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Questions I’m Often Asked About Wines
During my last wine lecture a few weeks ago, there was a lively question and answer period. I realized that a number of the same questions came up frequently. Here they are, and I hope you will find them and the answers useful. Let us know your own questions!
Question: Why do you specialize in French wines? What do you think about American wines (or those of New Zealand, Chile, Italy, Spain, etc.)?
I have lived for years in France, and visited over 60 wine estates throughout the country. That depth of experience allows comparison of wines not only within France, but also wines from other countries. When I lived in Bordeaux, I inherited a cellar of fine American wines, that had been assembled for the biennial VinExpo. I served those wines to my French dinner guests, and found that the more they knew about wines (and not every Frenchman knows about wines, any more than every American follows professional football), the more they appreciated fine American wines.
It is true, I think, that the famous Judgment of Paris wine tasting in 1976, won by American wines (now the subject of a movie, “Bottle Shock”), opened a lot of eyes about the fine quality achieved by American wines. In turn, that also led to increased acceptance of wines from other countries, including Chile, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Some efforts include the use of grape varietals nearly extinct in France. I have been interested in the imaginative work of the Perrin brothers, for example, to develop fine vineyards in Chile, where they have reintroduced the Carmenere grape. And in Virginia, winemakers have had telling success in making white wines from the Viognier grape, now rare in its native Burgundy.
That doesn’t mean that every new vineyard is of the same quality. Many seem to me to be just taking advantage of new American wine tastes by slapping labels on bottles of poorly made varietal wines. But as usual, the good ones are worth seeking out.
Question: I have a sulfite reaction to red wines. Can anything be done about removing sulfites from wines, so that I can enjoy them?
Sulfites occur naturally in wines. Some further quantities are commonly added in order to retard oxidation in wines, and permit a slow maturing of the wine. For evidence of this, take a look at a wine label, and you will see the inevitable “Contains Sulfites” notation, required by our law.
The reactions some people get to even a glass of red wines, often waking up early the next morning with sneezing fits, headaches, or other symptons, are at least unpleasant, and at most should prompt the sufferer to have tests with their allergist, to see what might be at the root of the problem. I am not a physician, and realize that this is a medical field. I note, though, that some of the literature in the field cites other possible villains, such as histamines, or even some proteins in wine as causes of the problem.
Anecdotally, I have seen that some people have found the problem only with young wines, not wines that have matured. Most people associate their reactions with red wines, and some, with wines that were unfiltered, whether young or matured. The only reaction I have ever had was from a glass of white wine. I was visiting some friends at their vineyard in France, and was offered a glass of new wine, still in the process of fermenting. It was said to be a local custom. I enjoyed the wine, but within the hour, was hit with a fairly severe allergic reaction. The moral, for me at least, was never to drink immature wines.
Question: I have a bottle of .... How long can I keep it? When should we drink it?
Wine is made to be enjoyed, not collected. Assuming the wine has been well stored, pick a nice dinner occasion, invite some friends, and enjoy your treasured bottle. French wine producers drink their own vintage red wines after they have aged 8-10 years, depending of course upon the vintage, and they enjoy magnums of wine after 12-15 years. White wines may often be enjoyed earlier, but the great ones profit from some aging.
Question: How do you keep leftover wines? How long do they keep?
I was once told that an opened champagne bottle could be kept overnight in the refrigerator without a stopper, with a silver spoon inserted into the bottle, provided the spoon didn’t touch the champagne. To my astonishment, this works. The next evening we have enjoyed glasses of champagne from the same bottle, with bubbly effervescence. I have no idea why this works, but I am glad that it does.
Very old bottles of wine will not keep at all after they are opened. Some have had it after half an hour or less. As for other bottles of wine, there are a number or products on the market, that seek to insulate the remaining wine in the bottle with an inert gas, which would stop further oxidation of the wine. I have tried such products in the past, without much benefit. However, I have just been sent a new product called Vineyard Fresh Wine Preservative, and look forward to trying it out. Finish the opened bottle the next day, if you can.
Question: What are some reasonably priced wines that I can actually enjoy?
It is true that the price of fine French and other wines has spiralled upward, laughably so in my opinion. The shame of it is that such unreasonable prices mean that most people may never get the chance to taste some fine wines. But there are other strategies, for maximizing the quality of your wine purchases, while paying attention to your budget. Here are a few.
Look at second wines from fine properties, which often are available at a fraction of the cost of the estate’s grand vin. These second wines are definitely not second rate. They are produced by the same wine estate, at the property itself, but usually the vines from which they are made are too young to be considered for the grand vin, say under twelve years old. As one questioner pointed out, second wines are not labelled as such, so you have to do some research to know what they are. Fortunately, many French estates, particularly in Bordeaux, are now on line, where second wines are identified. Try Googling some wine classifications, and you may even find a complete list of second wines for an entire region or classification.
Look at well made wines from less exalted classifications, such as the cru bourgeois from the Médoc region of Bordeaux. A number of wines there, such as Château Chasse Spleen, or Château Poujeaux are not classified higher because entrance into that higher classification was slammed shut, not because other estates did not produce excellent wines. The upshot is lower pices for the consumer.
Another approach is to limit your buying to the very best vntages, such as 2005 (Bordeaux, Burgundy), 2000 (Bordeaux), or 2007 (the Rhône). The advantage here is that good weather doesn’t just occur for the most expensive wines - it is often there for an entire region. Your $20 bottle of wine may therefore be every bit as good as a $40 bottle of wine from a more exalted estate, which was produced during a more average vintage.
These are some of the questions that come up during my wine lectures. We look forward to hearing some of your own questions and concerns. Salut!