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Your Wine Questions Answered

Finding Wine

We are having a problem locating wines that you feature in F&W. Any suggestions?
—Trayce Rayski, Dallas

Finding a specific wine is a perennial problem. American wineries alone produce more than 10,000 new wines each year—so many that nearly a third of the entire shelf space in the average supermarket would be needed to stock them all. What this means is that the odds of any individual store having a specific wine in stock are necessarily small. (Of course those odds increase if the wine in question is, say, Yellow Tail Shiraz—several million cases of which are imported from Australia to the U.S. each year.) Yet even a very large store may have only a partial selection of the most well-known brands. This being the case, here are a number of worthwhile strategies that can help you find a specific wine:

Shop at a good wine store—the key requirement of which is a knowledgeable, friendly, interested staff that will help you find the wine you're looking for. Another qualification is good storage conditions; if it feels warm inside the store, then chances are the wine is being stored badly. Many good stores will order a wine for you, even if they don't normally carry it, if you're willing to purchase six bottles or a case.

Call or e-mail the winery and ask for help finding stores in your area, if the wine is domestic. If the wine is international, follow the same strategy with the importer. One method for finding an importer is by googling the winery name plus the term "imported by" or "U.S. importer"; also, many winery Web sites list importers.

Check one of the wine-finding Web sites, for instance, Wine-searcher.com, Winezap.com or Wineaccess.com, which catalogue the stock of various stores around the country, usually allowing you to search on a state-by-state basis. In my experience, Wine-searcher is the most comprehensive of the three, but all of them are useful.

Ask the winery to ship the bottles you want to you or to recommend a store that will do so. Whether they are legally allowed to do so depends on what state you're in (see the next question), but it's worth a try.

I've heard a lot lately about wine-shipping laws changing. Is this true? How does it affect me?
—Matt Petersen, Alexandria, VA

Although mail-ordering wine is getting easier, it is still by no means simple. Sales of wine are regulated by laws that differ from state to state and that mostly do not take into account the rise of mail-order and Internet shopping. However, in 2005 the U.S. Supreme Court made a decision regarding the constitutionality of banning wine shipments across state lines; essentially the decision requires that the economic playing field for in-state and out-of-state wineries be level.

Since then, wine shipping laws have changed in a number of states—Vermont and New York, for instance, both recently passed laws allowing wineries to ship directly to consumers, with some restrictions (limits on the number of bottles or cases a person can purchase per year, for example, or licensing requirements on the part of the winery doing the shipping).

Check a reliable source on the legality of direct shipping to your state before ordering wine from another state, because in many states these laws are still in flux. Two good resources for this information are Wineinstitute.org and Freethegrapes.org.

Tasting Wine

I enjoy wine and drink it regularly. But is all this wine sniffing for real? Can you actually identify aromas like toast and cherries?
—Thomas J. Conklin, Ellington, CT

Admittedly, a lot of wine writers go completely over the top on this subject, but it is possible to discern a wide range of different flavors and aromas in wine by sniffing. Sometimes winemaking techniques impart certain aromas. For instance, malolactic fermentation (a kind of secondary fermentation) produces diacetyl, a compound that gives off a distinctly buttery aroma especially noticeable in white wines. If a wine smells of bananas, you're likely smelling the naturally occurring chemical compound isoamyl acetate. And, of course, oak barrels impart a woody aroma—though that varies depending on the kind of oak the winemaker chooses: American oak often smells like sweet vanilla or sometimes coconut; French oak scents are more delicate, with spicier vanilla notes.

I understand why it's confusing to read that a wine smells like blueberries or raspberries or black cherries. I think there are two things to understand here. First, subtle differences in aromatics are hard to discern unless you've tasted or smelled a lot of wine. Second, there's always a bit of ambiguity or verbal static in using words to describe something you sense, be it smell, taste, sound or touch. Some Grenache wines smell distinctly of black cherries to me, but another wine critic might describe that aroma quite differently. Certainly if you compare several critics' descriptions of the same wine, variations abound. Essentially, both objectivity and subjectivity go into describing a wine, and what you hope, as a wine writer, is that the objectivity outweighs the subjectivity. Regardless, I firmly believe that tasting is a learnable skill. Here are a couple of wine-tasting tips:

Try different wines side by side. Pour an unoaked Chardonnay such as Morgan's Metallico bottling, which is fermented and aged in stainless steel, against one that has spent several months in new oak barrels, like Beringer's Private Reserve. Or try a good Pinot Noir (such as La Crema's Sonoma Coast bottling) against a good Syrah (such as Zaca Mesa's). The aroma of the Pinot Noir will suggest red and black cherries; the Syrah, blackberries. Contrast is a great way to pin down specific characteristics.

Smell fruit. Crush some fresh black cherries in a bowl and compare them to a bowl of crushed fresh blackberries—ideally with your eyes closed, so you don't know which is which. After all, if you aren't sure what blackberries really smell like, it's hard to discern that scent in a wine.

Learn what the general characteristics of certain wines usually are. For instance, Sauvignon Blanc often smells or tastes of grapefruit; Rioja, from Spain, often recalls red cherries and vanilla (most traditional Rioja producers age their wines in American oak barrels). Keep these traits in mind when tasting so you can pick out those scents.

And, of course, taste a lot of wine. This is the best training by far, and without question the most fun.

What exactly are tannins? How do they affect a wine's taste and how it pairs with food?
—Bill Albertini, Bowling Green, OH

Tannins are chemical compounds found in the seeds and skins of grapes (as well as in other fruits and in tree bark, tea leaves and oak barrels), which to varying degrees are present in wine as well. Although tannins can taste bitter, they don't really affect a wine's taste, per se. They do, however, affect its structure, or the way the wine feels, so that the drinker can experience a drying, raspy, tongue-stuck-to-the-roof-of-the-mouth sensation.

For an example of how tannins feel, let a cup of regular black tea steep for 10 or 15 minutes rather than three, and take a sip. The drying sensation the overbrewed tea produces is the result of tannins. Acidity, on the other hand, makes the mouth water and cleanses the palate—one reason high-acid wines are so good with food.

For food pairing, remember that tannins cut through fat when accompanying rich foods, and they're also good partners to protein. So when confronted by a powerfully tannic young red, fire up the grill and slap on a big steak.

Storing Wine

If you don't keep your wine in optimal conditions, like a temperature-controlled cellar, are you better off stashing the unopened bottles in a regular fridge, a closet or somewhere else?
—Jon Glass, Riverside, CT

In rough order of potential disastrousness, there are four things that can damage wine as it ages: temperature, light, humidity and vibration. By far the most harmful is temperature. Wine, in an ideal world, should be stored at 55 degrees, and the longer it's going to be stored, the more important that temperature is. For short-term storage, say a month or two, regular room temperatures in the low 70s aren't going to cause any damage. Even for medium-term storage, say a year or two, wine will survive just fine at 70 degrees—though not much higher than that, or the wine will rapidly lose its vibrancy and complexity. The higher the temperature, the quicker that loss will occur; above 90 degrees or so—a bottle overlooked on a sunny windowsill, for instance—and essentially the result is cooked wine.

Store wine in the coolest, darkest place at hand. This might be a cool interior closet, or a basement (away from the water heater) or a cupboard.

Get a maximum-minimum thermometer (an affordable gadget sold at any hardware store) to check the highs and lows over the course of a week, since wide temperature fluctuations are also bad for wine. If the temperature proves to be moderate and consistent, you're all set.

Avoid the kitchen, typically one of the warmest places in the house.

Avoid refrigerators. They're fine for short-term storage, but they're too cold for long-term storage. Also, they don't keep a constant temperature, they vibrate and they're usually very dry. Low humidity makes corks dry out, which may allow oxygen to enter the bottle; also, if corks dry out enough, they drop into the wine, and that's not good.

Consider renting space at a wine-storage company if you have a lot of wine and nowhere suitable to put it. A few good possibilities are Strongbox Wine Cellar in Chicago, Chelsea Wine Storage in New York, Vinfolio in San Francisco, and Terminal 55 in Los Angeles, or check with top wine stores in your area to see if they have a suggestion.

How can you tell how long to age a bottle of wine before opening it? How do you know what the right time to drink it will be?
—Marc McDonald, Jersey City

It's worth noting that the vast majority of wine produced in the world—some say upwards of 95 percent—really doesn't change over time at all, except to gradually lose whatever interest the wine once held. But assuming the bottles you have on hand are ones that are worth keeping (a few possibilities are premier or grand cru Burgundies, top Bordeaux and California Cabernets, and Barolos or high-end Super-Tuscan wines), remember that wine ages on a slow and not always predictable curve.

Buy a good general wine book, like The Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia, to get a more comprehensive sense of which types of wine age well and what their probable life is. If you have only one bottle of a wine, check out a good book for tasting notes on it, such as Robert M. Parker, Jr.'s Bordeaux guide or Michael Broadbent's Vintage Wine; or try calling or e-mailing the winery and asking if someone, perhaps one of the tasting room staff, can give you advice about when to open the bottle.

Another strategy is to buy a case of an ageworthy wine you love. This allows you to open a bottle every year or two and see how the wine is developing. If it's still too tannic and rough, stow it away for a few more years; if it shows signs of losing its will to live, then invite some friends over for dinner. Gauging the exact moment that a specific wine will be at its absolute peak, without having tracked it over time, is almost always a bit of a risk—but as risks go, it's a remarkably pleasant one.

Published September 2006
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