AOH :: WINE-5.FAQ|
Wine Frequently Asked Questions
Copyright: (c) 1995 Bradford S. Brown (see Notices & Disclaimers in pt. 10)
*5. DRINKING WINE
*5.1 TEMPERATURE TO DRINK AT
Room temperature. Well, that's what you always hear. The
problem is that, at the very least, it is a bit inaccurate, and
at the worst (as demonstrated by a whole lot of restaurants
around where I live) you wouldn't want to drink it at 80 degrees
Fahrenheit ("it's the room temperature, isn't it?")
As cool wine warms, vapors rise off the wine. Since your sense
of smell is a very big part of what things taste like, getting
those vapors into your nose is important. Try drinking a bottle
of wine that has been heavily refrigerated. In some ways, it
will taste a lot like water, or at least tasteless alcohol. On
the other hand, if you serve a little below room temperature,
you'll get the benefit of the vaporizing effect. So one rule of
thumb is to serve the wine 1 or 2 degrees below room temperature.
But, there IS a limit to the warmth. To some extent, you can use
--The BEST red wines; "big" red wines: 59 to 61 degrees Fahren-
heit, 14 to 16 degrees Centigrade.
--Lesser reds, rose, and "complex" white wines: 50 to 54 degrees
Fahrenheit, 10 to 12 degrees Centigrade.
--Less complex white wines: 46 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit, 8 to 10
--Sweet white wines, Champagne: 43 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit, 6
to 8 degrees Centigrade.
If the wine is too cold, can you warm it in the microwave? I
wouldn't think so, but one correspondent tells me that he saw
(they call this hearsay, don't they) a notable wine expert do it
with an old and expensive bottle, so . . . . Personally, I find
that holding the glass with my hands usually gets it warmed up
*5.2 OPENING THE BOTTLE
You can tell a little about the wine even without opening it.
Besides a moldy cork (see below), perhaps the "fill level" known
as ullage, is lower than you expect. If the bottle was low to
begin with (I'm told not uncommon in some Italian wines), you
don't have to worry about it. But there are other causes. If
the wine has been subjected to high heat, the wine can expand and
liquid may be forced out through the cork. Since the heat wasn't
good for the wine, this can be an indicator of problems to come.
On the other hand, increase in ullage is natural over a long
period of time and even can be a selling point at auctions.
Other problems that could cause bottle leakage would be damaged
corks or storage in a very low humidity environment, which can
cause the corks to dry out.
Most corks are made from cork. Since cork is expensive, some
wineries are experimenting with making corks from plastic or
other high-tech materials. Since the idea of the cork is to keep
what's inside the bottle inside, and what's outside the bottle
outside, it doesn't seem to matter what the cork is made of. It
is questioned by some, however, whether a non-cork cork might
allow the material it is made out of to leech into the wine with
harmful side effects to the wine and to humans. A screwcap
(gasp!) probably is better than a cork since it does the same job
and can't "cork" the wine. Screwcaps are now coming on the
market in somewhat more upscale wines (they've been on jugs for
years--and don't forget that a lot of wine comes out of "milk
carton" type cardboard containers that certainly don't have
When you remove the "capsule" (which may or may not be made from
some sort of metal foil) from the bottle, you may find a cork
which is discolored or even has a lush growth of mold growing on
top. If whatever it is hasn't gotten into the wine (also check
the "fill level"--if wine has leaked out it is a further
indication of trouble), then all you need do is wipe the cork off
with a damp rag, towel dry it a bit and remove the cork. Wipe
off the top of the bottle. Read on about "corked" wine.
Sometimes you may see something that looks like on the bottom of
the cork (or sometimes in the wine). Assuming no true
contamination from the winery, these crystals are probably the
result of tartaric acid in the form of potassium bitartrate
(cream of tartar). While I don't vouch for accuracy of the
information is this document, I'm told that this is tasteless and
A handy use for leftover corks is to clean knives. Keeps your
fingers away from the blade, but lets you exert enough pressure
to get the blade clean.
*5.2.2 Cork Screws
There are lots of different types of devices which will remove a
cork. Some are a lot easier than others. To me, one of the
harder types is the one that is invariably used by the waiter in
a restaurant. I once asked a waiter why he didn't use something
easier and he told me that the manager thought it made the place
look more "professional." The only benefit I can see from those
sorts of corkscrews is that they are useful when pulling a cork
from a bottle of wine that is sitting in a cradle (and they have
a built in knife for cutting the capsule).
Some people don't like putting a hole into their cork (I guess
they figure they're going to use it again?) and use a cork puller
known as an "Ah-So". The device is made of two metal prongs
which you wriggle back and forth so that the prongs move down the
side of the cork (sometimes pushing the cork into the wine).
When you hit bottom the tension lets you pull the cork back up.
There are EXPENSIVE corkscrews, like the US $100+ Leverpull (tm)
which works, as many times as I have seen it in operation, quite
well. (It is the sort of thing you'd bolt to a countertop.) But
I don't actually see why you need to spend the money on it. I've
gotten pretty good at using the Napa motel free giveaway
corkscrew (you can get them for about US $1). At home we like to
use the approximately US $20 Leverpull which has a Teflon coated
screw and a nice long mechanism that extends at a 180 degree
angle at the top which you can push around with your finger when
the mechanism is extended (to distinguish from a slightly less
expensive model that you twist with your hand). Some people say
"don't let the screw go through the bottle of the cork." It does
with the Leverpull, but it does it so neatly there never are any
particles that come loose (at least so far!).
* 5.2.3 Now That the Bottle is Open
The first real rule is that you don't want shake up the wine
(well, most wines) very much. Get something that lets you get
the cork out easily and smoothly. Its a nice idea to find
something that doesn't break the cork off in mid-pull (there ARE
little hooks that will help you fish out a cork you've been
forced to push down into the bottle).
With fancy old red wines, it can get a bit more complicated. As
wines mature, sediment (which is tannic), described by some as
"crud in the bottle" will come out of the wine. If the wine is
laying on its side, the sediment will be along the lower edge of
the bottle. The best thing to do is stand the bottle upright a
day or two before you plan to drink it. Then the sediment can
fall to the bottom of the bottle. Handle the bottle very
carefully. You don't want to mix the sediment back through all
the bottle. When you pour, stop before any sediment comes out.
If you haven't managed to get the bottle upright in advance, you
can serve the wine from a cradle which inclines the wine at about
a 45 degree angle. If you carefully open and carefully pour, the
sediment will stay along the bottom edge and out of your glass.
Just because there was no discoloration or growth along the top
of the cork does not mean that is isn't possible that the cork
hasn't caused a problem with the wine, or that there isn't some
other problem. It is useful to smell the wet end of the cork
before drinking the wine. Sometimes it will give you advance
notice that there is something wildly off about the wine,
including that the wine may be "corked." To me corked wine has
the flavor of wet, musty cardboard. Once you have really tasted
a corked wine, you'll know what it is--it is not subtle. Some
people think that 1 out of every 12 wines is corked. At least in
the circles I drink in, I can only remember finding 2 corked
wines over the last 10 years. But then, I can't afford a whole
lot of really OLD wine. All in all, most wine isn't corked. (If
you aren't "lucky" enough to have a real corked wine, apparently
you can buy the odor of the stuff from enterprising
entrepreneurs. One advertised business is: The Wine Trader,
attn: "Corky," P.O. Box 1598, Carson City, Nevada 89702.)
A wine might also be "madeirized." A poorly stored bottle,
exposed to heat or oxygen can end up smelling and tasting like,
well, like Madeira (or Sherry). It will not have the right color
and probably has lost it's fruitiness.
This is where you pour the wine out of the bottle into another
container (a "decanter"). Properly decanting a bottle lets you
get rid of sediment. Use a candle behind the neck of the bottle
to see when sediment gets to the neck (I'm repeating the standard
line here---Assuming you don't get it close enough to heat up the
wine, is there some reason you can't use a light bulb?). Stop
pouring as soon as you see the sediment. Not all wines have
sediment, but old vintage Port does and is always decanted for
this reason. Some people will decant through cheesecloth, wire
mesh placed in a funnel or even coffee filters.
Some wines will say on their label that they are "unfiltered."
(See the section on fining and filtering.) If you find that
there is sediment in such wine, go ahead and decant, but just
because a wine is unfiltered doesn't necessarily mean that there
will be sediment.
There are other reasons to decant wine. For example, some young
white wines may be have a sulfurous quality which can be removed
by spirited decanting. Decanting also lets red wine "breathe,"
giving any bad but very volatile chemical compounds in the wine a
chance to evaporate ("blow off") so they're not there when you
Some wines (for examples some Burgundies and Bordeaux) when young
are "accessible," meaning that you can detect the bouquet and
flavors that are and will be in the wine. But then chemical
reactions take place and the wine closes up (becomes "closed").
What was there before is harder to perceive. The wine gets, as
they say, "dumb." Aging the wine causes the wine to again open
up (tannin, a bitter flavor, turns to sediment and won't be
tasted--if it isn't poured into the glass!), and is more
"complex." Since letting oxygen in the air get to wine can help
to open it up, decanting will help this process along, though not
as much as aging it would.
Be forewarned, however. Not all wines benefit from this airing
(known as "letting the wine breathe"), for example, fine
Burgundies). Also, you can allow a wine to breathe too much.
While oxygen helps to open up the wine, it also oxidizes the
wine, which will eventually ruin it. Finally, a wine that is
"over the hill" isn't going to get anything from breathing, since
it is already "gone." Experience is important here. In any
event, if you don't know, don't decant. While there are those
who advocate letting wine breathe, most don't, or when they do,
advise a relatively short period of time (an hour for young reds,
2 to 3 hours for older fine reds; and some say don't decant until
just before drinking).
Some people will let a wine breathe by opening up the bottle, but
not decanting it. This really isn't of much use since not much
oxygen is going to get down that small neck.
Aside: I knew one wine expert who swore that he could "age" fine
young red wines as if they were laid down for a decade, merely by
vigorously shaking the wine up and down and pouring them back and
forth between containers. I've done it. It "seems" to work.
*5.4 WINE FLAWS
Due to improper production, handling or storage, there ARE a fair
amount of things that can go wrong with wine--most of which
should be cause to return a wine if ordering in a restaurant. As
mentioned in the section on CORKED WINE, how often that flaw
occurs is controversial. It may also be that some people
attribute ALL flaws to "corked" wine. In any event, a flaw IS a
flaw, by whatever name. A non-exhaustive list follows.
--Brettanomeyces (Brett). Earthy and/or manure type smells
caused by the Brettanomeyces strain of yeast. Liked by some (for
example particular French wines), disliked by many California
vintners. In small amounts, can add "character" to a wine. Too
much, and forget it.
--Corked. Smells like musty cardboard or a damp basement, caused
by trichloranisol (TCA) 2,4,6, a compound released by molds that
can infest the bark from which corks are made. One theory: you
can't get TCA without chlorine, which is used to bleach corks
(for aesthetic reasons). If corks aren't properly rinsed and
dried this problem can occur.
--Dekkera. Another wild-yeast caused flavor of fresh dirt or
cement. Liked by some (for example in some Bordeaux, Burgundy,
Rhone and Italian red wines), disliked by many California
vintners. Dekkera can also come from contaminated equipment and
--Madeirized. Wine subjected to oxygen or heat through poor
storage which ends up tasting like Madeira or Sherry. No fruit
flavor left. Off-color.
--Mercaptan. Smells of garlic or onion or even of skunk. I'm
told that this is much of the cause of the "foxy" flavor produced
by grapes native to North America. It is said that the term
"foxy" came about because there wines were often made from the
Fox grape, where the flavor was first seen.
--Sulfur. Burnt match smell caused by too much sulfur dioxide
(used in the winemaking process) and rotten egg smells caused by
hydrogen sulfide from bacterial contamination. Depending on what
it is, it might go away if you air the wine for a while.
--Volatile Acidity. Smells of vinegar. May go away if you air
the wine for a while.
There are long lists of flaws and descriptions in How to Test and
Improve Your Wine Judging Ability (see BOOKS section), and
Elements of Wine Tasting (American Wine Society Manual #11).
5.5 DESCRIBING THE WINE
Lots of terms have grown up on how to describe wine. When you
hear them tossed about and you don't know anything about them,
you can feel lost AND the people using them may sound more than a
bit lofty. But after a while you'll find that you'll start using
the terms too! I think that Dri kinda fell off her chair the
first time I said the wine had a nice "nose!"
There are a lot more terms than I'm going to talk about, but
here's a sample (get a good book, or check out the World Wide Web
site listed below):
--Austere : The wine is kind of stiff or tight, sort of hard.
Hard to tell other traits.
--Balance : Describing the relationship between tannin, acid and
alcohol. You want to drink a "well-balanced" wine.
--Big: A strong, perhaps alcoholic wine. It is a good wine that
can get better.
--Buttery: A sort of smooth feel and taste, like butter. Most
often seen in white wines which have undergone malolactic fer-
--Dry: If sugar remains in the wine it is sweet. When it isn't
sweet, its dry.
--Flabby: A bland tasting wine that isn't going to get any bet-
--Hard: A wine that has a lot of tannin still in it, like a
young fine red. The tannin keeps you from tasting the other
qualities of the wine which will come out through maturation.
--Grassy (or herbaceous): Smells like grass. Often seen in
--Nose: The totality of what you smell.
--Thin: A watery sort of wine.
I have been told that the book "Masterglass" by Jancis Robinson
contains an excellent, unpretentious list of terms. I have not
seen the volume myself. Also see the Internet Resources list
elsewhere in this FAQ. There is a World Wide Web glossary of
wine terms available.
*5.6 THE RITUALISTIC ART OF WINE IN A RESTAURANT
Its one thing to learn about wine, buy it and drink it. Ah, but
then comes the restaurant. There's all those RULES! Who do you
talk to? How do you do it? What do you do when they stick the
cork down in front of you. (And what happens when you're sure
you want to drink a Gewurztraminer [geh-vertz-tra-MEEner], but
can't pronounce it let alone, spell it?)
The evening's fun starts with the wine list. If you're lucky
they've brought it to you. If you're VERY lucky, they've brought
ALL of them to you. [I can recall eating in one of the "best"
restaurants in a capitol city of one of the United States. The
waiter never mentioned that they had a "special" wine list with
the "better" wines on it. He had only brought the short, less-
expensive list of decent but not as fine wine. One wonders if
they didn't intend to sell the good stuff? Maybe it was how I
An informative wine list will tell you the type of wine, the
producer of the wine, where it was grown (though with some wines,
that is inherent in the name), and the vintage (year) that it was
grown. Since there can be considerable variation in vintages (or
the wine may be just too young), this is an important piece of
information. If the wine list doesn't say, ask!
[OK, so I'll admit it. When we first started drinking wine in
restaurants, we brought along a little pocketbook guide that told
us what were good wines. We'd sneak a look at the guide, then
confidently and boldly order--hoping that we got the pronuncia-
Now lets say you don't know about the wines on the list (and
haven't sneaked in your handy guide). Once again, ask. In a
good restaurant, the waiters will have a good working knowledge
of the "wine list." And in some restaurants (more in Europe than
in the United States), there will be an individual (the wine
steward or Sommelier) who's only job is to work with the wine.
Often this person can be invaluable in choosing a wine for you
that perfectly matches the food. A word of warning: Sometimes
their job is to point out the most costly wine they think they
can get you to pay for. I'm not saying this is the norm, but
caveat emptor always applies.
Personally, we decide on what we are having for dinner before we
order the wine. This seems to perturb most waiters and wine
stewards who always seem in a rush to have us order. While they
MIGHT be trying to do the right thing by getting the bottle
opened as soon as possible, we're usually more interested in the
food to start. The waiter can wait. Some people may find a
particular wine that they wish to drink. That is certainly fine
and then they can choose a food that matches the wine.
When your wine comes, look at it. Make sure it's the bottle (and
vintage) you ordered. Busy staff can and DO make mistakes. The
server will remove the capsule (which traditionally was made of
lead foil but is giving way to supposedly less toxic materials
like aluminum or even plastic). The top of the cork should be
wiped off (it can be moldy or have other contaminants), then
The cork is usually then given to the person who ordered the
wine. Why? What do you do? This is where some people start to
squirm. Don't worry, there IS a reason for this. And it even
makes sense. Once you know the reason, you know what to do.
So what's the reason? Alright, actually I've heard two equally
plausible stories. Both sound correct, or at least useful. The
first is that if you take the cork and sniff it you may note some
off-smells. This can be your first indication that the wine has
problems. If it is corked or has turned to vinegar, you'll not
likely want to keep the wine. (There are other, sometimes more
subtle things that can go wrong.) The second is the idea that
someone between the winery and the consumer may figure that
unknowing wine neophytes couldn't tell or wouldn't complain about
a wine no matter what. So they SWITCH the wine by opening the
bottle, replacing the good stuff with something cheaper and then
re-cork it (I guess with a different cork). So the cork is shown
to you so that you can see that it has the marking of the winery
that produces the wine you ordered.
Certainly you can check the cork to see if it is moldy (though
usually you can spot this from a block away, and it doesn't
necessarily mean that the wine is bad). You can see if it is
moist. If it isn't it might mean the wine wasn't stored properly
(but doesn't mean the wine isn't bad, so I don't know how this
may help at this point). One wag recommends that as the cork is
placed before you, you pull a cork out of your pocket and hand it
to the server. The point being, I guess, that there is little
usefulness in the cork ritual. Most people are going to sip it
anyway. Some revel in the standoff of leaving the cork
completely ignored and deciding if the server thinks you either
imbecile or expert. Another wag relates the story of dining with
a friend in an elegant restaurant. When the friend was presented
with the cork, he ate it. A lot of people have written to say
they think the whole cork ritual is useless.
The person who ordered will then be poured a small amount of the
wine for tasting. Having smelled the cork, you may have a good
idea if there is something wrong. Give it a small sip. If the
wine is bad, there is no reason for you to drink it. Send it
back. Most restaurants will accept back a bad wine gracefully.
But . . . , one should not be hyper-critical. Many people will
tell you that only 1 in a 1000 bottles is bad, others place it at
1 in 50. Some go so far as to say 1 in 12. Our personal
experience is that it has been a fairly rare occurrence. DO NOT
send back a wine that "is good" but you don't like. You ordered
it. The same applies to particularly older wines that you know
darn well might not have survived. Though you CAN distinguish
this last by recognizing the difference between a bottle that has
gone "over the hill" and one which is corked, oxidized or
otherwise bad. You shouldn't have to pay a restaurant for
something that is bad for reasons beyond your control.
You probably have seen people "swirl" wine around in their glass.
Is that another part of arcane ritual? Sure, but it ALSO has a
good reason. Swirling releases the smells of the wine, which are
very important to enjoying the full experience of drinking it.
You can swirl the wine around, stick your nose in it, even suck
it through your teeth. All these things "bring out" the wine. I
LIKE to swirl, then sniff, then sip. Sometimes I manage not to
swirl it onto the tablecloth, too. (See the section on glasses.)
Check out the discussion on what temperature of a wine should be
when served. There's nothing that should keep you from insisting
that a restaurant do the same for you. That's what ice buckets
are for. I've been in plenty of "fancy" restaurants that have
brought out a fine red wine at 70 degrees or so, Fahrenheit.
An interesting point was sent to me by a correspondent which I
think is worthy of reproduction (almost) in full: "Incidentally,
you don't usually need to taste a wine to tell it is off. The
nose is enough. Just give the glass to the server and ask him
what he thinks if you're not sure. Most aren't confident enough
to assert that the wine *is* OK to your face." And whether they
are knowledgeable enough or not, "turning the initial tasting
from confrontation to discussion will probably improve your
chances of getting good wine."
I have learned not to have any compunctions about making it quite
clear how I want to drink wine in a restaurant. It is a fact, of
course, that I'm paying for it. One particularly expensive San
Francisco establishment that supposedly prides itself on its wine
list sent out a red wine that was clearly too warm. As I
mentioned above, there are way to deal with this, if you want to.
When the waiter was informed that we wanted the wine cooled, he
looked at us like we were the idiots we apparently were, told us
that he certainly wouldn't want the wine to "close up" and was
generally nasty. When I asked him just what temperature the wine
had been stored at, he came up with 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Now
this is about 5 degrees too cold (on average) of what the
"perfect" cellar temperature would be (and I would expect
perfection from this place.) Since it was clearly not that cold
and was, in fact, too warm, we decided that we besides believing
in the strength of our convictions, we would never again visit
this establishment. We insisted on what we wanted and made sure
his tip represented our displeasure.
Another poor restaurant practice is the one of overfilling the
glass. I haven't yet figured out if the majority of these errors
are due to unskilled servers or from training designed to move a
greater volume of wine through the cash register. Perhaps they
don't want me to pour the wine since I'll probably stain the
tablecloth with drops my red wine (and I do). Maitre d's and
servers scurry to my table in horror when I pick up the bottle.
I have found, however, that there are very few restaurants that
know how to keep a perfect fill level in a glass and that I am
willing to risk their wrath and insist that I pour my own. Just
by way of contrast to the prior restaurant horror story, I can
say that there are some places that do know what they are doing.
A very good restaurant, associated with a winery) in California's
Napa Valley not only kept the fill level at just exactly the
right level throughout my meal, they did it without my even
noticing. A rare treat, in my experience.
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