By Frank Cipparone
With apologies to David Letterman, a Top 10 List of wine-related things to think about and some helpful hints.
1. Aside from magazines and the internet the most effective form of advertising is labeling that tries to lure you with colorful visuals or gimmicky names, neither of which tell anything about the wine. Is a picture of Marilyn Monroe meant to suggest a full, voluptuous wine? The back label can be just as meaningless. Quotes from Homer’s epic poems or descriptions of fog rolling over the vineyards are worthless. The meaningful things to look for are where the wine came from, alcohol level and these important words – grown, produced, bottled by. If all three are there it means the winery nursed it from vine to wine. “Produced” signifies they sourced the grapes or just bought fermented juice. “Bottled by” gives no indication of where the grapes were grown, by whom, or who actually made the wine.
2. Decanting is a stretching exercise for wine before it races to the finish line in your mouth. Like an athlete, the period of long inactivity in the bottle requires a warmup. Older wines need to be decanted slowly and left to rest for a while. Young wines can stand up to accelerated decanting. Take a sip of a just opened bottle and, using two pitchers, pour the rest into one and go back and forth four or five times to the other, sloshing the wine around. Another taste will show you the difference.
3. Screw caps have gotten a bad rap in some circles, but what they do better than cork is consistently maintain freshness, aroma and flavor with a lower rate of spoilage. They are also easy to open if you follow this tip. Don’t twist the cap away from the collar attached to the neck. Hold the collar firmly and turn the bottle until they separate. Pour, enjoy, repeat.
4. Stemless glasses are great for everyday drinking. But if you’re pouring a big- ticket bottle or vintage wine, crystal stemware will bring out its best qualities. A stemmed glass also keeps you from cupping with your hand and unintentionally warming the wine. How you feel about wine in general tells you what fits your needs.
5. Restaurant wine lists can be intimidating, especially if they’re as thick as a telephone directory. Ask questions if there’s someone on hand to assist you, ideally a wine steward. Tell them the kind of wines you like using simple terms – fruity, light, not too tannic, etc. That narrows the possibilities. And never shy away from stating an acceptable price range. It’s your money and you want something you can live with.
6. Visiting a tasting room is fun and you can learn a lot if the winemaker is holding court. They’re happy to talk about their wine if you show interest. Making a purchase is optional, but my guidelines are simple – no charge for tasting and the staff makes you feel welcome, buy a bottle or two. If there’s a fee, don’t feel obligated unless you enjoyed the experience … or the wine, of course.
7. Not sure what to do with an unfinished bottle? All wine loses a little something once opened, reds more so than whites. Storing them in the right place is key. Room temperature accentuates the alcohol level. The fridge is too cold to keep them for more than a few days, although whites can last longer. Screw capped leftovers hold up better than a cork that has already been pierced and exposes the wine to oxidation.
8. Putting together a wine-and-cheese party doesn’t have to be a problem if you stick to the fundamentals. First, don’t stress to impress, so don’t serve premium, high-end wine with the equivalent of Kraft Velveeta slices. As a rule of thumb, if you’re uncertain spend more on better quality cheese and moderately on the wine.
9. There’s a lot to like about wine bars. They offer variety, novelty and usually offer food from snacks and charcuterie to small plates. You can be adventurous and try things from obscure wine regions or grapes you never heard of. The only downer can be the escalating price per glass, averaging anywhere from $12-$16, the current per bottle norm for many people. Look for places that have Happy Hour specials.
10. Here are two demonstrations you can try at home to understand the whole swirl and sniff thing. Take about an ounce sip and let it sit on your tongue, slowly draw air through your lips to release the aromas and flavors before swallowing. Take another sip, hold again, and pinch your nostrils together for five to ten seconds. What’s the difference? Without air you “taste” nothing. All you can detect are the presence of a liquid, its temperature, whether it was light or heavy, and the level of mouth -watering acidity. Those are sensations we feel on our so-called “taste buds.” What we actually smell and taste is filtered through our olfactory system. Swirling stirs up those aromas and sniffing combines the two senses.