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Selecting a fine wine

How to select a fine wine, serve it and grade it.

For those more interested in finding a delectable drink to savor than being clever, the following might be useful.

Quickly, bring me a beaker of wine, so that I may wet my mind and say something clever. - Aristophanes

Obviously the selection of a specific type, year and brand of wine is a matter of individual taste. But differences aside, there are some broad guidelines on which there is agreement, within the confines of price.

Happily, with the growth of vineyards around the world and wine-related Internet sites, availability is no longer a problem. A person in California or Caracas can order a New Zealand Syrah not carried by a local merchant as easily as anyone in Auckland.

Ignoring questions of pairing with food, are you looking for a full red or a light white? Some find Madeira too heavy, others see a German Riesling as too dry. Most readily available wines are meant to be consumed shortly after purchase, but those with the desire to taste the finest, patience really is a virtue. Cabernet Sauvignon would better suit those willing to age than a Pinot Noir.

A cool climate Chardonnay, such as those from Canada, will interest those who enjoy a young wine with prominent acidity. But it can also be favored by those who want to experience it's nutty, honeyed character that comes with aging.

Descriptions by class can be helpful. Class 1 wines, often labeled 'Light Wine' or 'Red Table Wine' will have an alcohol content between 7% and 14% by volume. Class 7, by contrast, will have an alcohol content of not less than 15% by volume. This type has usually been compounded with Brandy and flavored with herbs. Those with greater concentrations are considered 'fortified'.

Look on the label for a declaration of the amount of sulfites. Sulphur is often added during the winemaking process to guard against growth of unwanted organisms, but some may introduce more than an individuals taste prefers. Sulphur dioxide is also sometimes sprayed on the grape itself to reduce pests and can leach into the skin. Some wine drinkers are unknowingly sensitive to sulfites and can experience an allergic reaction. Concentrations of below 10 parts per million are fine for most.

When testing a wine, cool to the proper temperature — around 52°F (11°C) for whites, 65°F (18°C) for reds — and use a thin rimmed glass that is free of dust. You can clean it by rinsing carefully and drying with a lint free cloth.

Serving wine simplified

It's possible to get a college degree in Wine. Absent from most curricula, though is a good course on serving the right way. So, préparez vos crayons (get out your pencils)...

Red wines and whites, not to mention sparkling wines, have different optimal storage methods, serving temperatures and opening and pouring procedures — even different ideal drinking glasses.

Reds, it's often said, should be served room temperature — but that refers to a room a bit cooler than the average Mediterranean villa in summer. Start at 65°F (18°C) and adjust to taste.

Reds should generally not be stored in a refrigerator. Apart from being too cold, if the bottle is corked food flavors can seep into the bottle. Wherever stored, be sure to keep the bottle on it's side, in an area with 80 percent humidity if possible.

Whites, as well as some fruitier reds, should usually be served substantially cooler. Cooler, not cold. A range of 52-55°F (11-13°C) is a good beginning. Colder and you will start to mask the flavors. The average refrigerator is around 40°F (4°C), so remember not to serve immediately after opening, if stored there.

If you need to achieve the proper temperature in a hurry, or don't have handy a wine cooling cabinet, a large serving bucket with both water and ice will do. The addition of water helps to keep the ice close to the bottle and also to conduct heat away more effectively. Fifteen to thirty minutes is usually enough.

While the wine is cooling to optimal serving temperature, you can prepare the glasses. The ideal glass for a red wine will have a thin rim, a largish bowl, and a stem with a wide base for holding and stability. Whites are better experienced from a slightly narrower bowled glass. Avoid heavy cut glasses, so that clarity and color can be viewed well.

Of course, glasses should be clean, but also remember to keep fingerprints away from the rim by holding down on the stem. As much as possible, dust should be kept from the interior or any other portion where the lips and tongue will come into contact with it. Both dust and oils alter the perceived taste.

While not the most important aspect of wine serving, using the proper shape and size (one able to hold at least several ounces), helps to convey the wine to the optimal areas of the tongue and palette for the different types.

Now everything is ready

Using a corkscrew that fits your hand well, try to insert it into the cork at a slight angle to get more pulling leverage. Once the spiral is fully inserted, give the handles or the corkscrew a little jerk — dynamic friction is less than static. Be careful not to splinter the cork into the bottle.

Decant any heavier reds (port or older wines) that show evidence of sediment, by allowing them to settle then pouring carefully or using a cheesecloth if needed. Allow them, and red generally to breathe (i.e. remain open to air) for 15 minutes or so.

Pour no more than one third to half a glass to leave plenty of room for swirling. Sniff gently.

And, the most important step: taste!

Grading is more than just tasting

Skill in the art of winetasting doesn't require an advanced degree in oenology (the science of winemaking). But listening to professional winetasters, it's easy to get that impression. Bouquet, clarity, earthy, crisp, open, nostalgic — huh?

So, take a deep breath, get comfortable, and be prepared to take some time to learn some odd new definitions for familiar words and to hone your senses. Here we go...

Starting out, if you can, let someone knowledgeable decide how to serve. To do even that skillfully requires a little education and experience. Some need to be served room temperature (reds usually), some chilled (whites in general). By room temperature, we mean a slightly cooler room —60F is good for reds— and by 'chilled' we don't mean frozen; start at 50F and adjust to taste.

Some should be served right away (whites with many exceptions), and some (reds again with exceptions) allowed to breathe — sit in an uncorked bottle, exposed to air — for up to 15 minutes or more. Some even need decanting (filtering out sediment) before being served (Ports and wines that have aged considerably).

Pour into an ordinary wine glass, no more than half full, and swirl a bit to generate some additional 'winey' vapor. Avoid heavy cut glasses so you can see well. Then examine the color. Is it clear? Hazy? Opaque?

Take a short sniff; some waft the vapors into the nose rather than hold it directly over the opening. Experiment. Pay close attention by closing your eyes. This is pretentious, it helps one to focus on one or two senses —— taste and smell, over sight. Even experts sometimes misidentify wines in blind tests.

Try to identify the odor. Is it fruity like grapes or apples or oranges? Chardonnay sometimes reminds one of apples or figs (especially when aged in oak). Others, like Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlots evoke the woody smells of cedar or pine needles. Syrah puts some in mind of ground black pepper or floral scents. It's not entirely subjective —— there's often wide agreement among experts and amateurs alike, but impressions differ on degree.

Now take a sip and run it around the tongue to get many different kinds of taste buds involved. Some areas of the tongue are more attuned to sweet detection, others more to salty or sour. Does the Zinfandel you're testing remind you of berries? Or, maybe you're trying a Pinot Noir from Burgundy, with a suggestion of violets. A Gewürztraminer evokes peaches to some, a Chenin Blanc orange blossoms to others.

Set aside or finish the wine and come back another day. Don't try too much or too many at one time. One per day is preferred but a slow way to learn; certainly no more than three, otherwise your ability to discern differences will be too diminished.

The next day, try some reds and concentrate on sensing that oak storage cask. Some California reds have hints of chocolate or coffee. A fine Merlot may carry a 'tarry' quality preferred by those that favor strong scents.

In every case, subtlety is the watchword of the day. Good wines don't hit the nose over the head, so to speak. Before long, you'll find yourself with pinky raised tossing around 'zesty', 'shy', and 'brave' like an expert.

Types of wine

Describing wine

Describing aroma

Describing food