AOH :: WINE-4.FAQ|
Wine Frequently Asked Questions
Copyright: (c) 1995 Bradford S. Brown (see Notices & Disclaimers in pt. 10)
*2.7 BARREL AGING
The winery may then keep the wine so that there can be additional
clarification and, in some wines, to give it a more complex
flavor. Flavor can come from wood (or more correctly from the
chemicals that make up the wood and are taken up into the wine).
When wood aging is used, wines are stored most commonly in oak
barrels. It it is considered by many that French oak barrels
give the best flavor and that they must be replaced after several
years of use. American oak is used by some producers and you can
usually tell the difference. Other producers will buy the older,
used French oak barrels and create wines that some feel are
inferior (but they probably ARE less expensive). Some wines may
never see anything but stainless steel and the glass that they
are bottled in. In any event, using oak barrels puts an
"oakiness" characteristic in wine. The wine may be barrel aged
for several months to several years.
*2.8 BLENDING WINE
Ignoring any additional processing that might be used, you could
empty the barrels into bottles and sell your wine. However,
during the barrel aging, the smaller containers may develop
differences. So the winemaker will probably "blend" wine from
different barrels, to achieve a uniform result. Also, the
winemaker may blend together different grape varieties to achieve
desire characteristics. For example, blending a little Merlot
into a Cabernet Sauvignon can give is a more "mellow" taste.
This process also temporarily creates very purple stained teeth
in the red wine maker. Other blends may seem unusual. Recently
I had a blend of 50% each Chardonnay and Viognier. (I liked it.)
*2.9 BOTTLING WINE
At some point the wine will be placed in bottles. Producers
often use different shaped bottles to denote different types of
wine. Colored bottles help to reduce damage by light. (Light
assists in oxidation and breakdown of the wine into chemicals,
such as mercaptan, which are undesirable.)
Bottle sizes can also vary:
Applying generally to wines other than Champagne:
split 187.5 ml
1/2 bottle 375 ml (aka Fillette)
bottle 750 ml
magnum 1.5 liter (2 bottles)
Marie-Jeanne 2.25 liters (3 bottles) (Red Bordeaux)
double magnum 3 liters (4 bottles)
jeroboam 4.5 liters (6 bottles)
imperial 6 liters (8 bottles)
Applying to Champagne:
split 200 ml
1/2 bottle 375 ml
pint 400 ml
bottle 800 ml
Magnum 1.5 liter (2 bottles)
Jeroboam 3 liters (4 bottles) (& Burgundy)
Rehoboam 4.5 liters (6 bottles) (& Burgundy)
Methuselah 6 liters (8 bottles) (& Burgundy)
Salmanazar 9 liters (12 bottles)
Balthazar 12 liters (16 bottles)
Nebuchadnezzar 15 liters (20 bottles)
Just prior to filling the bottle, the producer may insert
nitrogen, which will sit above the liquid preventing
contamination by oxygen. A capsule will be placed over the top
of the bottle. Originally made from lead foil, fears of lead
poisoning (and U.S. law) have brought about the use of other
metals or even plastic.
*3. AGING WINE
Most people assume that the longer that you keep a wine, the
better it will get. So probably the most commonly asked question
you hear is, how long do I keep the wine before drinking? (Since
its best to store wine under certain conditions, like in a cool
damp underground cellar, this is known as "cellaring" wine.)
It is a misconception that you MUST age wine. The fact is,
throughout the world, most wine is drunk "young" (that is
relatively soon after it is produced, perhaps 12 to 18 months),
even wines that are "better" if aged. While some wines will
"mature" and become better over time, others will not and should
be drunk immediately, or within a few years. Eventually ALL wine
will "go over the hill," so even the wines meant to be kept for
many, many years should be drunk before its too late.
Wines which are expected to be matured in the bottle before
drinking can go over the hill faster if not properly stored. If
someone is giving you a very good deal on an old red wine that
you would otherwise expect to be great, start to wonder how it
was kept! And a famous name on the label is no guarantee whether
a wine will age well (sometimes they make mistakes, or the grapes
that year ("vintage") just won't produce wines suitable for
extended aging ("cellaring").
Tannin is a substance that comes from the seeds, stems and skins
of grapes. (For a taste of heavy-duty tannin, try a strong cup
of tea.) Additional tannin can come from the wood during barrel
aging in the winery. It is an acidic preservative and is
important to the long term maturing of wine. Through time,
tannin (which has a bitter flavor--"mouth shattering"?) will
precipitate out of the wine (becoming sediment in the bottle) and
the complexity of the wine's flavor from fruit, acid and all the
myriad other substances that make up the wine's character will
come into greater balance. Generally, it is red wines that are
the ones that CAN (but do not have to be) produced with a fair
amount of tannin with an eye towards long term storing and
maturation. The bad news is that you shouldn't drink it young
since it will taste too harsh (and probably cost too much,
besides). The good news is that (with a little luck) after a
number of years, what you get is a prized, complex and balanced
Remember that red wines get their color from the stems and skins
of the grape. This gives the wine tannin and aging capacity.
White wines may have no contact with the stems and skins and will
have little tannin (though some can be added, again, through
barrel aging). Therefore most white wines don't age well. Even
the ones which do get better through time will not last nearly as
long as their red cousins. A fair average for many "ageable"
whites would be about 5 to 7 years (some might go 10). On the
other hand, really "ageable" reds can easily be kept for 30 years
So, how do you figure out how long to keep a wine before drinking
it? We'll get to a summary, but it IS just a summary. Check out
other sources for the particulars..
Two wineries, side by side, producing the same grapes and the
"same" wine. One ages considerably longer than the other. Why?
While they are the "same" grapes, perhaps the soil or
microclimate (small variations in the local weather due to
terrain; what the French call "terroir") is just a bit different.
Maybe the vines are older. The winery may have processed the
wines differently (for example, heavy filtering). (In fact, even
the size of the bottle matters--a 1/2 bottle ages faster than
larger bottles.) There are lots of reasons, so general rules are
In any event, the red French Beaujolais Nouveau is meant to be
drunk within days. Its a light, fruity wine.
White wine is the next least aged wine. But here there is a
range from a light wine like Sauvignon Blanc or a light
Chardonnay, to more ageable "complex" Chardonnay of good White
Burgundies. Probably drink the former within a few years (aging
isn't needed, and the latter from 3 to 7 years). Dessert wines
like Sauternes or other late harvest wines (Riesling,
Gewurztraminer, etc.) should be aged. Sauternes get better over
a VERY long time: 10, 20, 30, 40 or more years!
Then come the reds. While the vast majority of wines produced
today CAN be drunk immediately, a good number of red wines will
benefit by SOME aging and some will benefit from a LOT of aging.
The ones that you open now that taste like road tar may very well
be fantastic in 5 or 10 or 20 years. Look to some French
Bordeaux (maybe up to 30 years) or Cabernet Sauvignon.
[Getting more specific about some red grapes, rules of thumb
MIGHT be for the very best wines: Cabernet, 10 to 15 years;
Merlot, 4 to 7 years for many; Nebbiolo, 10 years or more; Pinot
Noir, about 5 years to start.]
Some people contend that while California wine won't "go bad" in
the bottle, it doesn't get any better--unlike French wines that
mature (get better) with cellaring. Don't ask me to explain this
controversy as I have had plenty of California wine that seemed
to me to be better after aging (but then, I said I wasn't an
expert. On the other hand, I know I like it when I drink it.)
So much for the summary. Didn't help much, did it? As you learn
more and more about wine, you get a feel for which wines are
produced to be aged. That doesn't mean that you still know when
it is the BEST time to drink the wine. You need to check around.
Ask fellow wine drinkers (and, any unbiased wine merchant with
whom you can establish a relationship). Get a book that gives
opinions. Read the magazines. These resources have the ability
to tell you what happened when THEY drank the wine. Was it still
good, is it starting to go over the hill, is it gone? At least
one correspondent tells me that Australian wines seem to mature
faster in Australia than in Europe, even if kept at similar
temperatures and humidities. Just one more reason why it is best
to ASK (and taste) about individual wines.
Lucky ones (like wine critics or friends of expansive people with
big cellars) can get to be part of "vertical tastings." A
"vintage" is the year in which a wine is produced. Line up a
particular wine on a table with a bottle from each vintage, say,
1971 through 1992 and what you get is a "vertical" of that wine.
A young wine, designed to age, can taste harsh (from the tannin).
As you sample older and older bottles, the wine will mellow.
Flavors come into balance. The oldest wines will lose their
tannin and their fruitiness and eventually have a flat taste.
Somewhere in there is the vintage which tastes the way YOU like
it. That part is up to you, not to the pundits. But their
comments can help. There are lots of resources (see Learning
About Wine) which can help you get an idea which wines should be
When we first started learning about wine, we bought way too much
white wine, which somehow we still have. Some of it--which was
wonderful when purchased--can now best be described as awful.
Since you'll hear the old cliche that you should cook only with
wines you would drink, that wine isn't even good for cooking. I
plan on trying to turn it into vinegar.
ASIDE: One of the first really "good" wines we had was a 1984
Acacia Winery Lake Chardonnay. We bought a case of it and drank
it slowly (like I said, we've got a lot of white left over). A
few years back we asked the winemaker how it would be. His
answer was "never open it . . . just remember the way it was,
you'll be happier." We're glad to say he was wrong. As this is
being written, that bottle was opened last night (it was 10 years
old). Past its prime but still pretty good! So even the
winemaker may not always know, either.
When you are just starting out, it probably doesn't pay to buy
many wines for aging ("laying down"). First off, you are going
to want to drink some of them, and the ones that are "good" won't
be so good this young, and they'll cost too much besides. There
are plenty of wines that are good NOW. As you drink these wines,
you'll get an idea of what types of wine you like. With a little
learning, you'll get an idea of the style of wine you want to put
away. And you may not make the mistakes we did, besides. (On
the other hand, we DID manage to get a few wines that did age
well and we are just drinking now. So much for rules.)
Don't forget, how you store the wine will affect how long it
lasts as well. Even the size of the bottle will change its life.
Getting good advice about particular wine is the only good idea
*4. STORING WINE
What is the best way to cellar wine? If it is a wine that is
meant to be drunk within a year or so, you probably don't have to
keep it in any really special place (like an expensive
refrigerator style wine cellar--check the ads in the back of wine
magazines for examples), other than it should be relatively cool
and out of the light. Some DO say, "panic at 70 degrees"
For wines that should be aged, a cellar should have proper:
--Temperature which does not have rapid fluctuation. 55 degrees
Fahrenheit is a good, but you can live with 50 to 57 degrees
Fahrenheit (10 to 14 degrees Centigrade). Wide swings in
temperature will harm the wine. Having too high a temperature
will age the wine faster so it won't get as complex as it might
have. Having too low a temperature will slow the wine's
--Humidity. About 60 percent is right. This helps keep the cork
moist. The wine will oxidize if the air (and its oxygen) gets to
it. If the cork drys out, it can shrink and let air in. This is
another reason to keep the bottles on their sides. The wine
itself will help keep the cork moist.
--Lack of light.
--Lack of vibration.
--Lack of strong odors. Whatever it is that is causing the odor
stands a good chance of getting through the cork and into the
If you live in or have a cave, you probably are all set. For the
less fortunate, you can buy (or even build) a wine cellar. Also,
in some places, commercial storage cellars exist. Every once in
a while you can go visit your wine. There are also "wine jails,"
wrought iron wine storage cages that can be locked for people, I
guess, who live in caves?
You should know that some people have not followed the
temperature rules and it is their opinion that the wines have not
suffered. They have found that SLOW temperature swings from
relatively cold to relatively warm (but not really hot) have not
drastically affected the wine. Nevertheless, consistently
storing wine at warm temperatures is going to age it faster and
breaking the other rules probably isn't going to help.
*4.1 REFRIGERATORS AND AIR CONDITIONERS
Why not just use an old refrigerator? To start, refrigerators
are too cold. Though this can probably be remedied by a new
thermostat, there still are other problems. Wines prefer
humidity, but refrigerators are designed not to be humid. If you
get around this challenge, there still is the fact that
refrigerators take no effort to dampen the effect of the
compressor turning on and off. The vibrations throughout the
appliance are not considered a good thing for long term storage.
Air conditioners aren't really meant to run at the lower
temperature needed by wine. If you manage to get the unit set to
such temperatures, the coils may "ice up." You also need to deal
with the humidity (get a humidifier). With enough home
ingenuity, some common sense and knowledge, and some homework,
you can convert an entire room into a wine cellar.
*4.2 BUILDING YOUR OWN CELLAR
See the BOOKS section for assistance. Can this be done? Sure.
The biggest hint is that you should build BIG. There is the
natural tendency to buy wine at a faster rate than you can drink
or store it. So while you're already at it, build for the
*4.3 CELLAR SOFTWARE
Large amount of wines tend to get lost around my house so the
computer comes in handy. Personally, I use a standard database
program which I have tailored to my needs. It only took about
five minutes to set up the database. There are wine specific
software programs available (some even including descriptions and
lists of particular wines). I have not seen any of them, but
will list those mentioned.
--WineBase available from firstname.lastname@example.org
--WinWine. Windows based package. 1-800-WINWINE.
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