Each week, we answer your questions about wine in our weekly newsletter. If you have a question, e-mail us or tweet to @52Grapes using hashtag #AskEmma. Here’s what we’ve done so far.
Is it possible to really taste minerality in wine?
Well this question puts me in an awkward spot. I often refer to a dose of minerality in my wine tasting notes. And now I’ll have to confess if it’s a ridiculous term or one that we can prove is real.
So what is minerality? It’s used to describe characteristics of wine that aren’t organic, e.g. things other than fruity, herby or spicy notes, and implies that the ground the vine grows in (its terroir) can be tasted in the wine. If true, it would be the reason a Chardonnay grown in limestone soil tastes different to one grown in say granitic or clay soil.
There are two sides to the argument. The detractors say that minerality is just a term used by tasters to convey a lack of definitive taste, or a flavour they have no sensory ability to describe. They also point to the fact that there is no scientific evidence that the type of soil or bedrock that a vine grows on can be directly transmitted into a flavour in a wine.
These people are making sound points. There is very little science behind the transfer of terroir (soil type) into a taste in wine. Despite this I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve stood in a vineyard and been told by the winemaker that I should be able to taste their limestone soil in their wine. Is this all the power of suggestion?
Well I would commit to saying that we may well have all tasted rocks. I am probably in the minority as someone who has licked a rock, just in the name of being thorough in my sensory knowledge; and it wasn’t pleasant. However, what I’m suggesting is that the power of smell is the strongest sense and we have all smelt wet pavement after rain, pebbles on a beach or that smell near a quarry. Alternatively, I often detect minerality as more of a sea shell character, giving the wine a salty tinge.
There is a potential link to a type of reaction in a wine that gives a sense of “struck flint” or a matchstick note, that is called “reduction” and can happen when a wine has a low contact with oxygen in the winemaking process, and some winemakers work to enhance it. So that could be what you are sensing when you taste minerality.
A final word in support of the type of soil affecting the taste of a wine. There is definitely a link in the soil structure and character and how it makes a vine grow and therefore the flavour of the grapes. A very stony soil makes the vines bury deeper to discover water thereby allowing the roots to pick up more minerals from the soil and its water as they do this. So this could be a contributory factor in mineral pick up in the flavour of wine
What wine goes with spicy food?
You are right, matching wine with spicy food is tricky. Perhaps one of the most difficult wine matches to get right, although not as bad as asparagus; try drinking wine with that and you’ll know what I mean!
The reason for this inherent problem is that spices enhance the perception of bitterness. This makes them a poor match for anything with tannin, particularly boldly structured reds or oaked whites. They also alter your perception of the wine and make it taste drier than it actually is. If you drink a dry white with an Indian curry it can taste mouth puckeringly dry. It will also enhance the feeling of acidity and alcohol in the wine, another reason why it can make the wine taste unappealing.
So what is the answer? My handy hints would be to choose with these features:
If choosing red, go for something fruity and light in body, so that it isn’t overpowered by the bold flavours of the dish. My ideal reds would be a Beaujolais or Fleurie or new world Pinot Noir; all light in tannin and fruit forward.
Given that spice will enhance your perception of bitterness, then for a white, you probably need something a little sweeter than usual. Find one with some residual sugar to counterbalance the chilli. Classic whites with a bit of residual sugar would be German Riesling, Alsace Pinot Gris or a wine like Vouvray from the Loire in France. If you want to go basic level you could go for a White Zinfandel or new world Rosé, they often have a bit of sweetness too.
Grapes with a bit of a floral character like Gewurztraminer or Muscat also act well with spices to offer an attractive contrast so I’d also recommend trying them. And finally with a creamy curry sauce like a Thai green curry I find that a wine with a bit more acidity and a drier character can work, so for these my top tip is a classic Sauvignon Blanc, or Gruner Veltliner if you are feeling adventurous.
What is the difference between a sweet wine and a fruity wine?
Sweetness is a term that is often misused. Technically, it refers to the amount of residual sugar in the wine – sugar left over from the fermentation process. This is usually express in grams per litre, or g/l. You might see this on a wine label or on some wine websites.
In most cases, when someone says a wine is dry or sweet, they are talking about their perception and not the g/l. What is perfect for you might be too dry or too sweet for someone else. I’ve had a few people say to me that a wine is sweet when it is actually bone dry, but why is this?
A fruity wine is often said to be sweet. Andy’s mum only likes sweet wine, but we’ve given her sweet wine (high sugar content) that’s she’s rejected as ‘too dry’, and dry wine (low/no sugar) that has been perfect. What’s happening here is she’s describing the sweetness in terms of how fruity the wine tastes to her.
Factors like acidity, tannin and oak can alter the perception of the wine. For example, if a wine ‘dries’ the inside of your mouth, that’s probably the tannins – that grippy feeling you get most often in reds – but that doesn’t mean the wine is dry.
Wines that are high in acidity can also feel more dry. However, as acidity and sugar balance each other out, a wine with high acidity could have more sugar than a ‘sweeter’ wine with lower acidity.
Imagine biting into a lemon, and sipping a can of coke. Which is more acidic? Well, trick question, as they’re both roughly the same at about 2.5 on the pH scale. But, coke has about 108 g/l of sugar to remove the harshness of the acid, and the same principle applies to wine.
Lastly oak. To smell you should get a slightly spicy note and potentially vanilla bean or coconut. To taste on whites it will give noticeable texture and on both red or whites it will give flavours such as toffee, vanilla, coffee, chocolate and ginger powder. So as you can tell from that list these characters can all give a confectionary note to the wine, and alter your perception of its sweetness.
Can a wine bottled in its destination market be as good as one bottled at the winery?
Have you ever looked at the back label of a bottle of wine and been surprised to see a UK or local address on it when the wine comes from the other side of the world? This address relates to where the wine is bottled and indicates the wine has been bulk shipped in big tanks and then packaged locally.
You’ll see a higher percentage of wines bottled this way than ever before for two main reasons. The first would be money, the bottles are heavy and bulky, and therefore costs more to transport than large tanks of wine. Next would be an environmental concern, because the energy taken to ship that heavy bottle of wine is reduced by shipping the liquid in tank, so you are being friendlier to the environment.
I do sit on the fence about the quality of wine shipped in bulk and bottled away from the producer. Whilst the technology nowadays is good, there are some inherent problems with the process. Wines bottled at source will typically be filtered once before bottling. Wines bottled at destination will be filtered pre-shipping, again on arrival (into a storage tank) and then again at bottling. Each of these filtrations has the potential to remove flavour.
Leaving a wine on its lees (dead yeast cells) helps protect the wine and add flavour, but with bulk shipping the lees are filtered off earlier. The person bottling the wine might be a technologist rather than a winemaker, and potentially unfamiliar with how the wine was made. They would typically give the wine a final treatment before bottling by recipe. Winemakers make final adjustments to their wines before bottling that are tailored to their wine style, and can really improve them and bring them into balance. And lastly, bottling away from the winery removes jobs from the local economy.
On the plus side, technology has vastly improved and the processes involved in bulk shipping wine are now very good at protecting the wine as it travels around the world. There’s also an argument that wine begins to age as soon as it is bottled, particularly simple whites that are best tasted young. Shipping the wine and bottling at destination could therefore extend its life a little. Another consideration would be that some wineries are great at making wine and not so good at bottling, perhaps their equipment is old or their technical standards are poor. Those wineries may well be doing you a favour by shipping their wine and getting it bottled by a professional company.
So what is my conclusion? Bulk shipped wine isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but for a premium wine I would still like to see it bottled at source to be confident of its quality.
What does ‘Reserve’ on a label mean?
I love this question because it allows me to dispel one of the biggest wine myths. In most regions of the world “reserve” means nothing! In fact, it can be used as a marketing ploy from the winery to make you think the wine is special.
Most wineries are not that cynical and tend to use the term to point out the wines in their range that are a step above the basic level. Often they will have chosen a better vineyard or given the wine a bit more ageing to give it that step up in quality. The problem is, you have no way of knowing if they have really done that.
However, the term does have special meaning and legal definitions in both Spain and Italy.
Spain: Here we have a tier of terms particularly used in Rioja. The first level Crianza means a wine has been aged at least two years with six months minimum in barrel. Reserva, the next level, has been aged for three years with at least a year in barrel. Gran Reserva, the highest level, means the wine has been aged five years with at least eighteen months in barrel. Only the best wines can last that type of ageing regimen so these terms do have a quality association to them as well as style.
Italy: In Italy the term Riserva is used to denote a wine with extra ageing. There are regional variations in the amount of ageing, but it is typically a minimum of two years; longer in Barolo or Amarone styles. But in Chianti this term would mean the wine has at least two years of age and there are also rules on maximum yields for the grapes making this wine to further ensure quality.
So in summary, if your bottle says ‘Reserve’ but isn’t from Europe, then at best it might mean the wine isn’t the basic level for that winery, and at worst it’s marketing trickery.
Does the shape of my wine glass make a difference?
We’ve all seen the department stores with shelves full of wine glasses in varying shapes and sizes; many professing to be perfect for Pinot or Chardonnay. Is this real or just a marketing ploy to make you invest in a mass of glassware? And furthermore, is there any difference between those posh fine rimmed glasses that cost about £35 a pop or a simple TK Maxx pack of 4 coming in at around £6.
A wine glass has four parts, the rim, the bowl, the stem and the base. Let’s start with the stem, and my pet hate with modern glasses – tumblers. The stem – the long thin bit in the middle that you would typically hold – is important as without it you’d need to hold the bowl, and doing so would raise the temperature of the wine. The stem also allows the drinker to swirl the glass and release the aromas. So, stemless/tumbler style glasses might look nice, but they aren’t going to improve your wine experience.
Next comes the rim – the bit that touches your lips. It’s important that the rim is thin. It sounds pretentious but I really find this makes the biggest difference for me. I’m sure you know the traditions of Brits wanting to drink tea out of bone china, this shares the same benefit. A fine rim sits on the mouth gently allowing the liquid to touch your palate without disrupting the flow, and just feels a whole lot nicer than a glass with a thick rim. If you can, try it at home. Pour a little wine into a thick rimmed and then a thin rimmed glass, and see if you agree that the thinner rim is just…. nicer.
We don’t need to talk about the base, as that’s just what makes the glass stand up, so now onto the bowl – the bit where the wine sits. White wine is better suited to a taller glass, that curves in at the top. The high sides and curve are to direct the aroma, which works really nicely for aromatic whites; Sauvignon or Riesling. The long sided flute for fizz gives the bubbles longer to travel so they don’t dissipate too quickly. Reds are suited to a more bulbous, round bowl, as this allows easier swirling (without spilling!) and allows more oxygen in to release the vital aromas.
I do own some wine specific glasses and I have put these theories to the test several times. I can attest there is a difference. Those glasses do tend to sit at the back of my cupboard and only come out on special occasions, because a good quality standard size glass is enough for me to enjoy a wine without rifling through the cupboards.
One last thing – those glasses you can pour a whole bottle into. Just no.
Corks v Screw Caps, what’s the difference?
This is quite a common question. I have been asked many times and I can understand why. There is something reassuring about a wine bottled with a cork. It conforms to tradition, the foil cover makes it look smart, and that “pop” on opening is a satisfying moment that becomes part of the overall experience of enjoying wine. Twisting a screw cap lacks that theatre and ceremony.
There has been a quiet revolution going on since the millennium, particularly in the UK and Australasian market, to the point where nowadays you can find up to 75% of wines adorning supermarket shelves sealed with screw caps. As a wine buyer, I’m increasingly finding producers of wine eager to move away from cork, even in classic regions like Chablis. So what is the reason?
I’ll try to keep this simple by listing the pros and cons of each closure (that’s the technical name for it) because this subject is still very much in debate. This is purely a comparison between natural cork and screw cap rather than the other synthetic cork types you may have encountered.
We’ll start with corks, and remember this is purely from a technical point of view. The benefit of cork is that it is sponge like, expanding to the side of a bottle neck. This forms a good seal against the bottle, whilst still having microscopic holes that make it breathable. This is good for ageing a wine since a small amount of oxygen transfer enhances how a wine matures. Historically the major problems with cork was the quality of the material. Often they could get affected by a taint which then makes your wine “corked” after it is sealed. Or, they were variable in quality which could mean they didn’t seal properly, letting in too much oxygen or drying out and losing their sponge like properties. With the advent of screw caps, the cork industry has had to up their game, and as a result cork taint is now found in typically less than 3% of wines.
Onto screw caps. They are a sterile closure which reduces the chance of any taint to the wine. Whilst the first versions were quite simple, there have been great advances in recent years. You can now choose types of screw cap with varying rates of oxygen transfer, allowing them to mimic cork. There is a problem called “reduction” which can occur if the wine isn’t bottled with enough oxygen and loses its breathability, which makes the wine muted and have a ‘matchstick’ aroma. If the winery knows how to adapt their bottling to screw caps then there is no reason they can’t avoid that.
For delicate whites that deteriorate quickly with contact to oxygen then a screw cap is definitely the closure you need. The Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) has now done long term studies on how a wine ages in screw cap compared to corks. The results seem to show both types of closure perform well but screw caps will make a wine retain its youthful character longer. By logic this means if you were to buy a wine to age, it may take longer to reach its perfect drinking point in screw cap; perhaps this will mean it will become the closure of choice for those with a lot of patience.
A final note for the eco-conscious. A screw cap takes a lot of energy to produce and then only a few are recyclable. Whereas a cork is a naturally occurring substance coming from trees that are an effective carbon sink helping support the environment. So perhaps this will be the debate for the future.
Final fun fact: screw cap wines can be corked! If the screw caps are stored in conditions where the taint can be produced then it can be transferred to the screw caps and then get into the wine. I have seen this when screw caps were stored next to affected corks in a warehouse.
Tell me more about Malbec!
I know a lot of people who love Malbec with such a mad passion that they will drink nothing else. Much like New Zealand Sauvignon, I think the reason is that with Argentine Malbec you know what you are getting, the style is consistent and a bottle rarely disappoints. Here are my tips on how to explore the world of Malbec; including my favourite producers.
Mendoza in Argentina is where almost all the Malbec is grown. Within it there are several sub regions, those around the main town like Agrelo or Vistalba are the warmer parts where the styles have the boldest fruit flavour. Further away from the town is the Uco Valley, where the magnificent Andes mountain range is located. The high altitude vineyards in this area produce some of the best wines. Look out for vineyard sites like Alta Mira, Gualtallary or Vista Flores on the label for my favourite zones. These wines have a finesse and minerality that you don’t find elsewhere. Other regions of interest should be Salta, San Juan or Patagonia. Salta and Cafayate in the North of Argentina have some of the highest altitude vineyards in the world, the cool nights make great wines of amazing fragrance and freshness. Patagonia is another cool climate area which is also becoming really interesting for Pinot Noir. Finally San Juan, a few hours north of Mendoza, is emerging as another interesting region, this is a warm inland area so wines are dense and fruity.
As for producers, I have my favourites who are part of a new wave of younger winemakers. They’re looking to move away from the old oaky styles of Malbec that were super ripe, and to search for wines which are fresher and better express the grape. Look out for Jose Lovaglio (Vaglio wines), Mattias Riccitelli or Sebastian Zuccardi; whose wines go under their surname. These are all sons of the previous generation of winemakers who are championing the new styles. There is also a fun trio of brothers called the Michelinis who make a joint brand called Zorzal as well as their own wine brands; they are highly experimental using things like egg shaped cement tanks to make their wines with some great results.
Going back to some of the pioneers who make fantastic quality wines; my favourites are Fabre Montmayou (Vistalba or Vinalta wine brands) or Susanna Balbo (Dominio del Plata winery) who in my eyes is the queen of Argentine Malbec. Finally I cannot forget to mention the first pioneer of quality winemaking in Argentina; Catena. Enjoy!
Other wine Argentine wineries that get my nod are: Colome, Gran Enemigo, Atamisque, Cadus, Altos de Hormigas, Humberto Canale, Graffigna & Trapiche
How is rosé wine made?
Ah, good question. So rosé can be made in roughly two ways. In the first you add a dash of red wine to white and hey presto – it’s pink and a little more fruity. However, with the exception of Champagne, EU law forbids rosé wine to be made that way. So take note, your pink Champers is basically a white wine with a hint of red to give it colour.
European rosé (and most other countries for that matter) is made using red grapes that are converted into wine using a process typically used for white grapes. I’ll take you one stage back from there. White wines are made from grapes that are crushed and almost immediately separated from their skins. Red wines are deeper in colour because they have long contact with the skin; up to four or six weeks depending on the style. If you take red grapes, gently crush them and remove the skins, you get a pink wine.
You can then separate those pink wines into two more styles. The first is called “saignee” and is a French term. The wine world look down a bit on this style of rosé because it means the pink wine is made from juice that is destined to become red. Basically the winery chooses to separate some liquid from the red grape juice while it is still pale, and make rosé from that. The remaining juice becomes more concentrated and goes on to become a red wine. This method is useful when making wine from high yielding vines that don’t have a great intensity of flavour. When I started out as a wine buyer I was taught to ask wineries if they made their rosé this way, as a way to diagnose a slightly inferior quality wine.
Then we move to the better type of rosé which is made from grapes picked to only make a rosé wine. The reason these tend to be better is that the grapes are picked at the perfect point of ripeness for a rosé style of wine, typically a little early so the flavours are delicate berries and fresh to taste. Then when these are made into a wine the colour often tells you how long the wine has been allowed to stay on its skins. For a deeper coloured rosé they may have been crushed and left on skins for several hours. But for a pale Provence style rosé the juice is allowed to almost brush the skins before being taken off.
And I know the final question will be how can I tell what sort of sweetness will be in my rosé wine. This is a really tricky question. I tend to decide this by region because it is usually a stylistic choice. So rosé from countries like the USA are often sweet – like White Zinfandel. Italy, Spain and France go for drier styles; except Rosé D’Anjou in France. And then other countries are less predictable so I would recommend reading the back label and hopefully they will describe the style. But failing that if you like sweet rose keep a bottle of sugar syrup in your fridge and add a dash to a dry rosé, then you can create your own style; that is far more fun!
What’s the difference between Champagne, Prosecco and Cava?
A well timed question, as I’ve just spent 24 hours in Champagne on a work trip. I actually get asked this question quite a lot – “Aren’t they all just fizzy white wine?”, “Is Prosecco Italian Champagne?”. The answer can actually get quite complicated, so I’ll try to keep things simple, and avoid the minutiae of how and when you can prune the vines.
First off, there’s the legal definition of each. Prosecco is Italian and made from a grape variety called Glera, which must make up a minimum of 85% of any blend. Champagne is typically blended from three grape varieties, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, and they must be grown in the Champagne region of France. Yes – two of those are red grapes, but they are pressed very gently so that the juice isn’t coloured. Cava is typically blended from Macabeu, Xarello and Paralleda, and is of course Spanish.
Easy eh? Three different drinks, from three different countries, made from different grapes with different rules. But why is there such a difference in price? It’s to do with how they’re made.
Let’s start with Prosecco. It (and the others for that matter) starts life as any white wine would, but it’s what happens after that where the differences between our three sparklers really begin.
The wine destined to become Prosecco is placed in a large stainless steel tank called an autoclave. More yeast and sugar is added to create a second fermentation, and the tank is sealed. In simple terms that means the yeast consumes the sugar, and produces alcohol and carbon dioxide as by products. As the tank is sealed, the carbon dioxide can’t escape and dissolves into the liquid, and it becomes fizzy. If you have a Sodastream, it’s the same concept. This whole process takes just a couple of months from grape to sale.
Compare this to Champagne and Cava, which are made by following the ‘traditional method’, or ‘methode traditionnelle’. Here, instead of sealing the base wine in a tank, it’s bottled, and then something called ‘liqueur de tirage’ is added. This is a mix of sugar and yeast and the base wine. The bottles are then sealed with a crown cap (like a beer bottle), and the second fermentation takes place in the actual bottle. At some point during this second fermentation, the yeast cells will die, typically because the sugar and nutrients for the yeast will run out. These dead cells (“lees”), will fall to the bottom of the bottle, and a second process called autolysis will begin. The dead yeast cells now begin to influence the flavour of the wine. Depending on the quality and style desired, the bottles are then left for anywhere from one to several years.
Fast forward a few years and you now have a sealed bottle, full of dead yeast, and you need to get it out. This is done via a process called riddling. The bottles are placed in a rack at an angle of 45 degrees, cap down. They are rotated every few days and the angle slowly increased until the bottle is upright, causing the dead yeast to fall into the neck of the bottle. The neck is then frozen and the cap removed. The pressure in the bottle forces out the frozen ‘plug’ of yeast, and this is called disgorging. The bottle is then quickly topped up (Google ‘dosage’) and then sealed with a cork.
We’re glossing over details here, but now we know that Prosecco is made in months, and Champagne/Cava in years. This explains why Prosecco is the cheapest, but doesn’t explain why Champagne is considerably more expensive than Cava. The answer is simple economics. The land in Spain is cheaper than in Champagne, so the growing costs are lower. Also, grapes for use in Champagne must be picked by hand, whereas for Cava they can be machine harvested, so greater efficiency and lower costs. Luxury Champagne brands also spend a lot of money on marketing, adding to the costs. And finally one more legal definition – Cava must be aged a minimum of 9 months in the bottle, and it’s 18 months for Champagne.
Taste wise, Prosecco should be clean, peachy, lightly floral and refreshing, with Cava and Champagne being fruity, toasty, buttery.
A fairly long answer, but about as short as I can make it. Look at the length of the Prosecco explanation versus the other two – hopefully that explains the price. But don’t feel that means you need to pretend to like the pricier ones, they have very different flavour profiles and if you are lucky enough to prefer the Prosecco style you are saving yourself a lot of money – enjoy!
Why is wine temperature important?
Wine is a living and breathing thing, and like humans it can be affected by temperature. Stored too cold and it can be left in a state of frosty shock, too warm and the effect is like sunburn, or imagine it being gently cooked in the bottle. We all like to keep our home in that temperature that feels “just right”, and we need to do the same for wine. So here are my tips.
Storing: Stored wine needs stability, in temperature, humidity, and vibration. This is why the underground cellars have long been preferred because they generally offer these three things naturally.
If you have a wine fridge (a proper one, not one of those kitchen gimmicks) then it should be set to between 11 and 14 degrees C. Towards 11 for whites, 14 for reds, and somewhere in the middle if you’re storing both. Wine fridges are expensive, so if you are storing in your house just try to find a spot which isn’t close to heat or vibration. A spare wardrobe or cupboard, in a room on your lowest floor (so it doesn’t get too hot in the summer). When we say storing, we mean actually keeping the wine for a number of years, not storing until the weekend.
Definitely not on top of fridges, kitchen cupboards or near other electrical goods which produce heat. I spend a lot of time worrying about this because a lovely bottle can easily be spoilt if it is gently warmed across the summer months.
Serving: I love playing around with the serving temperature on white and reds. A bugbear of mine is that many restaurants serve reds too warm, which mutes the aromas and flavours. Some reds like Beaujolais or low tannin reds such as Pinot Noir can be lightly chilled, which really helps bring out their fresh fruity characters. The typical ideal serving temperature for most reds is 15-18 degrees. Since most homes are above 20 degrees, especially in the winter, you might want to put your bottle in the fridge a few minutes before serving to see if it improves it a little.
For whites, the style of the wine is important. For a crisp dry white I would say 7-10 degrees, while richer whites benefit from being a little warmer, around 10-13 degrees. If that’s all a bit too precise, consider that most of us will store white wine in the fridge at around 4 degrees C, so it’s well worth getting it out a few minutes early and allowing it to warm up a little before serving.
Final tip is that many people are opening up Champagne / Prosecco / Cava and finding it gushes out wildly. The usual reason is that the bottle isn’t chilled properly – they should be 6-10 degrees. Colder liquids can hold more CO2, so if the bottle is too warm all that gas will try to escape upon opening, leading to wet hands, wasted drinks, and a touch of swearing.
What does letting the wine breathe mean, and does it make a difference?
Wine has a love/hate relationship with oxygen. Whisky drinkers will add a drop or two of water to their single malt, as it’s said to ‘open it up’ and bring out the flavours. Wine can use some oxygen (exposure to the air) to achieve a similar result. Too much though, and the wine will oxidise and slowly turn to vinegar. That’s why that five day old half drunk bottle doesn’t taste so good, and why you should consider getting a vacuum pump (about £5) to seal the bottle if you won’t drink it all in one session.
When a wine is bottled, a little amount of an inert gas or sulphur is added to preserve the wine, and the wine sort of goes to sleep. ‘Letting a wine breathe’ means to expose it to the air (oxygen) to wake it up, and to allow the aromas to come through and soften the wine. Typically this is done by decanting, which also has the added benefit of (assuming you decant carefully) removing any sediment. I have a decanter and have never used it, but that’s mostly because you can achieve the same result by letting the wine stand in the glass for 10-20 minutes before drinking. Yes – this will require some pre-planning and willpower. It’s also why you see people swirling the wine in the glass – it’s gets more oxygen in and allows the wine to express itself.
What you can’t do is just open the bottle and let it stand – there simply isn’t enough surface area exposed for that to have any meaningful impact.
Letting a wine breathe is really worthwhile, especially with higher priced reds which can benefit from several hours decanting and can even taste better the day after. However, your basic corner shop red is unlikely to benefit much, as the layers of complexity just won’t be there to begin with and the oxygen won’t be able to help. You can also decant Champagne and whites, especially whites with lots of tension and minerality like Chablis. (Which as you’ll learn later, is made from Chardonnay).
Why not test the theory – pour yourself a glass and have a sniff and a taste, then come back 10-20 mins later and do the same. Was there a difference?
I typically only drink Rosé wine, so what reds or whites would you recommend as an easy introduction to something else?
Here we go, another tricky question. I don’t know what style of Rosé you usually like to drink. The flavour profiles vary so much from bone dry Provence styles to the sweet and fruity White Zinfandels.
I’m therefore going to pitch my advice along this scale.
Let’s start with the bone dry pale pink Provence Rosé. This is virtually a white wine considering it is made from very gently pressed grapes, and the juice taken away from their skins before the colour or flavour is imparted. The flavour profile has only a hint of berry fruit and is otherwise very mineral with a gentle savoury undertone. For these styles I would point someone to an equally dry mineral style of white. Chablis would be an obvious alternative, or a nice Gavi or Friulano from Italy. Or if you are trying to increase your Rosé repertoire in this style try a Sancerre Rose or Pinot Grigio Rosé.
Moving onto the more bountiful fruity styles which are nevertheless still dry. I’d consider Rosé from Spain or a new world region like New Zealand, Australia or Chile to be in this group. Since these have a decent red fruit punch but in that tutti frutti style, I would point a lover of these styles to light and fruit driven reds with low tannins. Sometimes drinkers of Rosé are not fan of reds because of that crunchy textured mouthfeel you get from tannin. Ideal reds to try are styles like Beaujolais, new world Pinot Noir, or Valpolicella. Serve them chilled for maximum fruity expression.
Finally we get to those sweet Rosé styles like California White Zinfandel. The fruit in these isn’t necessarily rich, they can be quite light and taste a bit like a boiled sweet because of the residual sugar that enhances that character. For these styles I would probably look for a white wine that is off dry. A good thing to try would be a Riesling which is off dry from Germany, they are pretty straightforward and sweet on the fruit so that could be a nice alternative. Other wines which tend to have a bit of residual sweetness are Alsace white or Vouvray demi sec from the Loire. But then you can also branch out into the more mainstream whites from California which have a big dose of sweetness from oak and residual sugar, brands like Cupcake Chardonnnay fit that bracket.
How do you read a wine list?
This is a bit of an epic question! What sort of wine list are we talking about here – random bar, gastropub or Michelin starred restaurant? I might have to give my tips one by one.
I know why you are asking. I still get flummoxed when a bible sized tome is laid in front of me in a restaurant. Even after over ten years of studying wine I’m not “au fait” with every producer in the world.
Let’s start with that random bar, where we’ll assume the owner doesn’t know much about wine. They’ve likely been sold the wine by a salesman who may well be fobbing off his useless stuff to this poor soul. The rule here is to keep it simple. Buy the fast sellers rather than the random stuff with higher prices – it’s probably been sitting getting dusty in their store room and is way past its best. For inoffensive whites I tend to go to Pinot Grigio because it might be dull and tasteless, but in this sort of place it’s better than full of flavour and rubbish. You can also go for those sort of wines that are like Heinz and tend to be reliable and taste the same wherever you buy them, here I’m talking NZ Sauvignon or South American reds. Also check the vintage on whites, if it’s more than two years old (so 2015 and older right now) it is likely to be dull and flat. Ask for something younger – they will look at you weirdly but it will be worth it.
Next step up is the gastropub. Here they will be trying that little bit harder, and if they don’t know about wine they’ve probably paid a consultant or someone like me to develop their list. If the list is divided up into style sections that is also a good sign. It shows they are a place that want customers to explore a bit and they might have a few wines worth trying that you haven’t tasted before. If that’s the case, head to the part of the list where your trusty favourite sits e.g. full bodied and fruity. Then pick another next to your normal tipple. If you aren’t as lucky as that then revert to thinking about what you are eating. For example Italian wines tend to be good matches for their local food and so on. That cuts down the choices a bit.
This kind of place is going to price the wines according to what it knows sells best. Most people are embarrassed to buy the cheapest on the list, so savvy owners will make the second or third on the list their most profitable wine by putting a hefty margin on it – so don’t be afraid to order the cheap one, it might be the best value for money.
In places like Wetherspoons (large UK pub chain and NOT a gastropub) I’m told the highest priced wines have a very low mark up because they know very few people buy them, so you can get some real bargains. But I can’t vouch for every place to be like that.
Finally we head to that starry restaurant with that heavy book that everyone is dreading. By page 5 your head is starting to feel woozy and panic is setting in. Most of these places will have a sommelier or waiter to help you, so the best thing to do here is just ask for help. They are likely to have actually tasted the wines and know what dishes they match to, and will probably ask you a couple of questions to work out what you usually like. Considering you are going to pay a lot for your dinner you are mad not to use them. But if you really don’t like that idea then try tweeting @52grapes and ask me. If I’m sitting on the sofa doing nothing I’m happy to offer you advice!
Do I get worse hangovers after drinking white wine?
Some people have asked me this before and there is no easy explanation. Typically a hangover is just caused by excessive consumption (Boring! – Andy), but there could be a couple of other factors too. One potential cause is that white wines typically use more sulphur during production. Sulphur is a preservative using in winemaking to protect the wine against oxygen. It has been used since the dawn of winemaking and in small doses is a good thing to keep the wine tasting good and fresh. Red wines typically need a little less sulphur because the tannin in red wines is a natural anti-oxidant and helps to do the same job. If you have asthma in your family you could be a bit sensitive to sulphur; so if you regularly feel a bit worse than you should, try drinking a higher quality white, as it should have less sulphur. But don’t think sulphur is a terrible thing. It is used in much higher doses in packets of dried fruits or salad and fruit pots, so if you eat those with no problem then you are probably fine.
And I’m afraid the subject is more complex than just sulphur. There is a topic that people are just starting to explore which is about “histamines” – yes, those hayfever things – that can be produced in the process of winemaking, typically with certain types of yeasts. You could also be having a reaction to those, and I’m afraid not enough is known to establish what type of wines have that issue.
Sadly this is the best answer I can give at this stage. I would say if in doubt drink less and drink better. Higher priced wines tend to be made with less additives whilst entry level wines are made with lots of “jiggery-pokery” to make the more basic grapes (typically coming from lower quality vineyards) taste good and be ready to release young.
What white wines go with steak?
There are all these stuffy rules in food & wine matching. Port goes with cheddar, sweet wine with blue cheese, red wine with meat; blah blah blah. As a lover of cheese I’ve tested that theory out thoroughly and actually found white wine is a seriously good match for many cheeses. But with a boyfriend who is veggie it hasn’t been easy to try the theory with meat. So I’ll have to take a punt on this one. Let me know the results.
The reason why people say red wine with meat is because the tannins in red wine and the protein in the meat have a magic reaction. The meat is softened by the wine, and the wine tastes mellower and smoother too. Tannin can also come from Oak, so my logic goes that a nice oaky white may work. I would go for a bold fruity Australian or Californian Chardonnay as a start. They have a buttery richness that would also match to a fillet steak that has been pan fried with a bit of butter.
If you aren’t a Chardonnay fan then try some other oaked whites: aged White Rioja would be a great match for its nutty richness to compliment the meat, or a Sauvignon Semillon blend from Australia or France. Just make sure they are oaked! Alternatively meat can feel fatty and rich so any white with a good amount of acidity might provide a nice contrast, so how about a dry Riesling? Preferably one that is aged and mellow.
Oh and if you are feeling a bit trendy, then seek out an orange wine. It’s a white wine made with skin contact – so it has as much structure and tannin as a red, and would work in the same way with steak to compliment it.
How strong (in terms of alcohol) can a wine be?
The amount of alcohol in a wine is dependent on the amount of sugars in the juice from the grapes. The standard is that 16.5-17g of sugar per litre makes 1% of alcohol. This is why grapes grown in warmer climates like Australia can more easily produce high alcohol wines. Warm temperatures create riper grapes with higher sugar content, therefore producing more alcohol.
Some grapes also achieve naturally high sugars like Grenache (which we’re trying this week!) giving them the potential to make higher alcohol wines. There is another technique called “appassimento” where the bunches of grapes are dried after picking, causing the grapes to concentrate and to raisin slightly, raising the sugar level. If you’ve tried a wine called Amarone from Italy, it can have 15% or more alcohol.
However there isn’t an infinite scale. As a wine ferments the yeasts that are converting sugar to alcohol will begin to tire. The more sugar in the wine the more they start to struggle and eventually they become exhausted and die – poor things – but their death is not in vain. When the yeasts die, the fermentation stops, and can leave residual sugar in the wine. This is typically between 15-16% ABV level. There are some clever yeasts that can be used that are more tolerant to this process and will therefore survive a little longer, but they still typically stop at that point.
When you taste a wine at that alcohol level, you may notice a warm burn at the back of the throat – that is when there is too much alcohol and it is out of balance. Winemakers don’t tend to look to achieve high alcohol wines for that reason.
Finally, if you have ever tried a fortified wine like Port or Sherry, these have an ABV of 15-21% for a different reason. A base wine of much lower alcohol is fortified by adding a bit of spirit at 40% ABV and therefore raising the alcohol a few degrees. In this case, the amount of alcohol that could be reached is as much as the amount of spirit they add. A whole different ball game.
What does ‘corked’ actually mean, and how can I tell if my wine is corked?
A corked wine is a wine spoilt by a taint that comes from a chemical compound called TCA or TBA. It’s not that thing when you mess up with the cork screw and get bits of cork in the bottle.
These compounds are produced when fungi in cork/wood come into contact with chlorine based compounds, such as bleach and cleaning products.
If a tainted cork is used then it can leach into the wine. The result means the TCA overpowers the wine producing a nasty musty aroma and flavour. Some people might detect it as a wet cardboard or musty corner of the cellar aroma.
It doesn’t just come from the cork, it can be from other contaminated wood products used during the winemaking process; so even a wine bottled in a screw cap can be corked. Nowadays better procedures on cork production and care in the winery is reducing the amount of wines affected by this taint.