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WINE Q & A ... how ... what ... when ... where ... who and why ...

Since most reader questions relate to Consumerism issues, we have put this page here. Send us your Wine Questions. As we get them, we'll decide if the request is more for advice or information and add the "new". new questions and answers to the top of the lists ... This page was last updated July 24, 2011

A D V I C E
I N F O
"new". Oops, I Chilled It Again! Shouldn't restaurants decant wines containing sediment?

Is this old wine drinkable or valuable?

Which is drier ...?

...concerned about 1997 California cabs...

I thought I wrote down the right info, but...

What wine should I buy to save for 20 years?

Help me find out about a Hungarian "Champagne"?

How do I open and decant a large-format bottle?

What South American white wine is made by a Seagram's daughter?

How can I sell my entire wine collection?

 

Q Oops, I Chilled It Again! "We placed a bottle of white wine in the freezer to chill it and forgot about it......once it has defrosted, is it still good to drink?" - Many Readers

A Freezing does not hurt wine per se; it can be thawed and drunk with little affect on its smell or taste. Frozen wine can expand, however, and move the cork, breaking the seal and allowing oxidation to spoil it in a matter of days.

Warming and re-chilling a wine is not recommended. It tends to shorten the ultimate "life" and hasten spoilage of cork-sealed wines. A single occurence will not cause enough damage to change the taste much, but it is a good idea to drink previously-chilled bottles sooner rather than later. Rapid temperature changes can cause failure of the seal between the bottle and the cork, allowing oxidation and spoilage.

Although see-saw temperature change is not as problematic with screw-cap wine, repeated fluctuations between normal and low temperatures can cause precipitation of potassium bitartrate crystals that look like broken glass (myth), no matter how the wine is packaged. These crystals are completely edible and perfectly harmless; they are merely an annoyance. When these crystals are dried and powdered they become "Cream of Tartar" commonly used in baking.

The best way to chill wine is in a container that is filles 2/3 with ice and 1/3 with water; an immersed room-temperature bottle will reach 40° in 15 minutes. (Ice alone is much slower, since air in between cubes or even crushed ice does not conduct the cold as well.) Only chill as much as you will use at one sitting. Any leftovers should be kept refrigerated and consumed as soon as possible (within a few days).

Storing unopened wine in a food refrigerator is a bad idea. Refrigerators, besides the vibration from the compressor, cycling on-and-off many times daily, remove humidity which can cause cork failure in a relatively short time. Refrigerator temperature is also not as constant as most people imagine. Read about storing wine for longer terms here.

Q Now in reruns: This Old Wine"I found some old bottles of (brand xxx) wine from (xxxx vintage) that I had forgotten in a (basement, cabinet, closet, crawl space, refrigrator, etc.). Are they drinkable? Are they valuable? - Multitudes

A In spite of the bright red notice on the Question form, a dozen or more eMails each month request me to assess the monetary and gustatory value of old bottles, assure their lack of toxicity, and suggest what to do with them (I am SOOooo tempted!). In spite of the tendency of these requests to transform me into the Incredibly Cranky and Cynical Old Hulk, will try to contain my wrath, control my deficit of patience, and restrain my excess of contempt here, but no guarantees ... so pay attention, or I might start throwing things!

#1 - Without perfect storage conditions, only one in a thousand wines will survive past five years. This is the truth; no exceptions — don't ask. If you insist, there are Certified Wine Appraisers (look in the Wine Spectator classified ads) who will assist you for a minimum 3-figure fee. I, on the other hand, will advise you on the drinkability of your old bottles for FREE — ONLY if you send me the bottle(s) in question and they taste great. (Otherwise, I may sue you for the pain and suffering of consuming a mixture of vinegar and mud!)

#2 - I have personally sampled or consumed many wines as old as 80 years of both mis-kept and well-kept provenance. No old wine ever made me nauseous, gave me hives, headaches, provided spiritual enlightenment, or caused me to change either my philosophy or my underwear. Most tasted lousy. A few tasted remarkably delicious. If you fear the experience, you don't deserve to thrill in it.

#3 - Please do your own research: WineSearcher is a regularly-updated database containing hundreds of thousands of wine listings from thousands of merchants world-wide. It is both fast and very user-friendly; if a wine is not listed, it probably can't be found. Find the value of a bottle or an entire cellar in the "Free Mode," which limits searches to sponsoring retailers (over 150); "Professional Mode" requires an annual fee for full access.

(Future questions in this regard will be directed here ...)

Q Shouldn't restaurants decant wines containing sediment?We were recently served a bottle of 1999 cabernet at a local vineyard's restaraunt. The wine had a great deal of sediment in it and when poured only the first few sips of the glass were without grit. The owner refused to replace the bottle, stating that this was perfectly acceptable. I've always thought that any wine with this degree of sediment should be decanted before serving. Is this not true for restaraunts as well? -Allison

A Entirely true; the "local vineyard" apparently knows more about making wine than about serving it. They should have prevented the grit from getting into your glasses by either decanting or filtering the wine at your table. In the absence of a wine filter, designed for this purpose, a piece of cheesecloth or a paper coffee filter will suffice.

Since the wine was relatively young, the "grit" you refer to was probably crystals of potassium bi-tartrate. Excess tartaric acid falls out of solution when the temperature drops; it can happen in any container from tank to barrel to bottle. Some wineries will purposely chill the wine to force the crystals to precipitate in the tank before bottling. Others prefer not to "cold stabilize", since flavors are removed as well. These crystals can cling to corks or bottle sides and are a fairly common occurrence when wines are given minimal cellar treatment; in white wine, they look like broken glass. Although harmless and fairly tasteless, they can add a very unpleasant texture to wine.

It does not sound like the bottle needed replacing, but it certainly required better care and handling. Apparently the owner needs lessons in the care and handling of his patrons, as well. I would let the establishment know that in the future, unless they decant or filter it, you will refuse to pay for a gritty wine.

Q Which is drier: Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon? What red wine is drier than these two? -Linda

A It really depends upon the individual wines that you compare ... both types are made in varying degrees of dryness.

When we speak of wine, the terms "dry" and "sweet" are opposites and there are many degrees between these two poles. "Dryness" is determined primarily by the winemaking methods, NOT by the type of grape (although a great many people mistakenly think otherwise). Although most wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot grapes are made in a dry table wine style, there are also some ultra-sweet dessert wines that are made from Cabernet Sauvignon and also some made from Merlot.

Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon share similar "flavor profiles", but also have some differences. Merlot grape berries are thinner-skinned, so Merlot wine generally has less tannin, astringency and "pucker" than wine made from Cabernet Sauvignon, which has thick-skinned berries. You can read more about each and see photos in our Varietal Profile section: Cabernet SauvignonMerlot

Although the list is not limited to these, Barbara, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Syrah and Tempranillo are other red wines that are usually produced in a dry style. Pinot Noir, Valdiguié and Gamay are red wines usually made in a dry style, but are typically lighter, with more fruitiness and less tannin (pucker).

Q What wine should I buy to save for 20 years? I am looking to buy a case of wine from each of my children's birth years (1997, 1998 and 2000) to save until each turns 21. I am fairly new to wine. What should I buy? -Joe

A I admire your sentiment and forethought, but the proposition has major risks. Wine does not keep well in most circumstances. Serious long-term cellaring requires perfect conditions from the moment the wine leaves the producer: constant temperature of 55° to 60°F, with only snail-slow fluctuations within this narrow range; moderate humidity; and virtually no exposure to light or vibration.

Besides the storage concerns, do you even know that you like the taste of old wine? Will your children? No wine carries a guarantee of universal gastro-euphoria.

I have been in the wine business for over 30 years, tasted hundreds of wines "older" than 10 years past the vintage, including many of great reputation, vintage acclaim and perfect provenance. Although several were memorable and profoundly good, the majority turned out to be "duds" to my taste. Very few wines survive to remain enjoyable past ten years in the bottle.

If you insist, I suggest some general categories to look at: the best wine to age from 1997 would probably be a Northern Rhône, Vintage Port, or California Cabernet Sauvignon; from 1998, choose a Pomerol, St. Emilion, or Southern Rhône; for 2000, almost any red Bordeaux or a Vintage Port. You should diligently research each particular wine candidate you consider, as none of these suggestions are inexpensive.

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Q Im seriously concerned with the advice of banking on '97 California cabs to age for 20 years.. Have you tasted any recently? Most of that vintage is precocious and rapidly evolving.. Even the Araujo Eisele Vineyard tastes more like a '94 than a '97... Please reconsider that answer... unless you have a different idea of aging potential than I do. - Martin

A Your final comment solves the equation: the First Rule of wine aging is "Beauty is in the palate of the bottle holder." In general, I personally prefer wines that retain youthful (fresh) fruit aromas and that are structured with moderate tannin levels; for the most part, this means that I consume all my personally-collected wines within 10 years of the vintage (exceptions: Portuguese Port and French Sauternes). The great majority of wines I have tasted or consumed that are older than a decade were over-the-hill to my taste ... but there have been exceptions.

One of the very nicest old bottles I ever drank was 1958 Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon (regular bottling), drank in 1977. It was quite amazing, still with Cabernet Sauvignon fruit aroma, complexed by cedar and cigar-box, excellent balance and smooth tannins. The vintage of 1958 is considered to be above-average, but not exceptional or age-worthy for California cabernets; except for the Special Selection (barrels chosen for this designation) or Private Reserve (bottles aged at the winery for release at or near maturity) Louis Martini's Cabernets were long considered to be good, lighter-style, wines for everyday consumption, but not candidates for serious long-term cellaring.

If you're investing in real estate, the three things you need for success are location, location, and location. If you're selecting wines for long-term aging, the three things you need are balance, balance, and balance. Should a slcik sales pitch convince you to purchase swamp or desert, at worst you can still build to improve the site; if you fall for and buy wine with massive tannins and alcohol, you will most likely suffer the fate of bad taste from which there is simply no recovery, but you won't even discover this largess for many years.

The Second Rule of wine aging is "There are NO great wines and NO great vintages, only great bottles." Recently (April, 2005), I opened for my wine classes, 2 bottles of 1973 Chateau Montelena Zinfandel (donated by the estate of a local wine collector). I intended these to be examples of why most wines should not be kept too long. One bottle was surprisingly good-tasting, fairly well-balanced, and slightly lively, although with no recognizable varietal character or fruitiness; the other bottle, although basically similar, had slightly more brownness to the color, had developed substantial mustiness to the bouquet, and was more flat-tasting. In either case, the great majority of the students preferred the 2003 vintage of the same wine which was also shown for comparison.

Concerning 1997 California Cabernet Sauvignon specifically, I drank a Pride Mountain Cabernet (regular bottling) on March 12, 2005. The wine was aromatic, complex, smooth, and harmonious, with all of the elements on my list of desirable components in cabernet. Although this bottle tasted fabulous, perfect, wonderful, and orgasmic to me right now, my remaining bottle may easily live another 6-10 years (under optimal cellar conditions). I have not yet decided when I will consume it, but more likely it will be sooner than later, which has more to do with personal winelust than vintage confidence.

Joe's child was born in 1997; I stand behind my recommendations, with the rider that perfect storage conditions are required. (By the way, my latest experience with California cab from the much-heralded 1995 vintage was like a proverbial trip to the woodshed.)

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Q How do I open and decant a large-format bottle?In two days, I will be opening a 1970 Mouton-Rothschild Jeroboam (4.5-liter). I have never opened up such a large format bottle before, and my three decanters are all for 750ml bottles.

I've seen mixed reviews of the '70 Mouton, and I'm not certain how I should handle this particular bottle. Considering the nature of the wine, and the size of the bottle, should I just pour directly from the bottle, or is decanting a necessity? Whether I decant or pour directly, any idea how long this particular bottle should be opened before the wine is to be served?

Any Jeroboam cork-removal tips? -Bob

A CAUTION: You're going to have Great Fun!

Pouring directly from a large bottle is not a good idea - it comes out under more pressure than you think - enough in just a second to over-fill a glass and knock it from a good grip. The best way is to siphon it ...

Hopefully, your bottle is already STANDING up in a cool place (this will encourage any sediment to settle out) and near the location where you will serve it (so that transporting doesn't agitate any loose sediment). If not, GO stand it up right now, before you finish reading this note!

Get yourself about 3-4 feet of surgical tubing, a clamp (from a medical supply store) and a small diameter wooden or aluminum dowel rod that is at least an inch longer than the length of the bottle. Use nylon wire-ties or wire twist-ties to fasten the tubing to the rod in two or three places, so that the rod projects about two inches beyond the end of the tubing. You will also need at least one regular (750 ml capacity) decanter or pitcher.

As far as opening ahead of time, consider this: if you open and aerate too soon, too bad; there's no remedy. If you open the wine and find that it needs some time, nothing is lost and all you need is a little patience (explanation three paragraphs further). Personally, however, I believe "breathing" is terribly archaic and over-rated and that more pleasure is lost than gained by extended aeration - reference. If you are unconvinced and remain more comfortable with a "breathing" window, start the process a couple of hours before your guests arrive.

Big bottle corks may have a larger diameter than normal, but they are usually normal length. Be careful to get a firm grip in the cork with the corkscrew (make sure to use a corkscrew with an open helix worm - reference) and start pulling very gently, making sure the cork is moving, sliding free from the glass instead of bulging next to the corkscrew insertion point. Once the cork is moving, you should have no trouble.

Insert the extra-dowel end of the tubing into the bottle until it reaches bottom. Use masking tape to secure the rod to the neck, so that you don't end up stirring any sediment as you're dispensing (and to keep a wooden rod from floating). Attach the clamp on the free end of the tubing. Hold the clamp open and then (Here's the FUN Part) start siphoning!

To Control "Breathing": fill One Glass about half way and let the clamp keep your siphon ready. Try the wine. Smell. Taste. Does it seem "closed in"? Wait five minutes. Try again. Repeat until the wine in the glass seems ready. The siphon-decanted wine will have more aeration, from splashing, than the portion remaining in the bottle. If the wine seems flavorful, leave everything at the ready until just before serving.

Siphon into pitchers or decanters and then pour from these into your guests glasses. If it takes an hour (or however long) for the experimental glass to come around, fill your pitchers or decanters about an hour (or however long you determine) before you want to serve your guests.

When you get down to the last two inches, you can decide whether to pour-decant it, filter it (a coffee filter works ok), or just pour it straight, mud and all! Continue as required until consumed!

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Q How can I sell my entire wine collection? I am interested in selling a very fine collection of Charles Krug reserve wine that my father in law has kept cellared for years. It is in excellent condition. Can you suggest how I might go about selling the lot? -Mike

A Looks like a great collection. Your first step will be to research current prices. Use Wine Searcher, for one, to see what some of your bottles might fetch. To begin with, try some general searches, "1960-Cabernet Sauvignon", "Charles Krug-Vintage Select", etc., rather than getting too specific.

You are also going to need to document, as much as possible, the conditions under which the wines have been stored, the ullage (level of fill; e.g., high neck, mid-shoulder, etc.) and label condition (e.g., perfect, torn, moldy, etc.) for each bottle. You might also note levels and types of sediment (e.g., none, light silty, moderate crusty, etc.). Just add the fields, "Fill", "Label" and "Sediment", to your Excel file. The more of this type of info you have BEFORE you submit the collection for bid, the higher your credibility with potential bidders and the greater you surely will profit.

When you are ready, take, fax or e-mail your list to Marin Wine Cellar, since you seem to be in the Bay Area. Also, try submitting it to a couple of commercial resellers of old wines (look in the classified section of most any issue of Wine Spectator). Your best bet, however, to get top dollar, will be to find a private collector. They will be more willing to pay you close to retail prices.

You could also try selling the collection yourself on eBay, especially if you have any experience with eBay and know how they work. Be specific and firm that you wish to sell ALL as a collection.

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Q I thought I wrote down the right info, but... Recently, at a wine party, I tasted the most excellent bottle of red wine I have ever had. I wrote down what I thought to be the type of wine on the label--rio sordo. I must have been mistaken, because I cannot find such a wine anywhere. Can you help? -David

A Unfortunately for the consumer, reading wine labels is something of an art. There are so many different pieces of information that may appear, especially on imported wines, that you need ALL of it to track them down. If you chance to taste a good one, try to save the bottle or use a cell phone to take a photo of both the front and back labels.

The wine you seek is probably Rio Sordo Barbaresco, made from Nebbiolo. It is full-flavored, very dry and fairly astringent. Try using these (Capitalized) terms to search on WineSearcher or Google.com ... You may find other wines you also enjoy based on the Nebbiolo grape.

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Q Can you help me find out about a Hungarian "Champagne"? I inherited a bottle of Hungarian Champagne from Budapest. It is 1915 L. Littke Cuvee. I have searched and searched, but can find nothing out about it. Any help would be appreciated. -Diane

A Your bottle comes from the city of Pécs. The champagne factory was started in 1859 by Lorinc Littke and is now owned by a Swedish company, Pannonia Cezar Ltd. Two-thirds of the current production is sold locally and the remainder in Sweden. The facility is a tourist attraction, with a 5-story underground labyrinth of caves and cellars.

It probably has value as a collectible curiosity, but, even if it had spent all these years sitting in the cold, dark and pressurized conditions of the ocean bottom, the time for your bottle being enjoyable to drink is likely many decades past.

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Q What South American white wine is made by a Seagram's daughter? I am looking for the name of a particular wine. It is South American and it is white. It also happens to be from the winery of one of the daughters of the Crown Royal Whisky (Seagrams) empire/family. Can you help identify this wine or tell me who can? -S

A You are probably looking for a wine under the "Etchart" label from Argentina. Their sub-brands include "Rio de Plata" and "Cafayate". White varietals they make include the familiar Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc and also a grape indigenous to Argentina, called Torrontes. I don't know of and was not able to locate the "daughter connection", but this is the only South American winery listed in the Seagram's portfolio.

 

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