatively similar smells placed close together around its circumference. Want an aroma wheel to call your own? You can download one from UC/Davis Professor Ann Noble's Website at http://wineserver.ucdavis.edu/acnoble/waw.html, where you'll also find information about buying it in laminated form -- or even on a T-shirt.

Bargains: How to find them at the wine shop

Everybody loves a bargain, but no one likes to get the short end of the deal. So, when you're digging merrily through the cut-rate bin at your favorite wine shop and spot a price tag that seems too good to be true ... is it?

As a regular customer of the bargain bins, I'd say my record is about 50 percent: Half of the "great buys" turn out to be treasures but the other half are disappointing. Is there any way to tell? Not really, but here are a few things to watch for, based on my years of experience looking for the good deal.

Old inventory: Often a wine shop will put a sale price on an item that's been taking up space on the shelves without moving. You'll never see this with a highly rated, popular label, but if the marked-down wine comes from a less than "trendy" region -- Greece, say, or Switzerland, or even parts of France that lack the cachet of Bordeaux or Burgundy -- then there's a good chance that you've got a legitimate value for your sale price. Ditto if the wine appears to be the previous year's vintage, being "dumped" to make room for the new release.

Damaged wine: A reputable shopkeeper won't knowingly sell wine for full price if it has been through accidental harsh treatment such as being left on a loading dock in summer sun. Into the marked-down bin it goes, waiting for the unwary customer. A wine that's been "cooked," unfortunately, will be diminished in enjoyment at the least and possibly rendered undrinkable. On the other hand, if the problem is merely the formation of innocuous tartrate crystals in the bottle, an alarming-looking condition that doesn't significantly affect the wine, you may have a bargain on your hands. If you know the store's staff and feel they can be trusted, it's never inappropriate to ask. Otherwise all you can do is take the risk if the price seems right.

Loss leaders: Local laws permitting, now and then a shop will offer a few wines at a very good price, hoping to lure customers into the store for the bargain and then sell them a few more bottles while they're in. This is perfectly legitimate marketing, and wise consumers will keep an eye out for such sales.

Do you have bargain-hunting tricks and tips? Share them with me by E-mail!\r\n