14 Wine Questions You Might Be Afraid to Ask
Last Updated: Mar 28, 2016
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When you drink wine, are you really tasting it? Do you want to increase your wine knowledge and improve your entertaining game? Here's everything from proper serving techniques to fun facts to wow your guests at your next dinner party. So, grab your wine key and pop open that bottle you’ve been saving -- what better time to drink vino than while reading about it? Salud!
HOW MUCH WINE SHOULD YOU BUY
There are various factors to take into consideration when deciding how much wine to purchase for an event you’re hosting. While caterers like the ratio of one bottle per person, this could be overkill for your event. Answer the following questions to determine the amount of wine you should buy. What time of day is your party? Generally, guests will be more willing to treat themselves to that extra glass of wine if the party is at night. Will your event be accompanied by dinner? Guests will likely drink more if they will be served a meal. Hospitality-industry professionals suggest two to four glasses per person, and with each 750 milliliter bottle of wine containing five glasses, a safe bet would be one bottle per every two people. But, with that being said, it’s always better to have too much than not enough.
HOW TO SHOP FOR WINE
It’s easy to be intimidated when walking into a wine store. With more than 40 wine-producing countries, it’s no surprise that the average person would get a little overwhelmed with so many choices. It’s good to go in with a plan. Have an idea of how much wine you need. Generally, wine stores map things out by country, which takes some of the guesswork out if you know what kind of wine you like. Also keep in mind your food selections for the evening. Fish and lighter fare pair well with whites and lighter-bodied reds. If you’re serving beef, a heartier red will be a nice accompaniment. If you’re feeling less confident, a true wine store will have a knowledgeable and eager staff: Don’t be afraid to ask their help if you’re having some trouble.
THE PROPER TEMPERATURES TO STORE WINE
It’s a common misconception that you should drink red wine at room temperature (72 degrees Fahrenheit) and white wine should be served cold. This does a disservice to the tasting process because wine served too warm will present as alcoholic, flabby and overripe, and the flavors in wine served too cold will be muted or concealed entirely. Champagne, rosé and lighter-bodied white wines should be consumed the coolest, somewhere in the range between 40 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit; keep them in the refrigerator for two to three hours before consuming. Full-bodied whites like chardonnay or viognier and lighter-bodied reds like pinot noir should be consumed between 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit and should spend about 90 minutes cooling. The bottle will feel cool to the touch. A bottle of full-bodied reds like cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel and nebbiolo should feel slightly cold to the touch, somewhere between 60 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit; about 45 minutes in the refrigerator.
PROPER POURING TECHNIQUES
While it’s a safe assumption that you’re good to go as long as the wine makes it into the glass, there are a couple of basic rules to remember when serving wine. Glasses should only be filled halfway: This leaves enough room in the glass to swirl, which oxygenates the wine, developing and enhancing the flavor. You can refill the glass at any point, just don’t pour past the midpoint. The only exception to this is with Champagne. Champagne glasses should be filled full, leaving about two fingers of space to the top. Do not refill Champagne until the glass is nearly empty. Since Champagne is best enjoyed at a very cold temperature, topping off a glass that is only half empty runs the risk of warming the Champagne.
SEQUENCE WHEN SERVING MULTIPLE WINES
Order matters when it comes to consumption of wine. You can’t begin an evening of tasting with a heavy, tannic California cabernet and then move on to a satiny pinot noir from Burgundy. Your palette will be tainted and you won’t be able to taste the latter wine with the same objectivity you could if you drank it before the heavier wine. Whites should be drank before reds. Lighter-bodied wines should be drank before heavier. Dry wines should always be drank before sweet (and sweet should always be drank last). And finally, wines of lesser significance should be drank before better wines because once you’ve tasted a truly exceptional wine, it is very difficult to go back to a simple table wine.
DON’T DRINK IT, TASTE IT
The best way to learn about wine is to experience it. Tasting anything and everything is the best way to expand your knowledge of this tasty topic. First and foremost, wine is subjective. Know what you like and drink it. With that being said, if you can get to a place where you can be objective as well as subjective, then you’ve truly made it as a wine drinker. Taste with an open mind. Like the old adage “don’t judge a book by its cover,” the same can be said of a wine label. Blind tasting is truly the most advantageous way to learn about wine because all your preconceived notions about a particular grape or winemaking region evaporate and only the wine is left to express itself in its truest form.
WHAT EXACTLY IS WINE?
Wine can be broken down into five components: 1) Alcohol: The component that changes juice to wine. Alcohol influences the body, texture, aroma and flavor of the wine 2) Acid: Naturally occurs in the pulp of the grape. The timing of harvest of the grapes determines the balance of acid, which you can taste on the sides of your mouth. 3) The drying sensation you feel on the top of your tongue is the expression of the tannin in wine. Tannins give wine its structure and backbone, and they act as a natural preservative. 4) Fruitiness or the expression of fruit in a wine does not mean a wine is sweet; rather the wine simply expresses fruit-forward qualities, such as sour cherry or ripe blackberry notes. 5) The levels of sweetness (or dryness) of a wine points to the sugar content, which is measured by how much sugar was left in the wine when fermentation is stopped.
WHICH TYPES OF GLASSES TO USE
There is no correct wine glass to drink from; you may drink out of any vessel you choose. However, if you are concerned about which glassware is proper to serve, here are some good tips to know: 1) Stems are your friend. I know stemless glassware looks modern and clean, but you run the risk of warming your wine if you don’t have a stem to hold it by. 2) A large bell or bowl means more air can fill the glass, which helps to oxygenate, or what wine people call “letting it breathe.” This “opens up” a wine and makes it more expressive. 3) The opening at the top of the glass should be somewhat narrow as to help focus the aromas of the wine toward your nose as you drink. 4) No need for separate white wine and red wine glasses. Stores would like you to think you need a set for both, but that’s just their bottom line talking.
WHAT SHOULD YOU SERVE?
What kind of event are you throwing? Is it a party without a formal dinner? Opt for easy-drinking wines that don’t need food: Champagne, rosé, pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc and pinot noir are good examples. If you are serving dinner, keep your menu when choosing wines. Salads and seafood go great with light, zingy whites, while meat dishes tend to be better complemented by red wine. Also take into consideration the style of food. If you’re cooking Italian, it’s nice to serve Italian wines because the wine and food from a particular country are meant to go hand in hand. You’ll also want to please as many palates as possible, so stick with wines that aren’t too light or too heavy. Most Italian red wines are medium bodied with enough structure for guests who prefer bigger wines, but still smooth enough for guests that like a lighter-bodied wine.
WHEN TO DECANT AND WHEN TO AERATE
Decanting and aerating are similar processes, but for different reasons. You decant a wine when you must remove the wine from the sediment at the bottom of the bottle. Generally, aged and heavier wines tend to have more sediment. You can use a screen placed over the decanter or carafe, pour slowly, never tilting the bottle too far over so you don’t disrupt the sediment. Leave the last inch or so of wine in the bottle. Aerate a wine when it needs air to breathe and open. When air is introduced to a wine that may be seen as tight, you can oxygenate the wine, allowing it to become more expressive. Simply pour wine into a carafe or decanter to accomplish this.
WOW FACTOR: FRENCH FACTS
If you want to up your wine game, try adding the French word “terroir” to your vocabulary. Terroir is the unique taste and flavor of the wine imparted by the environment in which it was grown. Karen MacNeil, author of “The Wine Bible,” eloquently defines terroir as: “The total impact of any given site -- soil, slope, orientation to the sun, elevation and every nuance of climate, including rainfall, wind velocity, frequency of fog, cumulative hours of sunshine, average high temperature, average low temperature and so forth. There is no single word in English that means the same thing.”
WOW FACTOR: FRENCH WINE NOMENCLATURE
Did you know that French wines are named by the village, not by the grape? This is because of terroir. No wines certified by the appellation d’origine controlee (AOC) will be labeled with the grape, only the name of the vineyard it was grown in and the village it was made. They want the wines to be distinguished by place rather than type of grape. Those who believe in the old-world mindset of winemaking place great distinction on the “where.” Wine history is lengthy and intricate, and a sense of tradition has been woven into it by the countries that were there when it all started.
WOW FACTOR: CHAMPAGNE’S HISTORY
Most people are familiar with the quite pricey Champagne Dom Perignon. What they may not realize is that Dom Perignon was a winemaking monk and that he is also responsible for a lot of the procedures and guidelines associated with the production of Champagne until this day. What makes Champagne so special is the sparkly little bubbles that dance around your glass. They don’t just inject carbon dioxide into the bottle to give it this effect. These bubbles are the result of a secondary fermentation process that occurs inside the bottle.
WOW FACTOR: THE SCIENCE BEHIND CHAMPAGNE
Dom P., like many other winemakers at the time, was struggling to make wine that rivaled the wines made in more southern parts in France. Champagne is located in the north of France, and the cold winters and generally lower temperatures would bring the fermentation process to a standstill. When the weather warmed up again in the spring, the yeasts would awaken and begin a secondary fermentation process in the bottle. This process releases carbon dioxide, which became trapped in the bottle, thus creating the classic bubbles we all know and love. Initially, the bubbles were not a welcomed occurrence because it made Champagne’s wines stand out from the rest of France. Once Perignon and others embraced the bubbles and the process was enhanced and improved upon, Champagne became one of the most sought-after and celebrated wines in the world.
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