Monthly Archives: February 2012

How To Store Your Wine


We talked about aging Champagne and I realized it might be good to talk about how to store your wine.

The first thing to recognize is that wine isn’t like a bottle of scotch – it continues to change in the bottle.

The aging at the winery is relatively brief. The wine changes so rapidly in the small barrel that it would be worn out by more than months in the barrel for whites or a year or two for reds. So, bottle aging takes over from there.

A few months back we talked about which wines to age so I’ll just recap that most wines don’t improve with age and the best candidates are high-quality red wines and dessert wines. But the quality of the storage conditions has everything to do with how well the wine ages. 

Fortunately, the conditions are the same for all wines: reds, whites, bubblies and dessert wines. You see photos of dusty bottles aging away in musty old cellars because it works. The wine wants to be kept in a cool, dark place.

What does that mean? The temperature should be between 45 and 65 F with minimal fluctuation. Slight, slow changes from season to season won’t matter much, but big temperature swings can be very damaging. So, don’t keep your wine in the kitchen unless it’s for the short term! I can’t tell you how many wine racks I’ve seen sitting on top of the fridge where, of course, the heat rises. 

If you have a basement, that’s terrific. Or, maybe you can insulate a closet or the area under the stairs. Wine fridges are great if you can swing it. 

Cork-finished bottles need to be stored sideways so that the cork is swollen with wine and provides a tight seal. For plastic corks and other alternatives it doesn’t matter.

So, storage isn’t too complicated at all. Just keep in mind that the wine can get too old! Don’t put a special bottle on such a high pedestal that there’s no occasion good enough for it. I’m a huge fan of the great concept started by the terrific wine writers Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher – it’s called Open That Bottle Night and the point is to have a fabulous meal and open special bottles you’ve been saving for a real occasion with your friends. Traditionally, it’s in February, but no need to wait until then 🙂 Cheers!

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Today’s Wine Word: Early Bud Break


If you grow wine grapes in the northern hemisphere you should finish up pruning in the next month or so, depending upon your growing conditions. If you have a vineyard in the Napa Valley (or Northern California) you better finish up NOW!

The annual growth cycle of a vineyard resembles that of a rose garden. After a spring, summer and fall of producing their little hearts out these plants deserve, and take, a rest. Depending upon the weather, the vines drop their leaves and go dormant sometime in November or December – just like roses. Frankly, they look like dead stumps right now.

But, we’re thinking the vines may well wake up early, in this neck of the woods, this year. After a summer of no summer in 2011 we’re experiencing a very pleasant (but somewhat scary) winter of no winter here. It’s been warm and dry for the most part. Today is supposed to top 75 degrees frevvinsake!

On a normal year, we figure the vines will come out of dormancy beginning in about mid-March. But, the soil warms up fast when it’s dry and it could well be that the vines are thinking about stirring and, maybe, waking a few weeks early. 

A few weeks can’t possibly matter, you say! Well… it depends. 

The thing is that we can have frost at night here into May and the earlier the vines wake up the greater the risk of frost damage. Last year, the spring was so wet and weepy that we didn’t have any frost problems at all. But 2008 was the worst year for frost since 1972! Can you say crop loss? Not to mention sleep deprivation! 

If we come through the spring without any frost damage, all in all, early “bud break” (the emergence of new shoots) can work to our advantage. Early bud break  often means early flowering, early fruitset and early harvest. Which means we may escape rain damage on the other end of the season.

Of course, this is all speculation. Stay tuned… 

Next: pruning!

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Should I Age my Champagne?


Question from Jessica: I got a really nice bottle of Champagne from a friend. Do I need to age it?

Reply: What a lovely dilemma you have! The producers will always tell you to drink it right away because it encourages sales. And, that’s fair enough because sparklers are very reliably enjoyable on release.  But – if you have a really nice bottle, aging can add to the wine’s complexity.

Here’s how to sort it out:

The least expensive Champagnes don’t have a vintage date. But that doesn’t mean it’s not any good. These wines bring several vintages together to give the producer a consistent house style. The great thing about non-vintage Champagne is that the blend includes some older wine, which certainly adds to complexity. These wines have to be bottle aged a minimum of eighteen months at the winery and it’s fine to keep them for up to five years. The wine might not be quite as fizzy down the road, but the compensation is added complexity.

Vintage Champagne is only from the best vintages and has to be bottle aged at least three years at the winery and can continue to improve in the bottle for up to as much as 20 years, especially if it’s a Blanc de Blancs. The same thing applies to what are called Prestige Cuvées – wines with special names like Dom Perignon or La Grande Dame. Some sommeliers feel that these wines don’t even come into their own for about 10 years.

The flavors deepen with age but, as I said, the effervescence will become more subtle. I remember talking with Hugh Davies, the owner of Schramsberg here in the Napa Valley. He recalled that his mom liked to drink 20 and 30 year old Shramsberg just for the flavors and in that case she drank it out of a wine glass rather than a Champagne flute to get the best of the flavors. So, as with so many other things in wine, the decision on when to drink it depends upon your personal taste.

But – when in doubt, down the hatch! Cheers!

Photo: Eric Magnuson on Flickr CC

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Is There More than One Kind of Zinfandel?

Question from Sarah: We were at a restaurant and I ordered a glass of Zinfandel. When the wine came it was dark red instead of pink. I decided to go ahead and try it and I didn’t like it at all. It was really bitter and not nice and sweet the way I like it. Luckily my boyfriend liked it okay. Is there more than one kind of Zinfandel? 

Reply: Hi, Sarah. Thanks for writing! I hope they suggested another wine you might enjoy. We don’t want to lose you as a wine lover! 

I guess you could say there’s more than one kind of Zinfandel. Zinfandel is the name of a grape with a dark, nearly black, skin and clear juice – almost every dark-skinned grape has colorless juice. This fact gives the grape great versatility. Depending upon how long the juice and grape skins are in contact, the winemaker can produce white, pink or red wine.

Making White Zinfandel
White Zinfandel, the wine you thought you had ordered, is, strangely enough, pink! Here’s how it works: The winemaker picks the whole cluster of Zinfandel and then runs it through a machine that removes the stems and breaks the grape skins open. Then he transfers this soupy mixture of juice and skins into a fermentation tank and waits awhile. 

At some point he’ll open a valve to see the color of the juice. When he sees something he likes, he drains all of the juice out of the tank and transfers it to another tank. This is very, very sweet juice – absolutely delicious!  Continue reading

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Ordering Wine With Friends

Question from Jason: How do you know what wine to order when everyone is eating something different?

Reply: There are several ways to go on this. The simplest option is to order by the glass so everyone is happy. The only thing to watch out for is the price. Some restaurants really clean up with their by the glass program.

All you need to do is ask the server how many ounces in a pour – it can vary quite a bit. There are about 25 ounces in a bottle so if you do the math you can see if it’s a fair price or not. Half bottles usually cost a little more than half the price of the full bottle.

If you want to order a bottle for the whole table ask around to see if folks are leaning toward white or red.

For reds, the wines that aren’t too heavy with moderate alcohol, tannin and oak are the most versatile. For instance: Pinot Noir and Beaujolais types. The Bourgueil and Chinon of the Loire Valley in France are good options. Or maybe Barbera or Dolcetto from northern Italy. I know that Valpolicella has a reputation as pop wine – but there’s a real quality renaissance going on these days and it has a lot going for it in this situation. It’s a light red with a good, solid acidity and it’s fizzy. Sparkling wine is very versatile!

For whites, you’ll want to go with something that has some body and good acidity. Cool-climate Chardonnay sounds like just the ticket: white Burgundy and Finger Lakes or New Zealand Chardonnay come to mind. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is quite assertive and has good acidity. For sparkling wine, which is the most versatile wine of all, you could go with a rosé or Blanc de Noirs for added body.

I hope that helps and bon appétit! 

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