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Wine Appreciation Course

© Tom Cannavan, 1998

Part 6: Buying, serving and storing wine

Wine is one of the great success stories of the late twentieth century. World-wide sales are booming, wines from many new countries are on the shelves, prices for wine are as low in real terms as they have ever been, choice is enormous and availability is excellent. Supermarkets and high street chains have revolutionised the way we think about and purchase wine. A bottle of wine with dinner at the weekend is now the norm for many "ordinary" people. Twenty or thirty years ago in Britain it would have been unthinkable, but nowadays many of us are as likely to pick up a bottle of wine with our weekly shop, as we are a loaf of bread. As well as developing our knowledge so that we can choose wines with confidence, our enjoyment of wine can be enhanced by understanding the basic rules for correct storage and serving so that the wine can be experienced at its best.

Buying wine - understanding the label

The world of wine labelling is confusing. It's not that there isn't enough information on labels, it's just that each country - and often each wine region within a country - has its own system for presenting important information on the label. Let's look at a few examples from around the world of wine: This label is a typical French label. with all the information you need to establish the quality level and origins of the wine:

claret label   Cru Bourgeois is an official classification for Bordeaux.
Château Lamothe Bergeron is the name of the wine.
1988 is the vintage date (the year of production).
12% is the alcohol level of the wine, and opposite, the bottle volume
The Appellation Contrôlée of this wine. "AC" is the sign of highest quality in France. Each wine area his its own controlling body which ensures standards. Below AC comes "VDQS" or Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure. Below that is the designation "Vin de Pays". These "Country Wines" include much average wine, but due to complex regional laws, also some real gems where the producer chooses to grow certain grapes at the expense of gaining a higher quality designation.
Mis en Bouteille en Château means the wine was blended and bottled by the proprietor, not blended by a third party. Usually a positive sign.

The label below comes from the Rioja region of Spain:

label   La Rioja Alta is the producer.
Vina Ardanza is the name of the wine and below, the equivalent of Mis en Bouteille au Château: bottled by the proprietor.
Reserva is the quality classification of the wine - there are strict rules for what is plain Rioja, Rioja Reserva, and Rioja Gran Reserva.
Denominación de Origen Calificada - the official stamp of quality in Rioja.

German wine labels are notoriously difficult to read. Apart from the problems Germany brought upon itself during the 1970s and 80s by bottling huge amounts of over sweetened, cheap wines for the UK market, it has always had another problem with the consumer: its obscure and complicated labelling.

label   Mosel-Saar-Ruwer - specified region of origin.
1989er - year of vintage
Avelsbacher Avelsbach is the Village and Hammerstein the vineyard from which the wine comes.
Riesling - grape variety.
Kabinett is a degree of quality within the Qualitätswein mit Prädikat category, which is Germany's highest category. Lesser wines are marked simply, "Qualitätswein" or "QbA". Below this comes "Tafelwein".
AP number - strict legal tests have been completed on this wine.
Erzeugerabfüllung - the equivalent of "Mis en Bouteille au Château" again - producer bottled.

Wine pricing

There are obviously many factors that affect the amount any of us will pay for a bottle of wine. Apart from the differences in how much each of us can afford to spend on a luxury item like wine, we are likely to pay a lot less for our "everyday" wine than for a bottle to celebrate a special occasion. Supermarkets have increased their share of the wine retailing market dramatically over the past decade or so. With their relentless pursuit of price-cutting to out-do the competition, wines are now as cheap in relative terms as they have ever been.

The average supermarket stocks wines in the rough price range of £4.00 to £12.00. A detailed look at the proportion of a £4.99 bottle that is made up of non-wine costs might be quite surprising:

1. HM Customs & Excise Duty
2. Shipping
3. Bottle, Cork, Capsule & Label
Sub Total
VAT @ 20%
Total
£1.81
£0.25
£0.40
£2.46
£0.83
£3.29

And that is before the winemaker is paid, the person who transports the wine is paid and the retailer takes their profit (normally around 25% of selling price, so £1.25 in this case). With our bottle costing £4.55 before a drop of wine is put in it, you are actually buying only 45 pence worth of wine.

The good news is that the first three of those costs are fixed costs, so that means for every extra pound you spend on a bottle, the majority goes on the stuff in the bottle. In the past few years the great psychological consumer barrier of £3.99 has been exceeded: few of us expect to pay less than £4.00 for a decent bottle, and the only £3.49 wines left on the shelves are discounted stock, or "loss-leaders" used as promotional gimmicks.

There is still a great pressure on big wine retailers (supermarkets and chains) to offer sub £5.00 wines however - the next psychological barrier. I firmly believe that the wise wine lover really benefits if they can up their basic spending level by a pound or so. At around £7.00 a whole new range of possibilities opens up, with wines made by producers who are not so constrained by impossibly low margins, and have a chance to add real character to their wines. As a general rule, I would always spend my money on three genuinely interesting £6.99 bottles, than four easy-drinking, but probably dull, £4.99 bottles.

The price of fine wines - particularly those from Bordeaux and Burgundy - is like a runaway train at the moment, fuelled by speculators and far-eastern buyers who are willing to spend fortunes in auctions at Sotheby's and Christie's to secure the great names. These wines are now out of the reach of many ordinary wine lovers: top Bordeaux of the 2009 vintage fetched £11,000 per case, or £1100.00 per bottle.

Superb though these wines are, there are plenty of alternatives in purely value-for-money terms: extremely well made, complex, delicious wines in the £8-£20 price bracket that are also of the quality necessary to merit longer term cellaring. From the "lesser" regions of France, Italy and Spain, and from new world countries such as Australia, Chile, South Africa and the USA, come a host of individual and profound wines - many of which can rival "prestige" bottles at twice the price. As your interest in wine grows, you may become tempted to visit some specialist wine retailers rather than supermarkets.

If buying older wines (say reds with vintage dates more than 4 years old, whites more than 2 years old), it pays to check the condition of the bottle: some retailers do not look after wines on their shelves adequately, keeping them standing upright in hot, dry conditions where the wine can maderise (in other words, "cook"). Tell-tale signs of this include seepage from beneath the capsule, running down the side of the bottle, corks pushed out so that they strain against the capsule, and low fill-levels where some wine has evaporated. Avoid such bottles, or if you risk one, keep the receipt and don't be scared to return it if it proves unacceptable.

Storing Wine

Your wine "cellar" might be anything from a proper, underground cellar filled with expensive rarities, to a few bottles kept on a rack in the kitchen. In either case, there are certain requirements for maintaining wine in good condition that you should know. In modern, centrally heated, well insulated houses, some of these conditions are hard to find, though this is only really a problem if you have wines you intend to keep for the mid to long term - say 3 to 10 years or more.

What to cellar?

First of all, not all wines are suitable for longer term storage. If stored correctly almost all red wines will stay in good condition for 2 or 3 years after release, whereas most white wines are best drunk within a year or so. Beyond that, only certain wines are considered worth "laying down". With such wines, we hope that not only will they keep for 10 years, but that they will evolve positively in that time, gaining complexity and subtlety as they mature.

Red wines suitable for mid to long term storage:
Only those red wines with sufficient tannins and acidity will last longer than a couple of years. This rules out lighter wines (like Beaujolais or most wines from the Côtes du Rhône, for example) and most of the cheaper red wines, such as those from Central Europe. As a rough guide, wines costing under £6.00 or £7.00 are unlikely to stand up to longer storage. Among the best bets for red wines suitable for laying down are:

Vintage port
(but not LBV or "ordinary" ruby or tawny ports)
Red Bordeaux
(perhaps only those costing more than £10 from this expensive area)
Other Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot based wines
(from the USA, Australia, Chile, etc.)
Red Burgundy
(but only the finest, of Premier Cru level or above)
Wines of the Northern Rhône
such as Hermitage, Côte-Rotie and Cornas
From Spain, better Riojas and from Italy, better Chiantis, Barolos and Barbarescos.

White wines suitable for mid to long term storage:
The vast majority of white wine is made for short term drinking - within a year or two of vintage date. A few whites can reward patience, and those include:

Fully sweet white wines
(particularly botrytis wines of Sauternes in France, and German wines of Auslese, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese quality)
Better chardonnays
(again, maybe only those costing over £10.00 as a general rule of thumb)
Vintage champagne
will cellar for several years, but it is usually best to buy this as you need it.

Storage conditions

old bottles   The wines on the left are shown lying in the cellars of a French producer. This cellar is cool (around 10° - 12° celsius), has no wild fluctuations in temperature, is dark and is free from vibrations. In addition, it is relatively humid: that's what has caused the characteristic mould to grow on these old bottles. These are the ideal conditions for cellaring wines, but they are conditions that humans would find uncomfortable. Modern homes are rather unfriendly places in which to cellar wine.

Notice that the bottles are placed horizontally into racks. This is vital for all wines that are being stored for more than a month or two. Keeping the bottles horizontal means that the cork is kept in contact with the liquid, preventing it from drying out. If the bottles are left upright, the cork will eventually shrink, allowing air to enter and quite quickly spoiling the wine. One of your first purchases should be a simple rack that will let you store your bottles on their sides. Despite the inhospitable environment outlined above, it is possible to find a place with adequate (if not ideal) conditions in a modern home, if a few simple points can be observed:

Constant temperature is far more important than absolute coolness. Ideally, an unheated cupboard where the central heating will not be constantly raising and lowering the temperature. If you can keep the temperature down below around 17° celsius (most living rooms are around 21° - 23°), so much the better. Garages and sheds are not a good idea, as these freeze in winter and over-heat in summer.

Dark conditions will avoid the wine's fine colour being spoiled, so again an under-stairs cupboard might be a possible choice, but in any event try to ensure the wine is not in direct sunlight.

Freedom from vibration is important. Constant agitation doesn't give the wine time to "rest" and mature slowly. Don't site your wine rack next to the washing machine or spin-dryer!

A humidity level of around 80% is ideal for wine, but feels positively damp for humans. If your wine is kept for a long time in too dry a place the cork can dry out, which might prematurely age the wine.

Strong smells can taint the wine over long periods of storage - another reason why the kitchen, garage or coal-cellar might not be the ideal space for very fine wines.

Another aspect that you should learn more about if you plan to build up your own cellar, is the effect that vintage conditions play on the suitability of wines for laying down. Many wine books publish vintage charts that show the quality and the "ageability" of each vintage for each of the important wine regions. For example, 1990 was a superb vintage in Bordeaux and many of the wines will last for 20 years or more. On the other hand, 1991 was a wash-out: many of the wines from the same producers are best drunk in the first half dozen years of their life.

If you can pick a space bearing most of these points in mind then buy a few suitable bottles, you have a cellar!

Serving wine

There can be a lot of pretension surrounding the "correct" serving of wine. Some people make too big a show of having wine at exactly the correct temperature, served in exactly the right glass. On the other hand, there is no doubt that there are certain sensible guidelines for serving wine that should ensure your enjoyment of every bottle is enhanced.

Serving temperature
Most authorities agree that there is an optimum temperature for the enjoyment of various styles of wine. Red wines can seem very "flat" and lacking in taste and scent if served too warm. That is one of the problems with the commonly quoted "Room temperature" rule: unfortunately, the meaning of room temperature was very different when this rule was established - before the days of insulated walls, fitted carpets, double glazing and central heating. The living rooms of modern houses are often maintained at around 23°C. In wine terms, "room temperature" is actually several degrees lower than this.

chart       

To the left is a reference chart proposed by the wine writer Hugh Johnson for the ideal serving temperature for various styles of wine. The best and easiest advice is probably not to worry too much for your everyday wines. If serving a special red wine, leave it in a hallway or cool cupboard for a few hours before serving, rather than the heat of your kitchen. If serving an expensive white, put it in the fridge for just an hour or two rather than leaving it overnight to chill too much.

With white wines, the reverse is true. White wines should be served cool rather than freezing cold. Certainly, the temperature of a domestic refrigerator is too cold for many wines at around 5°C. At this temperature even great wines can taste dull and insipid.

Decanting wine
Red wines are sometimes decanted before serving. Not all reds need decanting, only those that have thrown a sediment in the bottle, or need to be exposed to air in order to "open them up".

Some wines (most of the finest red wines and vintage Ports, for example) are bottled without filtration. This means that small particles remain in the wine. These particles - tannins, yeast cells, microscopic pieces of organic matter - are entirely harmless, but are unpleasant if poured into your glass. For such wines decanting into a clean vessel prior to serving is the best solution.

To decant a wine, the bottle should be stood upright for a day before opening to allow the sediment to settle in the bottom. Then, use a steady, gentle motion to pour the wine into a clean vessel, leaving the last centimetre or so of wine in the bottle, along with all the sediment. If you can pour the wine with a light source behind the neck of the bottle even better: then you can easily see as sediment starts to flow towards the neck.

The idea of "letting the wine breathe" by decanting it and leaving it for a few hours before serving is to expose the wine to air, which will soften it and mellow any harsh tannins. This is an inexact science, and only needs to be done if you are sure the wine is too young and would benefit from the procedure.

Glassware

Riedel   Serving wine in suitable glassware can make a huge difference. If you have ever tried drinking wine out of a thick rimmed pottery mug you will know what I mean! Once again, a sensible approach is needed here: some people insist that there is a specific glass for every type of wine, so chardonnay should be served in a chardonnay glass, riesling in a riesling glass, Rioja in a Rioja glass, and so on. There are specialist companies such as Riedel of Austria who manufacture an enormous range of expensive and beautiful glasses for this purpose.

The basic requirements though, are actually a lot simpler:
1. The glass should taper towards the top, so that the aromas are trapped in the glass
2. The bowl should be large enough to allow you to swirl the contents
3. The glass must have a stem so the heat of your hand does not transfer to the wine
4. The glass should be plain and clear so you can see the colour of the wine.

As long as your glassware follows these basic rules, it should be ideal for enjoying your wine. Be careful to rinse your glasses carefully after washing, as traces of detergent can taint a wine quickly.

Preserving left over wine
The two great enemies to wine are oxygen and heat. If a half finished bottle is left uncorked in a warm room overnight, it will almost certainly have lost its freshness and flavour by the morning. The wine has reacted to the air and heat and has started to oxidise, taking on a stale, flat character. There are various opinions on how best to preserve open bottles for short periods, and various products on the market that claim to do so.

One useful system involves a canister containing an inert gas. The gas is squirted into the bottle, forming a protective barrier from the air, then the bottle is stoppered. These systems are quite effective and claim to do no damage to even the finest, most delicate wines. An inexpensive option is a device called the Vacu-vin. This is a small pump and a collection of rubber stoppers. A stopper is placed in the half empty bottle, the pump is placed over it, and the air is drawn from the bottle until the stopper seals. In theory you have removed the air, causing a vacuum, which should help preserve the wine. I find that this method has mixed results - some wines stand up to overnight storage better than others - but is an inexpensive option that has some effect.

A simple solution is to keep a couple of empty half bottles clean and ready to be used. By pouring the remains of a half finished full bottle into a half bottle, you automatically exclude oxygen. A simple cork should keep the wine fresh for a short period.

Some people swear by freezing half finished bottles. They claim that months later, if allowed to slowly and naturally defrost, the wine tastes as fresh as the moment it was frozen.

Conclusions

I hope that this course has increased your interest in wine. The aim of the course was not to "preach" about the rights and wrongs of wine, nor to encourage wine snobbery. Wine is such an endlessly fascinating subject, and there is so much to learn, that no one should ever feel that they know it all.

From what we have learned on the course I hope you are encouraged to experiment a little and that you have picked up useful tips that will let you approach wine with confidence. More importantly, I hope you will obtain maximum enjoyment from every glass.

At the end of the day, taste in wine is totally subjective: no one can tell you that your tastes or opinions are wrong. Don't feel intimidated by wine as an academic subject - just enjoy it!