You know the type: he sits on the other side of a lavishly set table and swirls the taste of wine the waiter has given for assessment. He takes a suck of the flavor and closes his eyes dramatically. You just want to punch him.
The good news is that much of what wine snobs “know” is no longer true in the world of wines. Just because wine has been around (since the dawn of mankind, right?) for a while, doesn’t mean that the knowledge passed down with it is untouchable. So, before you give into the primal urge to rearrange your favorite wine snob’s nose, get the scoop on what wine snobs don’t know.
Wines Don’t Always Get Better With Age
I know, this ruins a whole genre of cliche – but the truth is that most modern winemakers don’t intend their product to last more than a few years. There are a few reasons why – bear with me here.
The optimal temperature for storing wine that will age beautifully is typically called “cellar temperature”, or 55 degrees. The moment that wines are taken from this beautiful, cool temperature, they start aging more rapidly. Instead of having several bottles of carefully coddled wine, lovingly tended in a wine cellar, we’re consumers of crates – stockpiled cases of wines that move from bottling factory to warehouse to merchant’s back room. Now, let’s be kind to our fair wine and assume that it’s done all this travelling in 70 degree temperatures. Those bottles are aging twice as fast as ones stored at cellar temperature – and even more quickly above 70 degrees.
Add to the science of storage temperature the fact that winemakers fully believe their product will be consumed within about 3 years, and you’ve got a really good case for not shelling out the extra money on an older vintage of wine. The next time you’re faced with two vintages of the same wine, you can feel good about going with the younger one.
Want some particulars? You can’t go wrong with a vintage from the 1990’s. Overall, the entire decade produced wines that are considered to be excellent – 1994 being an especially good year. If you’re looking to impress, seek out “Opus One” from Robert Mondavi or a “Silver Oak” cabernet. Their short supply, high ratings, and extreme good taste have made these wines a sought-after commodity. You can usually find them in the fall, when each vintage is released – but don’t be fooled by prices. A 1995 vintage “Dominus” currently costs about $100 a bottle, but it wasn’t a great year for “Dominus”. You can easily beat the quality and flavor by opting for a $40 bottle of another California cabernet.
Cold Wine Can Be Too Cold
Europeans think that we Americans have the most absurd tastes in our beverages – why would we ever want iced tea? Iced coffee is even more ridiculous, in their minds. The point is that on the whole, we tend to go to extremes with our love of frosty cold beverages – and wine is no exception.
In all likelihood, you are drinking your red wines too warm and your white wines too cold. For optimum flavor, a few sommeliers think that both should be served at around 60 degrees – and most quality restaurants who know anything about wine will serve red wines at a temperature slightly cooler than room temperature. White wines are usually kept at 45 degrees for us Americans, so all that you need to do is let it warm up on the table and kick the ice bucket to the side.
It’s not really wine snobs’ fault that they have the whole idea wrong. They’ve heard forever that red wines should be served at “room temperature”, but didn’t go on to realize that it was a reference to cellar temperature – about 55 degrees, the perfect temperature for storing wine. This is also the reason that many people find they prefer white wines over reds. When red wine is served at normal room temperature, the alcohol produces an unpleasant bite. Reducing the temperature allows you to enjoy the flavor.
What are the proper wine serving temperatures?
Most White Wines: 50 degrees – Most white wines you’ll have, including Chenin Blancs, Sauvignon Blancs, Loire Wines, Rieslings and “everyday” Chardonnays should be served a bit warmer so that aromas and flavors can be enjoyed.
Full Bodied White Wines: 55 degrees – The higher quality white wines have more complex flavors and aromas which really need the warmer temperature to be appreciated. These include Sauternes and white Burgundies, and light red wines like Beaujolais.
Red Wines: 60 degrees – Red wines including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Bordeaux, Zinfandel, Rhones and Syrah/Shiraz should be enjoyed slightly cooler than room temperature, or closer to cellar temperature.
Leave Swirling to Bond
Seriously though, have you ever seen someone outside of a movie do the swirling thing without looking pompous? When you’re poured a taste of wine, there’s no need to be theatrical about it – your job is to see if the wine will suit you.
The reason that wine is swirled (which people imitate not knowing why they’re doing it, other than that it looks cool), is so that the aroma of the wine can be assessed. You can tell, when you know what you’re looking for, whether a wine is corked or oxidized by nothing more than the scent of the wine. Corked wine has a moldy, wet-cardboard odor. Oxidized wine will smell almost like sherry. Basically, corked or oxidized wine is a bottle that’s gone bad – spoiled. The cause is usually a bad cork that “turns” the wine, but sometimes can be a result of certain chemicals used in a winery that combine to create an “off” odor.
Then again, a lot of wine goes bad simply because it was shipped and stored at too high of a temperature.
Either way, if you recognize the scent, don’t feel bad about sending the wine back – but make sure you’re honestly able to judge the scent, first. Purchase a few bottles of inexpensive wine and a few bottles of sherry and cooking sherry. You will be able to tell the difference in aroma from one simple, inexpensive test – and if you commit it to memory, you’re going to be much happier at the restaurant. If the aroma is faint, take a small taste – this should confirm your suspicions.
While you have that taste of wine in front of you, quickly assess the color as well. If you’ve ordered a white wine and your sample is darkened or light yellow – or your red wine has a brownish tinge – you probably have a spoiled wine.
And while we’re on that subject, another drama factor: the cork. Several wineries are experimenting with screw tops instead of corks to prevent their wines going bad – screw caps are no longer the mark of the beast, the sign of the undrinkable. Try a taste of Bonny Doon or Plumpjack and be pleasantly surprised.
Another theatrical touch that you shouldn’t worry with if you know anything about wines (which you do!) is the decanter. If you’re going to opt for the aged wine at a restaurant, don’t expect the vintage to be decanted – it is likely too fragile. You’ll end up paying the big bucks for a bottle of wine that is succulent for the first 15 minutes, only to fall apart with exposure to oxygen partway into your meal. Instead, if you’re worried about sediment, call in your wine ahead of time with your reservation so that the sommelier can place the bottle upright and let the sediment settle. The decanter should be reserved for younger wines.