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WINE BASICS
For Beginners

(more or less....)


This is just a handy reference page intended to state the obvious.  It is intended for quasi-beginners, those who know a little, but haven't delved into the esoterica.   It is not an encyclopedia, nor intended to be exhaustive. If you need basic terms like "tannins" defined, or  more depth in the commentary on the issues discussed, see references on the Book List Page.  Finally,  there are exceptions to everything in the wine world, and lots of contrarians.  I think these precepts, however, are pretty sound.

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STORAGE

    Storage is the biggest problem with wine. Eventually, a serious wine person will want and need an answer to the question how one stores wine safely.   Why?   The very best wines usually need some aging to fully develop, come into balance and shed tannins, and so on.  That means holding them in a cellar for a few years and waiting. Sure, it is sometimes possible to find older, great wines on the shelves of  some retail stores. But usually they have not been stored well and I tend to avoid them. At best, I'm unsure of provenance--the word wine geeks use to reference the wine's history of storage, where it came from. Plus, when you do find some stores with a cache of older wines, you will generally find hideous prices, too. Some fine wines, say a 1994 Colgin "Herb Lamb" Cabernet, appreciate dramatically. You could have bought it on release for $40. You might find it at auction for a $1,000.  

    So, if you walk into a store looking for a wine in good condition  for dinner, what you are most likely to find and be able to afford will  tend to be everyday wines and middle of the road wines.   Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing for routine drinking. But if you want special experiences from well stored bottles, you have to buy great wine young, preferably on release,  and cellar it. This is simply an unpleasant reality of life.  

     Cellaring wines is an enormous problem for many people, for obvious reasons.  A recent poll I saw in the Wine Spectator seemed to imply that less than 25% of the people holding some bottles of wine had them properly stored.  I feel your pain, but here's a bottom line: if you're going to hold wines for long term storage, store them properly or don't bother. There is simply no point to buying wines just to ruin them.    

    Classic storage has generally been considered to be around 55 degrees F. with high humidity, darkness and constancy of temperature.  As always in the wine world, a universe with lots of opinions and few empirical studies, there are quibbles. 

     I know many people who think 52-55 is too cold for bigger wines, meaning that they will age too slowly and develop at a glacial pace.  Some think closer to 58-60 is a better temperature in general, especially  for big wines. Everyone, however, seems to agree that the wine placed in long term storage (this is not about wine you are holding for dinner next week!)  has to be kept cool at constant, or at least very gradually changing, temperatures, with few if any fluctuations into warmer temperature ranges (say, 70 degrees F and above).

    High humidity is usually included on the list of essentials, on the theory that the corks need to be kept moist so they will not dry out, thus letting in air and harming the wine.  However,  some current schools of thought maintain that high humidity is relatively unimportant if the bottles are stored, as they should be, laying down, since the wine itself will keep the cork moist.  I would rather experiment with other people's wines, myself.  It's cheap to humidify.  And one wonders how the outside of the cork remains moist otherwise.   Just do it.

     Temperature and constancy are the key points, though.     I've tried storing wine for a couple of years even at 72 degrees with temperature fluctuations. It harms the wine.   That's a fact.  In the famous words of Kermit Lynch,  "A little heat damages the wine a little; a lot of heat damages it a lot."  Protect your wine from heat. Better to store it in the refrigerator--although they will not age and develop--than let it sit in your sunny living room at 80 degrees.

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SELECTION OF WINE

    After realizing that poor storage can harm wines, you will soon realize how many wines have been poorly stored by retailers, and poor treatment in the distribution system. See my recent article on Storage.  How can you tell?  There is no foolproof answer.  However, do these things at the least after evaluating the conditions in the store, and how long the wine has likely been sitting there: 

    First, how is the level on the wine?  The "level," also known as ullage, on most young wines should be fairly close to the bottom of the cork when the bottle is standing up.  Taking Bordeaux bottles for an example, since the bottles are designed with a neck and a shoulder, the level should always be into the neck in a young wine.  Further, in a young wine, you want the level well into the neck, not close to the bottom of it.  It is impossible to give hard and fast rules on how high is "high," but a level more than half an inch below the bottom of the cork makes me at least start to think in young-ish wines (five to ten years),  although, again, I cannot give a hard an fast rule for every wine and every millimeter. (In this day and age, when bottles are machine filled, most are filled high and uniformly. It is also true that some wineries, not many, I think, do not fill as high as a matter of  practice.)   If the wines are brand new, I'm inclined to cut that half inch to a quarter inch.  Again, this is not down to the last millimeter, but one has to wonder about a 1995 Bordeaux offered for sale with the level an eighth of an inch above the base of the neck.

    As wines age, it is not uncommon for the levels to decline.  A level at the base of the neck of a 1961 Lafite is a very different issue. Even with older wines, though, very low levels can be a sign of danger. Whether the wine has vanished due to evaporation, or leakage, the ratio of air space to wine has changed, which will cause aging and eventually deterioration of wine, according to conventional wisdom. We are more forgiving of older wines whose levels have declined naturally because the process was gradual and unaccompanied by other damage.

    Often in a bin you will see different bottles of the same wine with different levels.  Pick the ones with the best levels for safety. I remember getting a 1974 Gruaud Larose for $10 in about 1988.  The ones with high levels were drinkable and pleasant. The others had oxidized.  Young wines with very low levels are often damaged--they have leaked, or the seal of the cork has failed and the wine has evaporated.  Just don't buy.  They may not, by the way, taste so bad--though still worse than pristine bottles-- if you are drinking them that night, but flaws will be magnified over time.  The longer you intend to hold the wine, the more careful you should be.

    Second,  is there any visible signs of leakage?  Leaks are caused by lots of things, but most often temperature extremes that have damaged the wine.   Don't buy leakers!  Even without heat damage, you still face the issues discussed above.

    Third, if you can see the color well (some bottles are very dark, and color is difficult to judge), is it normal or too dark for the wine's age (if white...you usually can't tell through the bottle if the reds have lost color)?  

    Fourth, turn the capsule.  This is the least reliable test, but it sometimes helps.  If the capsule turns easily, and the level is high,  you can be fairly certain there is no significant leakage that cannot be seen, since the leakage usually "scabs" and makes the capsule difficult to turn. Admittedly, some wineries glue those capsules down pretty tight.

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PRESERVATION OF  OPENED WINES

    A time honored question, with no perfect answer.  Here are your choices on preserving opened bottles:  Vacu-vin; gas; freezing; the half bottle trick. 

    Vacu-vin is cheap.  It is a rubber stopper and a hand pump.  It attempts to remove the air.     Air is what ages the wine, and eventually oxidizes and destroys it.  The Vacu-vin has come under lots of criticism.   Personally, I think it is the easiest solution for short-term storage, admitting that it does not work nearly as well as it ads seem to imply.  Wet the stopper--an important detail often overlooked, and then pump until you meet resistance.  Put the bottle in the fridge. Cold is a preservative.    To be really effective, make sure to vacu-vin between every glass, especially with older wines.   Don't leave the bottle there open for hours, then vacu-vin it and expect great results.  Usually,  careful Vacu-Vin applications work reasonably well for a couple of days, especially if the wines are younger.   It may even improve younger, tougher wines. Beyond that, I find the Vacu-Vin decreasingly effective.

    Freezing is cumbersome, but it works.  It was recommended to me by Robert Parker.  Vacu-vin the unused portion for best results and put the bottle in the freezer.  It will last indefinitely. It sounds radical, but results are quite good.  It takes about six hours at room temperature to defrost and come up to drinking temperature. The Vacu-vin portion of this process is important since the wine may sit there for hours while it defrosts.

    The half bottle method is the lowest tech, traditional method. Pour wine into a half bottle, fill near the top, and cork it.  It works fairly well, but since you have to pour the remaining wine from a full bottle into a half bottle, it has some obvious problems.  First, you have to drink exactly half a bottle in order to get a good fill in the half bottle. Second, the pouring itself aerates and helps change the wine. Remember always to refrigerate.  Cold preserves.

    Finally, there are a variety of gas solutions in which gases are pumped into the wine to replace harmful oxygen. These work about as well as the methods above, more or less,  but cost money and require replenishment of supplies. The consumer models don't work as well as the big restaurant models.

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   DECANTING

    Decanting is the relatively simple act of pouring wine into another vessel or jar called a decanter.  Why decant?  Two reasons. First, to let a wine breathe.   Second, to remove sediment. As to sediment,  older wines eventually throw a sediment, the fine particles that settle down after the wine is bottled. This is normal, and to be expected.   Decanting carefully after standing the wine up for a couple of days  (and I recommend  using a funnel with a filter screen) lets you leave out the sediment when you pour.  Sediment isn't harmful, but it can make the wine cumbersome to drink and can impart some bitterness.  The dilemma with older wines is that they are often fragile.   Decanting may help remove the sediment, but may also aerate the wine and cause it to fade too quickly.  The traditonal wisdom in Burgundy is that the wines are too fragile to decant.  Be that as it may, here's an alternative for most wines: First, stand them up for a few days and let the sediment settle. Then, pour carefully.  Tilt the bottle and try to do as many pours as possible without sloshing the wine around or returning it to a vertical posture. Keep it horizontal, hope the sediment remains at the bottom and not intermingled with the wine.

    Breathing is a controversial phenomenon, not because anyone doubts that wine changes with air,  or that anyone doubts that many wines will dramatically  improve with air, but because it is not always clear when and and for how long to let a wine breathe.  Parenthetically, and first of all, if you want to let a wine breathe, decant it.  Just taking the cork out exposes very little of the surface of the wine and aerates it too slowly.  

    The hard question is whether to decant in order to allow breathing.  To some extent, this is simply a matter of experience, educated guesses and personal preferences.  Tough, young wines will improve dramatically with air. On the other hand, why bother drinking them so young?  Hold them!  Even older, dense wines will often improve with air, though. Some will need some time to have bottle mustiness blow off.  The critical question is how much time, and which wines. There is no easy answer unless you are drinking that wine regularly, like every year, and know exactly how it is coming along.  Even then, estimating whether it should breathe for half an hour or two hours is a dangerous chore that may leave you with faded wine for dinner, thus frustrating the original purpose of decanting, namely, to get the wine at its peak for dinner consumption. Should '82 Mouton be decanted? Almost certainly,  but how many bottles have you had lately?  How sure are you it needs two hours instead of twenty minutes?  Or ten hours?

   Also, some people like to watch the wine change in the glass. It's the only way to evaluate everything the wine has.  Others want the wine as fully developed as possible when they get around to drinking it.  But then they get the wine "ready" and put the decanter on the table, and well, dinner lasts a few more hours and the extra decanting makes the wine flabby and boring.

    Personally,  unless I know the wine well, or suspect it's really a monster, I tend to opt for letting the wine breathe in the glass (which a small quantity does fairly fast in a large glass).  Sometimes, I guess wrong and find the wine is just opening as I'm ready to leave and / or have already finished it all.   Hopefully, I am not often sampling, with the intention of having it be at peak,  very young and aggressive wines that had no hope of being ready. I've too often seen older wines fall apart in the middle of an evening, however, and I do like to watch the wines evolve in the glass.  But ultimately, you pay your money, you take your chances.

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    CORKED WINES

    What does it mean when people say a wine is "corked?"   They mean that the wine has acquired off flavors from a defective cork. Actually, it is not so much that  the cork that is defective, but rather that a substance known as TCA has infiltrated the wine, usually, but not always, via contact with the cork.  Anyway, that's splitting technological hairs. It may be important to the cork manufacturers, but to you,  the important thing is the result.  The wine tastes musty.  It tastes as if it were poured through wet cardboard.  You'll never forget the taste, and the wet cardboard odor is usually even stronger. This is one of the easiest and most valid reasons for sending a wine back as spoiled and defective in a restaurant.  By the way,   just because a bottle is corked does not mean the next one will be, or that the entire batch is spoiled. "Corked" is usually a bottle specific defect, although wineries that are having serious and persistent problems have been known to send out bad batches.   TCA is a mysterious agent.  Some people are even designing synthetic corks.  

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    CORKSCREWS   

    The typical corkscrew that most people know (and some wax poetic about) is the waiter's corkscrew, or some variation on it.  This is a simple device that has a worm (the part that actually screws into the cork), and a lever.  Even simpler ones lack the lever.  You screw in and  just pull. 

    These corkscrews are so bad, I cannot imagine why, other than cheapness and tradition, anyone would want to use them.  They often require strength.   If you are not careful in how you pull, or how you use the lever, you can easily break even healthy corks.  There are lots of fancy models that costs lots of money, but the added ambience does not change the basic problem with these types of corkscrews.

    The gold standard, the corkscrew I love to use, is the Leverpull from the Screwpull company (they are actually owned by a bigger corporation at the moment, but Screwpull is the name we know).   It's a bit big, but it is still portable.   Stick it in your wine bag.  The teflon-covered worm (replaceable when it wears out) usually enters the cork cleanly, the leverage issues are easy and the cork rarely if ever breaks if it is not defective in the first place. As an added bonus, after extracting the cork, you pull the lever up, and it automatically ejects the cork from the worm.   That's a big time saver if you're uncorking a lot of bottles, in particular.

    So, the problem?  Welllllll, the Leverpull is ridiculously expensive.  Sherry-Lehman in New York  recently had a fairly good price on it.   A mere $125.  Of course, the worms are replaceable, and you may never have to buy another Leverpull.  Good news: they recently had their patent expire and their are now a zillion less expensive competitors in a $40 to $60 range, although some may still think that's an awful lot for a corkscrew.  I love them, though, and can't do without that "eject" action.

     A good compromise is Screwpull company's basic model, called the Screwpull, appropriately enough.  This has become so common that in some quarters it is a generic description, not a trademark.  It is about $15.  It is plastic, light and relatively small. It works great, and avoids most cork breakage problems.   It doesn't have the leverage action of the Leverpull and will not eject corks.   Everyone should have some basic Screwpulls. It is one of the easiest, simplest, most cost effective devices on the market.

    Finally, there is a corkscrew very popular in California which has two prongs.  I have heard people call them "Aso" or just two-prong corkscrews.  They have no worms.  Rather, the idea here is to insert the two prongs, by rocking back and forth, between the cork and the bottle.  Once inserted all the way,  you gradually twist and lift,  taking out the intact, unpierced cork. The problems with this device are legion.  It is hard to learn how to use.   It is easy to err and push a cork into the bottle.  However, for certain types of fragile corks, they may be your best bet because they do not require piercing or splitting the cork, things that can sometimes make a fragile cork break.  I carry one as a backup, but it is always a last resort.

 

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