12 Common Wine Questions Answered
Diving headfirst into the world of wine can sometimes feel akin to attempting to learn a new language overnight. You're surrounded by an array of unfamiliar terms, processes, and even etiquettes. 'Terroir', 'tannins', 'decanting', the list goes on. You find yourself at dinner parties, wineries, or even just casual Friday night drinks, nodding along and pretending to understand, while you secretly search the terms on your phone under the table. We've all been there. There's no shame in it.
Questions abound, and the fear of appearing ignorant can often feel overwhelming. This tends to stifle the curiosity bubbling within us, making us hesitate before we ask those burning questions. But here's the thing: every connoisseur, every wine enthusiast, every sommelier started at the same place, knowing zilch. Their expertise is built on a mountain of questions, many of which were probably very similar to the ones that you have.
It's time we shake off the intimidating shackles of wine culture and open up the floor for a no-judgment, no-holds-barred Q&A. Because the path to truly appreciating wine is paved with questions, so why not start asking them? In this post, we will tackle twelve of the most common questions about wine. So pour yourself a glass, sit back, and get ready to expand your wine knowledge. You never know, you might just find the answer to that wine question you've been too afraid to ask.
1. What is the difference between red and white wine?
The difference between red and white wine is a common question in the world of wine, often posed by those just dipping their toes into this vast and complex topic. The fundamental difference lies in the winemaking process and the type of grapes used.
Red wine is produced from dark-skinned grapes. During the winemaking process, the grapes are crushed and the juice is left in contact with the skins and seeds. This is known as maceration, a crucial process that imparts color, tannins, and flavor compounds to the wine. The length of maceration can range from a few days to several weeks, depending on the style of wine being made.
White wine, on the other hand, can be made from either white (green) or dark-skinned grapes. The key difference here is that for white wine production, the skins (and often the seeds and stems) are removed after pressing and before fermentation. This results in a wine with less tannin, lighter color, and different flavor profile compared to red wines.
So, while color is the most obvious difference between red and white wine, the distinction goes much deeper, extending to the very core of how they're made. Their diverging paths in the winery lead to the wonderfully varied experiences we have when we drink them: the bold, tannic punch of a Cabernet Sauvignon versus the bright, fruity crispness of a Sauvignon Blanc, for instance.
2. How long does an open bottle of wine last?
Once a bottle of wine has been opened, the clock starts ticking. As soon as wine comes into contact with air, a process called oxidation begins, which gradually changes the wine's aromas, flavors, and color. While a small amount of oxygen can actually help a wine develop and reveal its complexities (which is why we decant wines), too much will eventually lead to spoilage.
The type of wine and how it's stored after opening will greatly affect its shelf life. In general, lighter-bodied wines with high acidity, like Rieslings and Sauvignon Blancs, can last three to five days in the fridge with a cork. Full-bodied whites like oaked Chardonnay can last three to four days. Reds can vary widely, with more tannic wines like Bordeaux lasting three to five days, while lighter, more acidic reds like Pinot Noir might only last one to two days. Fortified wines, thanks to their high alcohol content, are the marathon runners of the wine world and can last up to a month or more.
To extend the shelf life of an opened bottle, it's advisable to recork it promptly and store it in the fridge - yes, even reds. Various wine preservation tools can also help by removing air from the bottle or creating a protective barrier between the wine and the air.
3. What is a corked wine?
"Corked" is a term often used in wine circles, typically accompanied by a grimace. A "corked" wine is one that has been tainted by a chemical compound called 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA). TCA is usually (but not always) the result of naturally occurring airborne fungi coming into contact with certain chlorides found in bleaches and other winery sterilization products. When these elements come together in the presence of cork bark, they can produce this unwanted compound.
Cork taint is not in any way harmful to humans, but it does have a significant impact on the wine's aromas and flavors. The telltale signs of a corked wine are aromas and flavors that are often described as wet cardboard, damp basement, or even a soggy, old newspaper. In other words, it's quite unpleasant.
The prevalence of cork taint has led many wineries to use alternatives to natural cork, including synthetic corks and screw caps. While these don't entirely eliminate the risk of a wine being tainted (TCA can originate from sources other than cork), they do significantly reduce it.
4. What are sulfites, and why are they in wine?
Ah, sulfites. Probably one of the most misunderstood components in wine. Sulfites, or sulfur dioxide (SO2), are a natural by-product of the fermentation process, meaning all wines will contain some level of sulfites. However, they're also added to wine (and many other food products) as a preservative because of their antibacterial properties and ability to prevent oxidation.
The role sulfites play in winemaking is crucial. Without them, wine would likely spoil within a matter of months due to the growth of undesirable bacteria or the effects of oxidation. They help maintain freshness and protect the wine during its journey from the winery to your glass.
However, sulfites have gained a bit of a bad reputation. Some people believe they're responsible for wine-induced headaches. While it's true that a small percentage of the population is sensitive to sulfites and may experience symptoms like headaches, breathing problems, or hives, most people can tolerate the sulfite levels found in wine without any adverse effects.
It's worth noting that many foods contain higher levels of sulfites than wine. Dried fruits, for example, can have levels up to 1000 ppm (parts per million), while most wines contain around 50-150 ppm.
5. What is the difference between old world and new world wines?
Old World wines and New World wines are terms often bandied about in wine discussions, and they're more about geography and style than anything else.
Old World refers to regions that have a long-established history of wine production, including Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, and parts of the Middle East and North Africa. These areas have centuries-old traditions and laws governing winemaking that often restrict the use of certain grape varieties in certain regions, the yields of the vineyards, and even the winemaking techniques.
In general, Old World wines tend to be lighter-bodied, lower in alcohol, higher in acidity, and more restrained in their fruit expression. The emphasis is often on the wine's expression of its terroir—the unique combination of soil, climate, and overall environment where the vines are grown.
New World, on the other hand, refers to wine regions like the United States, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina, Chile—essentially any winemaking region that was colonized during or after the age of exploration. New World regions typically have less restrictive regulations, which can lead to more experimentation and innovation.
New World wines tend to be fuller-bodied, higher in alcohol, and more fruit-forward. While terroir is still important, New World wines often showcase the grape variety and the winemaker's style to a greater extent.
It's important to remember that these are generalizations. With the global exchange of winemaking knowledge and technology, the lines between Old World and New World styles are blurring. You'll find rich, fruit-forward wines in the Old World and elegant, terroir-driven wines in the New World.
6. Is expensive wine really better than cheap wine?
The relationship between the price of a wine and its quality is a complex one. Many factors contribute to the cost of a bottle of wine, including the cost of the land where the grapes are grown, the yield of the vineyard, the reputation of the winery or region, the marketing, and so forth. Not all of these factors have a direct impact on the quality of the wine in the bottle.
That said, there is often a correlation between price and quality up to a certain point. More expensive wines are typically made in smaller quantities, from lower-yielding vineyards (which often produce higher-quality grapes), and with more attention to detail in the winery. They also tend to have more aging potential and can offer more complexity and depth.
However, the law of diminishing returns applies to wine as much as anything else. Once you go beyond a certain price point (which varies depending on the region and type of wine), you're often paying for rarity, prestige, or branding rather than a noticeable increase in quality.
The most important thing is to find wines you enjoy within your budget. There are plenty of high-quality, affordable wines out there, so don't feel that you have to spend a fortune to drink well.
7. What does 'dry' mean when talking about wine?
When we talk about a wine being 'dry,' we're not talking about the texture or the way it feels in the mouth. Rather, 'dry' in wine parlance refers to the absence of sweetness.
During the fermentation process, yeast consumes the sugar in the grape juice and converts it into alcohol. If all the sugar is consumed, the wine is referred to as 'dry.' On the other hand, if fermentation is stopped before all the sugar is consumed, the remaining sugar gives the wine a degree of sweetness, and it's referred to as 'off-dry' or 'semi-sweet,' depending on the amount of residual sugar.
It's important to note that the perception of sweetness in wine can be affected by other components, such as acidity, tannins, and alcohol. A wine with high acidity, for instance, can balance out the sugar and make a wine taste drier than it actually is.
8. How should I store wine?
Proper wine storage is crucial to maintaining the wine's quality over time. The ideal conditions are a constant temperature of about 55°F (13°C), with humidity levels of around 70%. The wine should be stored away from light (especially sunlight), and in a place with minimal vibration.
Most wines sold today are meant to be consumed within a few years, so unless you're buying fine wines for long-term aging, you don't necessarily need a wine fridge or cellar. A dark, cool closet in the middle of your home can work just fine.
It's also recommended to store wine bottles on their sides. This keeps the cork in contact with the wine, preventing it from drying out and allowing air to seep in.
9. What’s the best way to learn about wine?
There's no 'best way' to learn about wine – it really depends on your learning style, your goals, and your resources. However, a great place to start is simply by tasting as much as you can. Try different types of wine, from different regions, made from different grape varieties. Take note of what you like and don't like – there are no right or wrong answers in wine tasting!
Books and online resources (like this blog) can provide a wealth of information. Classes and tastings offered by local wine shops, wineries, or adult education programs can also be a fun and social way to learn.
If you want to dive deeper, you might consider pursuing a formal wine education program like the WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) or CMS (Court of Master Sommeliers).
Remember, wine is a vast subject, and nobody knows everything there is to know about it. The most important thing is to enjoy the journey!
10. How do I taste wine properly?
Proper wine tasting is a multi-sensory experience that involves sight, smell, taste, and aftertaste. Here's a basic rundown:
Look: Evaluate the color and clarity of the wine. The color can give you clues about the age and condition of the wine, as well as the grape variety and winemaking practices.
Swirl: Swirling the wine in the glass introduces oxygen and helps to release the wine's aromas.
Sniff: Take a moment to inhale deeply and identify the different aromas. Try to distinguish between fruit, floral, spice, and earthy notes, as well as any secondary (winemaking) or tertiary (aging) aromas.
Sip: Take a small sip and let the wine coat your mouth. Try to identify the flavors and assess the body, acidity, tannins, and alcohol level of the wine.
Swallow or spit: After swallowing (or spitting, if you're tasting a lot of wines), consider the aftertaste, or finish. A longer, more complex finish is often a sign of a higher-quality wine.
Remember, wine tasting is subjective. It's about your personal enjoyment and discovering what you like. Happy tasting!
11. What does 'terroir' mean?
Terroir is a French term with no direct English translation. It refers to the combination of natural factors that affect the character of a wine. This includes the vineyard's soil composition, climate (temperature, sunlight, rainfall), altitude, and even local vegetation and organisms.
The concept of terroir holds that these factors impart unique characteristics to the wine that cannot be replicated elsewhere. So a Pinot Noir from Burgundy, France, will be distinctly different from a Pinot Noir from Oregon, USA, due to the differing terroirs.
While the influence of terroir is widely accepted, especially in Old World wine regions, it's also somewhat controversial. Some argue that the winemaker's decisions (grape variety, harvesting time, fermentation methods, etc.) play an equally, if not more, important role in the final wine.
12. How important is a wine's year or vintage?
A wine's year, or vintage, refers to the year the grapes were harvested. The vintage can have a significant impact on the quality and style of the wine due to variations in weather conditions from year to year.
In cooler, more variable climates (like Burgundy or Oregon), the vintage can greatly affect the ripeness and flavor of the grapes, and hence the wine. In these regions, knowing the vintage can be quite important.
However, in warmer, more consistent climates (like California or Australia), the vintage variations can be less pronounced. Furthermore, advancements in vineyard management and winemaking technology have enabled winemakers to mitigate the effects of adverse weather conditions, further diminishing the significance of vintage in some cases.
In the end, unless you're buying fine wine for long-term aging, the vintage probably isn't something you need to worry about too much. Instead, focus on finding wines you enjoy.