Frequently Asked Wine Questions
Have you got a question that has not yet been frequently asked? email the boffins at execellars and we will scratch our heads and come up with a sensible answer for you.
Food and wine matching - is it important?
In some respects matching wine to food is very important and will enhance the experience of both. However, there really is no need to obsess over it. Your preferences, the occasion and the company are much more important.
There are a few rules of thumb which do make sense:
White wines tend to taste more acid than reds, so it makes sense to eat foods with them that would normally call for the acidity in lemon juice or vinegar.
Sweetness in a food will make a wine taste more astringent and bitter and less fruity. Very acid foods will make a wine taste richer and more mellow and will emphasise any sweetness.
Sourness and salt in food will suppress apparent bitterness in a wine.
Highly tannic red wines work best with highly textured food such as beef. The proteins in the meat combine with the tannins, thus making the wine seem softer.
Salty foods make sweet wine taste sweeter.
Dry wines taste horrible with sweet foods as it makes them thin and nasty.
Some well known successful combinations:
Syrah and steak
Bordeaux and Lamb
Chablis and oysters
Dry riesling and smoked fish
Sauternes and blue cheese
Spicy food, such as asian or oriental cuisine really need something aromatic with a touch of sweetness. They will balance the spice and chilli and make a great contrast to the clean flavours. Gewurztraminer and Lhaksa; torrontes and Pad Thai; Alsace riesling and gingered scallops; gruner-veltliner and green coconut curry. You get the idea. Very few wines can cope with chocolate based puddings, and it is best not to try. If you must, however, go with Port or Banyuls. Something red and sweet.
There are a few rules (champagne rather than claret with oysters...) that make a lot of sense, but really wine is a part of a meal and you should choose what you want, rather than what you think is correct.
What's all this about oak?
Oak is a hard, supple and watertight wood that shows a natural affinity with wine, imparting flavours and qualities that modern consumers believe enhance or compliment those of many wines. American oak is a different species (Quercus alba) to European oak (Quercus robur) and their anatomy is also different. American oak has more natural vanillin flavours which it can impart to a wine, but it is not as subtle or smooth as European oak.
When a wine is matured in oak a tiny amount of controlled oxidation occurs which encourages slow maturation and softens a wine allowing it to develop a complexity and smoothness.
There are several factors in oak maturation that will affect the end result: the size of the barrel in which a wine is matured; the length of time for which it is matured, the type of oak; whether or not the barrels have been used before (new oak will have a greater impact on a wine) and how much the staves of the barrel have been charred, or 'toasted'.
Thus oak can be seen as useful for making vessels for maturing wine, however it is expensive, so the resulting wine tends to be expensive. There are alternative methods of giving a wine some oak influence - dipping porous bags of oak chips into a large inert vessel for instance - that can imitate oak maturation to a degree and thus allow the words 'oak aged' or 'oaked' on the label without the same costs.
Not all wines are suitable for oak maturation because it removes the fresh, primary fruity aromas and makes the wine richer, rounder and softer. Aromatic white grape varieties such as sauvignon blanc or riesling are best fermented and matured with very little or no oak to retain their freshness and purity of fruit. Light, fresh styles of white wine such as Verdicchio or Soave are also best without oak influence.
Red wines tend to be more oaked especially quality wines that are designed for ageing. Again young, fresh, fruity vibrant wines such as Beaujolais or Montepulciano may well be best without oak. But the vanilla, toast and toffee, caramel characteristics are often an important adjunct to a wines characteristics, especially in more modern styles of wine. Long term oak ageing is an important part of fine wine production allowing a softening and development of the wine.
What is the difference between a sweet wine and a fortified wine?
A sweet wine is one in which there is a degree of residual sugar after the fermentation of the wine. This can be achieved in many different ways. Either the sugar in the grape is concentrated by raisining the grape or by Botrytis cinerea or by super-ripening it, so that there is more sugar than can be fermented. Or sugar is added to a wine, or fermentation is stopped before all the sugar has turned to alcohol. Examples range from Sauternes to Tokaji, Vin Santo, Coteaux du Layon, Cordon Cut Riesling.
Fortified wines are just that. The wine has grape spirit added to it before fermentation has finished to stop the fermentation whilst still leaving the wine sweet and also increasing the overall alcohol content of the wine. Examples of this are Port, Sherry, Australian Liqueur Muscat, Muscat de Rivesaultes and Madeira
What on earth is "Terroir" and why is it important?
Terroir is a quintessentially French concept that underpins the whole Appellation Controlée system. It encompasses the whole viticultural environment of the viticultural site including the climate, the microclimate, the weather, slope, aspect and (very importantly) soil. It can also include historical elements and traditions of winemaking. The 'terroir discussion' is central to philosophical and commercial differences between New World and Old World approaches to wines.
The French concept of Terroir has a primary emphasis on soil and its overall effect on a wine. It contends that the terroir origins of a wine will be noticeable in a wine, for example the chalky texture of a Chablis or the slaty notes found in a Pfalz riesling. They contend that the underlying soil and geology affects the health of the vine and it also contributes to the topography of the region, thus affecting the mesoclimate which in turn also affects the vine's growth and production.
New World philosophers will argue that the advent of modern winemaking techniques and modern vineyard improvements have raised and unified the standards of wine quality and obscured individuality of style that used to be attributed to terroir. Interestingly, however, there is also an increasing interest in the concept to differentiate new wine growing regions, such as the Terra Rossa soil of Coonawarra.
How is wine really made?
See our Making Wine page for an overview on how red, white and sparkling wines are made.
Why are the big brands so popular?
Mostly this is a matter of Marketing. The big brands are global brands, so they have immense marketing power and money.
At the actual tasting level, brands tend to be very popular because they are made to be consistent, fruity and easy to drink in an obvious style. You don't have to think about a branded wine to enjoy it, you know it will be pleasant. But it will rarely be great, because 'great' requires individuality and complexity. Branded wines are made to please all palates and not to offend anyone.
At a more cynical level, they are popular because they are familiar, because they are everywhere. They are heavily advertised, they sponsor events, they are in every supermarket and corner shop. They are ubiquitous. They also, very cleverly, appear to be a great bargain. At any one time there are dozens of big branded wines which are being sold at a 'discount price', which makes them seem to be an attractively great bargain, so people buy them. In reality the 'discount' price is the actual price point to which the wine has been made, and the rest of the time the wine is being sold at an inflated price for its quality, to cover the advertising and marketing costs!
Having said all that, modern winemaking and viticultural techniques have made it increasingly easy to produce huge quantities of well made wine, cheaply. Compared to 20 years ago, there are very few truly poor wines. Even at the most commercial end of the branded wine market the wines are clean and fruity.
What can we drink that tastes better than the big brands?
The trick is to be adventurous. Don't just go for the big names because they are familiar, try something you have never heard of - you may actually like it. Don't always buy a wine because you know the words on the label. Try new regions and different grape varieties. Do not assume that anything under a screwcap is horrid. This is no longer the case and many premium wines are now under screwcaps. Just sometimes spend an extra 50p or £1, you will be surprised how much quality of wine improves as you spend a little bit more. Try French regional wines from Languedoc or Roussillon, or Italian reds from Tuscany and the south (Puglia and Sicily). Have a go at the individual wines from Spain, their reds especially can be excellent value. Almost anything tastes better and more interesting than many of the big brands, so start experimenting and enjoy the huge variety that is available on almost any wine list.
What are the 'classed growth' systems in France?
There are only three regions in France that have a classed growth or 'Cru Classé' system, and they are all different.
Bordeaux is the most well know classified region, and to make it a little bit more complicated they use 2 different systems. In the Médoc, and Sauternes regions the best Chateaux were originally classified in 1855 and their status has essentially remained the same ever since. The very best properties are classified as First Growths or 1er Cru Classé, and there are only 5 of them. Other properties are classified as second, third, fourth or fifth growth wines. There are only 62 classified producers in Médoc and 26 in Sauternes. Below this there is the recent classification of Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel, and below these are the Cru Bourgeois. Below these classified wines, whose wines are tasted for quality, there are the straightforward regional AC wines (ie AC St Julien, AC Margaux), AC Bordeaux and AC Bordeaux Superieur wines.
In St-Emilion the system is slightly different, but simpler. The very best properties are described as Premier Grand Cru Classé and there are only 11 of them. The quality level below is Grand Cru Classé and there are only 30 properties thus classified. These lists were originally drawn up in 1966 and reclassified in 1996. Below this is AC St Emilion wines and AC Bordeaux wines
Burgundy has a classification system not based on individual producers, but based on the best parcels of land and vineyard sites. The best vineyards are sited on the higher slopes and are designated Premier Cru sites of the village, reflecting the potential quality of the wines ie Puligny Montrachet (village) Premier Cru (classification) Les Folatieres (vineyard site). The finest of these vineyards, in some villages only, are entitled to take the name of the village and the designation Grand Cru and the parcel name - ie Puligny Montrachet Grand Cru Le Montrachet.
Alsace has a different classification system again. Introduced in 1983 the appellation Alsace Grand Cru was created to signify a wine from a single named site, a single vintage and from one of only four permitted varieties - gewurztraminer, riesling, muscat or pinot gris - without blending. Permitted yields are lower and the wines must undergo analysis and tasting for typicity to be allowed to be called Grand Cru. For example Zind Humbrecht's Riesling Grand Cru Hengst (vineyard name). On some sites only one or two of the four may be permitted. There are currently 50 Grand Cru designated sites.
How is Rosé wine made? and why bother?
After many years in the outer darkness of wine consumption, during which time its poor name was maintained by a particularly nasty sweet rosé from Portugal with a useful lamp-stand type bottle, rosé has finally made a come-back. The renaissance has been fast and furious and there is now a huge range of pinks on the market. From full and deep to light and pale; lean and dry to jammy and juicy; fizzy to flat, purple to palest peach. All styles and types - we seem to love it in all its guises and not just for a summer picnic either. Big rich deep pink rosés are being made in the New World - try Kim Crawford's Pansy! Rose from New Zealand - and fine elegant, traditional styles are pouring into the UK from France, Spain and Italy.
Rosé wine production falls somewhere between red and white wine making. There are two main techniques for making rosé wine, but only one produces wine of good quality. The colour pigments lie in the skin of a black grape, but the juice is clear. In order to extract colour from grapes, the juice and skins of the crushed grapes need to be macerated for a long enough period to extract the colour compounds. In rosé wine production red grapes are used and the maceration is very short, to extract just a little colour from the skins to colour the juice. The juice is then separated from the skins by draining (for the best quality wines ) or pressing and wine making proceeds as in white wine making. Highly pigmented grape varieties require much less skin contact and maceration times, whilst lightly coloured grapes such as pinot noir may need as much as a day or two's maceration.
The other technique is used for much more basic rosés, when a small amount of finished red wine is blended with finished white wine. The resulting wine has the required colour but lacks the hue and flavour of a properly macerated wine. The only exception to this rule is Champagne in which blending rather than maceration is often used for the base wine prior to the second fermentation in bottle.
How should I store my wines?
It is very difficult to store wine properly for the long term in modern houses due to central heating and, quite often, a lack of available space. If you have a large quantity of fine wines that you wish to lay down for a period of years, it is well worth considering professional storage or installing an insulated, air conditioned specialist cellar. For smaller quantities to be kept for months rather than years, there are a few simple rules to follow for successful storage.
Wines should be kept in a stable environment at around 10-15C. It is best if there is no great daily fluctuation of temperature, so the garage is probably not the most suitable place. Neither do you want too warm an environment, anything above 17C is too warm, so the kitchen is not ideal either.
It is best to store wine in a dark place, so the colour pigments of red wines do not deteriorate.
Wine is best stored on its side to keep the cork in contact with the wine. If wines are stored upright it is possible that the cork may dry out and allow the ingress of air into the wine, thus causing oxidation.
The environment should not be too damp as this may cause discoloration of the label or even its deterioration - this can cause confusion as well as devaluing the wines for future re-sale.
Ideally a quiet place is best for the wine, where there is no frequent vibration. This is simply achieved by ensuring the floor under the wines is totally stable - a concrete pad can be constructed in a place prone to building vibration.
In general wines stored in the home should ideally be stored in a cellar in horizontal racks - but not near the boiler. If this is not possible a little-used, cool room (such as a spare bedroom) is ideal, or an insulated understairs cupboard lined with racking.
Do I need to decant my wine?
There are very few everyday wines that need decanting before drinking. Most white wines do not benefit at all from decanting, and older more fragile wines may disintegrate and lose what fragile aromas they had. Vintage Port, vintage character Port and many heavy red wines with a little age will have thrown a 'crust', so these will benefit from decanting gently to leave the sediment in the bottle.
There is great and endless debate as to whether decanting a wine to 'breathe' it is useful. Certainly with some robust, older fine wines, especially from Bordeaux and Rhône, Barolo and Barbaresco, there does seem to be good argument for decanting. The action of pouring from decanter to bottle aerates the wine, which allows the more volatile components to be released so improving intensity of both aroma and flavour. But again, caution should be advised with very old wines as this aeration can cause fast oxidation and lead to the already delicate notes fading away altogether.
One other good reason for decanting is so that no one knows what is in the decanter - useful for blind tastings or indeed for disguising the quality of the wine you are serving in anonymity.
Finally a decanter of wine has a very aesthetically pleasing quality on the table and can add to the sense of occasion, rather than simply having a bottle of plonk parked on a mat.
At what temperature should I serve wine?
As a general rule of thumb, red wines should be served at 'room temperature' and whites lightly chilled. With the advent of central heating and soft-living, room temperature is now higher than it used to be, so most reds are now served just a little too warm.
Ideally full-bodied red wine should be served at around 16-18C. Lighter red wines such as Beaujolais, some pinot noirs, Chianti, Valpolicella or grenaches benefit from being served at a cooler temperature around 12-14C to emphasise their refreshing qualities.
White wines benefit from chilling, but if served too cold they will lose their aromatic characters. Complex full bodied whites are best between 12 and 14C, but light, sweet, sparkling, rosé or low acidity wines should al be served at the relatively chilly 7-10C.
Do not warm your bottle of red near a radiator or cooker, it will simply become red soup if it is too hot. There is no benefit at all in having a red wine too warm, it merely loses its finesse and alcohol can begin to evaporate at 20C. Certainly do not put a bottle of wine in the microwave to warm it up - it does it no good at all and tastes astringent and bitter. Remember that a wine will warm up to room temperature very quickly in the glass, so if in doubt serve it a little on the cool side. However, if a red wine is drunk too cold (below 12C) it will lose its aromatics and the tannins and acid structure become more clearly marked.