Ever wonder what the subtle differences are in the bottle shape of your favorite wine, or, which glass shape best suits serving a pinot gris and why? Members are welcome to submit the wine questions you've always been afraid to ask and to check back here regularly for answers and updates. Even in the vineyard, knowledge is power!
Previously Asked Questions
- What is "cork taint" and how does it affect wine?
- What are some guidelines for ordering wines when dining out?
- What are "wine diamonds?"
- What is Late Harvest Wine?
- What is decanting and why is it recommended?
- What are some common aroma and flavor descriptors of California varietals?
- What are the major varieties of grapes that make up FFWS Red Wine Blends?
- At what temperature should I serve my wines?
- How do I properly store wine?
- When is it okay to purchase a bottle of wine with a screw cap?
- Do wine aerators really work?
- Screw Cap v. Cork?
- Do wine magnets work?
What do the terms “corked” or “cork taint” mean?
These terms are used interchangeably to describe a wine that has been affected by TCA. 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, or TCA, is the chemical name for cork taint. TCA can occur anywhere as it is the end result of what happens when naturally occurring fungi in the oak are mixed with bacteria and chemicals. I have over-simplified a bit but in short, when the fungi meet with certain chemicals such as chlorine, TCA can form.
How do I know if my wine is corked?
When someone describes a wine as being corked, they are referring to a damp, musty smell that some say is reminiscent of a wet dog, dirty gym socks or a moldy basement. Not only does cork taint emit a foul odor, but it will also affect the structure of the wine on your palate. For example, a corked white wine may be void of its common fruit and floral aromas. It may also lack vibrancy and have a flabby mouthfeel. When determining whether a wine is corked or not, do not rely on the smell of the cork; rely on the smell of the wine. There are cases where the cork may be a bit tainted but the wine is sound. In addition, wines bottled with screwcaps could also have TCA. In those cases, this is most likely the result of a TCA contaminated wine barrel.
What to do when a bottle is corked:
If you happen to open a bottle of corked wine, remove the wine and be sure to thoroughly wash your hands. Allow at least 10-15 minutes before opening another bottle as this is enough time for the TCA to dissipate from your nostrils. You will then be able to assess a new bottle of wine without contamination. When ordering wine, the server or sommelier should allow you to first smell and taste to check the wine’s soundness. If you happen to buy a corked bottle, simply ask the sommelier for another. In the event you receive a corked bottle in a wine club shipment, contact the wine club or customer service manager to have the bottle returned to the winery so that it can be examined by the winemaker.
- DO order the wine you enjoy. Don’t worry so much about “pairing” or “matching” wines. Enjoy the wine you love with the dish you love.
- If you are ordering that special bottle that should be decanted, DO call ahead to the restaurant and ask the sommelier to decant the wine prior to your arrival. This way each glass will be as delicious as the next.
- DO try matching a dish to its regional equivalent in wine. For example, if you’re considering trying the daily special with the Alsatian flair, branch out and try a wine from the same region.
- DO start from the By-the-Glass or BTG list and ask for a taste before making your selection.
- When in doubt, DON’T hesitate to ask your server or sommelier to steer you in the proper direction based on your likes/dislikes.
- If you are with a group or plan on having more than a glass or two, DON’T bother ordering from the BTG menu. The bottle price will be much easier on your wallet.
- DON’T judge a wine by its screw cap. There are many quality wines that are bottled using this method. The design of the screw cap has evolved over the years to mimic the qualities of cork.
OTHER POINTS TO NOTE:
- If you have trouble deciding which bottle of Pinot Noir or Sauvignon Blanc to choose, go for the single-vineyard selection. A single-vineyard wine, generally speaking, will have been treated with the utmost care from farm to glass.
- It is completely acceptable to ask the server or sommelier to serve at the proper temperature. – A guide is listed at our FFWS site in the Wine 101 section here.
- The sommelier will pour a taste for the host, the person who ordered the wine, to check for soundness of the wine. The sommelier will then pour (clockwise when possible) for all guests before serving the host.
Recently we have received a few questions regarding the presence of crystals on corks as well as on the inside of the bottle’s neck—the concern being that wine purchased was a faulty bottle. I have some good news for those of you who have encountered this phenomenon after opening a bottle – these crystals are in fact, considered to be a sign of quality by wine geeks and connoisseurs alike.
Potassium bitartrate crystals or “wine diamonds” are the result of tartaric acid binding with potassium under very cool conditions. Some wine diamonds appear to be shards of glass while others look like sediment at the bottom of the bottle. Since both the acid and potassium exist naturally in the grape, these diamonds are commonly found in the bottle and are harmless to consume.
Some winemakers choose to force the presence of the crystals by lowering the temperature of the wine while it’s in tank in order to separate the crystals from the wine. This process, called cold stabilization, allows the finished wine to appear less opaque. There are those however, that believe this process also changes the overall structure, ageability and “feel” of the wine. Some winemakers choose to forgo cold-stabilization and lean towards the idea that the less interference in the natural process, the better quality of winemaking. One should also note that these acids fall out at a lower rate when the fermentation temperature is not manipulated to speed up the process, which is another indicator of a winemaker who is letting nature run its course.
Should you notice these crystals on your cork or in your bottle and prefer to drink your wine diamond-free, you can remove them in the same manner as you would to decant for sediment, knowing that your wine was made in the most natural manner possible.
In response to a recent question, a late harvest wine is made from grapes that are allowed to remain on the vine for days or sometimes weeks longer than a typical harvest. Due to the longer hang time, the grape’s natural sugars are higher than those picked during the first harvest. The higher sugar content allows the winemaker to create more powerful and intense dry or sweet wines. Many of the sweeter style late harvest wines are often the result of the fungus Botrytis Cinerea, commonly called Botrytis or Noble Rot, which attacks the grapes. Under proper weather conditions, Botrytis will set in and essentially dehydrate the grape while it remains intact on its cluster. The grape then has advanced levels of both sugar and acid which together create mouthwateringly sweet wines that can pair well with a variety of dishes. Here are three late harvest wines available in our FFWS portfolio.
On their own, these wines are the perfect end to any meal. They’re delicious with certain desserts that are naturally sweetened or with dark chocolates. A classic pairing with complex late harvest wines is a rich, salty dish such as a duck liver mousse or chicken paté.
- What is decanting?
Decanting is a process which involves removing sediment and adding oxygen to wine that has been bottled, or boxed, for consumption. Not all wines contain sediment, but most wines can benefit from aeration.
- Why decant wine?
Aerating a wine allows it to “breathe,” exposing it to oxygen, releasing aromas and changing the perception of the wine’s structure on the palate. Decanting also removes sediment which can be found in unfiltered, tannic, or aged wines. These particles can be gritty and are not only unsightly in the glass, but could ruin the drinking experience.
- How should you decant wine?
To decant for sediment, very slowly pour the wine into a decanter while keeping an eye on the color of the wine flowing in the neck of the bottle. Stop pouring when sediment appears or as the color of the wine in the neck becomes darker or cloudy. The remaining wine could be discarded or used for cooking. There are wine filters on the market that can be placed in the mouth of the bottle to filter as well as aerate with each pour. Decanting with a cheesecloth, coffee filter or tea strainer will work just as well.
Aerating, another form of decanting, can be as simple as pouring a few ounces of wine into a glass and then shaking the bottle…with the cork in of course. You could also use a fancy crystal wine decanter and allow the wine to rest.
**My favorite decanter is my wine glass. Swirling the wine in your glass is the simplest and most effective way of decanting in a pinch.
- I’m frequently asked how long a wine should decant—it depends on the wine.
Most whites and sparkling wines only need around 30 minutes or so. Medium to full-bodied red wines such as the 2010 Kuleto Estate Malbec and the 2012 Chalk Hill Estate Pinot Noir are more expressive after 30-45 minutes. The 2010 Foley Johnson Handmade Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon, 2012 Lincourt Santa Rita Hils Syrah and other full-bodied red wines open beautifully after an hour or so.
- Which wines should you decant?
All of them. Most wines could benefit from decanting, including white and sparkling wines. As a test, pour two glasses from the same bottle of wine. Vigorously swirl one of them. Smell both. Taste both. Case closed.
Aroma & Flavor Descriptors
Ever wonder why your wine tastes like green apples or ripe cherries? Does the winemaker add flower petals or caramel flavor to the juice? No, but each grape’s varietal characteristic lends certain aromas and flavors to the finished wine. The varietal profiles below are a general guideline and tend to change based on wine region. For some, it can be difficult to detect fruit and/or non-fruit descriptors in the glass. To assist, I’ve listed a handful of major varieties with their typical Californian aromatic descriptors. You may find more so keep me posted with your comments!
- Fruit: Lemon, Lime, Grapefruit, Orange, Peach, Passion Fruit, Red Apple
- Non-fruit: Grass, Sweet Herbs, Asparagus, Peas, White Flowers, Citrus Blossoms
- Fruit: Meyer Lemon, Pear, Peach, Melon, Mango, Banana
- Non-Fruit: White Flowers, Honeysuckle, Limestone, Hazelnut
- Fruit: Red & Black Cherry, Raspberry, Strawberry
- Non-Fruit: Lilacs, Violets, Tea Leaves, Rhubarb, Licorice, Clove, Potting Soil
- Fruit: Blackcurrant, Stewed Fruit, Blackberry, Dark Plum
- Non-Fruit: Violets, Bay Leaf, Sage, Anise, White Pepper
- Fruit: Blackberry Jam, Blackcurrants, Black Cherry, Black Olive
- Non-Fruit: Purple Flowers, Sweet Herbs, Sage, Bell Pepper, Leather, Pencil Shavings, Barnyard
Making Sense of FFWS Red Wine Blends
The Foley Food and Wine Society boasts an array of many varietals of wine, of which, red wine blends have proven to be the most stylistically diverse. In the end, the winemaker decides the perfect amount of each variety for their final blend to bottle for our consumption… and our enjoyment. Below is a list of the major red grapes that comprise some of our great blends along with examples of each.
Cabernet Sauvignon- This famous Bordeaux variety is known for its long-term aging ability. In great vintages, Cabernet Sauvignon can offer a balance of medium to high tannins and medium acidity with aromas and flavors of ripe blackcurrant, eucalyptus and sweet leather.
Merlot- Merlot is sometimes referred to as the lady of the black Bordeaux grapes. She offers elegance, richness, roundness and a plush mouthfeel. In cooler to moderate vintages, Merlot has aromas of sage & bay leaf with a mixture of both ripe and cooked dark fruit. She is medium-plus to full- bodied with medium to medium-plus acidity and tannin.
Cabernet Franc- In a red blend, Cab Franc lends its floral characteristics. Red and white flowers, lilacs and violets are a few to mention in its beautifully aromatic bouquet. Cab Franc usually has a medium-plus body and tannin with medium to medium-plus acidity. In warmer vintages, when it can fully ripen, it is a wonderful addition to a blend.
Malbec- Malbec offers colors of dark ruby and sometime purple tones with aromas of violets and soft purple flowers. It can be medium-plus to full-bodied with medium acidity and flavors of ripe blue and black fruits with a hint of cocoa and baking spices.
Petit Verdot- Ripens late and ages very slowly. When Petit Verdot is able to fully ripen it offers a substantial amount of tannin, deep ruby color and what some describe as “exotic” spices. It is full-bodied with firm tannins with flavors of both ripe red and dark fruit.
Wine Serving Temps for FFWS Wines
Assuming you have read my previous post on how to properly store wine (if you haven’t, you can find it below) let me be the first to congratulate you on your efforts to properly store your wine collection at home!
This month I’d like to share with you a guideline of serving temperatures for various wines from our Foley Food & Wine Society portfolio. Note: This is only a guideline. Try a side-by-side tasting of one of your favorite wines with one glass at room temperature and the other at the suggested temp listed below. I would love to hear your thoughts and feedback.
Wine Style Temperature Range FFWS Wine Off-Dry Whites 43-45° Kuleto Moscato, Sebastiani Symphony, EOS Muscat Canelli Rosé 45-50° Kuleto Rosato, Three Rivers Cabernet Franc Rosé, EOS Rosé Light-Bodied White 45-50° Lillie Langtry Sauvignon Blanc, Chalk Hill Sauvignon Musqué, Firestone Gewürztraminer, Three Rivers Riesling Medium-Bodied White 50-55° Chalk Hill Pinot Gris, Lincourt Steel Chardonnay, Langtry Day Marsanne, Chalk Hill Viognier Sweet White 45-48° Foley Johnson Handmade Botrytised Semillon, EOS Tears of Dew, Guenoc Late Harvest Viognier Light-Bodied Red 50-55° Sebastiani Heritage Red, Lincourt Pinot Noir, Roth Heritage Red, Chalk Hill Pinot Noir Medium-Bodied Red 55-58° Kuleto Sangiovese, Sebastiani Zinfandel, Chalk Hill Syrah, Foley Johnson Meritage, Roth Merlot, Firestone Malbec Full-Bodied Red 59-64° Foley Johnson Estate Petit Verdot, Three Rivers Svelte, Guenoc Petite Sirah, Lancaster Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Merus Cabernet Sauvignon Sweet Red 65-68° Guenoc Petite Sirah Port, EOS Hames Valley Port
Recently I've received questions on how to properly store wine, and a few of you have asked about different options for storing at home, especially during these warm summer months. It is important to understand that if a wine is stored properly it will maintain its integrity in the bottle until the time you choose to uncork it. That said, there are many types of wine storing systems on the market that are suitable for novice and extensive wine collectors. When shopping for the optimal storage system, look for a unit that provides a cooling system with the right balance of humidity. Without the proper level of humidity, a wine’s cork will dry out and possibly damage the wine, so be careful to not leave your bottles in a dry environment for a long period of time. Contrarily, too much humidity encourages mildew and/or mold.
TIP: Check the humidity setting on your Frigidaire before using it to store your prize bottle of Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru.
If you’re like me and would rather spend more time drinking your wine as opposed to watching it grow old, you may not need a high-tech, self-contained wine cellar. You will however, need to be careful as to not expose your wine to direct UV light, extreme temperatures and ensure that it is stored in a sufficient amount of humidity—somewhere around 70 percent. A makeshift cellar can easily be created by placing your bottles in a cool, dark space on the lowest level of your home. A good temperature for storing reds and whites together is around 55 degrees. A closet, basement or dark cupboard will work fine, and use a small humidifier if the space is too dry. If exposure to natural light is an issue, one solution is to place each bottle in a paper bag and label each bag with the wine’s details. Whether you choose to purchase a storage system or to create one, be sure to account for the various sizes and shapes of the wine bottles you want to store. Bottle types such as Burgundy, Alsace and Champagne may not fit into the standard wine rack. The same applies to large formats like Magnums and Jeroboams.
TIP: Purchase or create the system that works for your level of wine consumption. A great cellar should be more comprehensive than expensive.
Now! Screw cap technology has come a long way since the dark days when the enclosures sat atop Grandpa’s bottom shelf cooking sherry. And, while acceptance of screw capped bottlings have made slow, but steady, gains in France and the US; elsewhere the enclosure has much greater traction.
Presently, screw caps sit atop some 90% of all bottlings in New Zealand with just over half of Australia’s production utilizing screw cap technology. The enclosure initially made significant gains when several winemakers switched away from cork due to concern over the exposure of wine to 2-4-6 Trichloroanisole. Commonly referred to as TCA, the microbial compound is responsible for ‘cork taint’; a highly aromatic microbe that makes wine smell like wet cardboard or soggy newspaper. While the cork industry combated the negative publicity by cleaning up its act, consumers continued to adopt screw capped bottles because of convenience and a diminishing public perception that the enclosures were inferior.
Most wine-centric folk no longer bat an eye when a screw-capped bottle is presented at a gathering.
The wine industry offers a seemingly endless array of tools, gifts and gadgets designed to enhance our enjoyment and experience of the beverage. One may choose between a variety of electric and acoustic corkscrews, biodegradable charms, wipes to keep teeth free of stains and even special waters to rinse the palate. And, just as gassing & pumping systems are available which preserve open bottles by slowing the oxidation process, there are a number of aeration devices specifically designed to expose the wine to oxygen.
When hosting classes and experiences, participants often ask whether wine aerators really work. The short answer? Yes. It’s about oxygen. Swirling a glass exposes a greater portion of the wine’s surface area to air. Aeration causes volatile compounds to change as they are released and inhaled. And, since the vast majority of what we actually ‘taste’ is aroma, many attempt to accentuate the sensory experience of wine by swirling, decanting or utilizing bottle top aerators.
However, while aerators increase the surface area of wine, the question of whether they actually improve aromatics and texture more than swirling, decanting or pulsing the contents of a bottle in a blender is open to question.
It’s easy to judge for yourself. The following exercise is perfect for your wine tasting group or Friday afternoon wind down with office mates. Here, you’ll use different aeration methods to create a flight of wines as detailed below. If possible, run multiple trials by using a white wine and two red wines while ‘brown bagging’ each method to prevent preconception & personal bias from impacting results.
In one, pour the wine directly into a glass. In another, decant the wine immediately prior to pouring. For other glasses in the flight, try aerators available from producers like Vinturi, BevWizard or Soirée. Finally, in another glass, pour the contents of a bottle in a blender and pulse.
Obviously, with only a handful of tasters, your sample size will be small. However, even with the limited data, it’s fascinating to smell and taste the differences and chart the results of each aeration method. I look forward to hearing your results!
The case of Screw cap v. Cork, has been vigorously debated in online forums and at wine shop counters over the last decade. Originally, the argument felt like a tennis ball volley between staunch cork traditionalists, who hoped to preserve romance and ritual, versus practical minded sommeliers and progressive marketing teams aiming to lure next-generation drinkers. One side would present pragmatic evidence to support their claim and the other would counter with relevant statistics. Back and forth it went. Alas, as debate continued, screw caps steadily gained traction with consumers and bottles sales with alternative enclosures increased across the globe.
The cork debate started small -- very small. The culprit? 2-4-6 Trichloroanisole or TCA. TCA is the compound responsible for cork taint; it’s what makes wine smell like wet cardboard or my grandmother’s couch. Not pretty. It’s powerful and can be detected by some tasters in amounts as little as 2-4 parts per trillion. (By contrast, the seats of a brand new Chrysler Sebring convertible are smelled in parts per million). Because up to 5% of bottles were affected by TCA, screw caps seemed like an attractive option. After all, imagine the disappointment of the person who has waited for the perfect moment to open that treasured bottle only to discover it’s “corked”. Not good. The cork industry responded by changing hygiene and testing practices at production facilities and levels of TCA have declined to somewhere between 1% and 2%.
While cork facilities were cleaning up their act, cork advocates went on a two-pronged offensive. First, they branded themselves as a renewable, green industry. Because the bark used in cork production is able to regenerate, no trees are cut down during the harvest. Further, they trumpeted how cork’s permeability contributes positive characteristics to bottles as they age by allowing a tiny bit of oxidation. Following suit, Amcor, producer of the industry leading Stelvin screw cap closures, introduced a series of plastic liners, which enable small levels of oxygen exposure, thus simulating the aging properties offered by cork.
Presently, white wine dominates the screw cap landscape in the US with red wine gradually gaining a foothold. It seems it’s been easier for producers and consumers to accept the role of screw caps for white wines as concern over the impact of long term aging is less of an issue. For reds, at least in France, Italy and the US, the conversion lags behind.
While difficult to determine the exact number of cases utilizing screw caps in the US, glass sales for screw cap bottles are on the rise. Globally, screwcaps sit atop some 15% of bottles, with some markets, like New Zealand, hovering closer to 90%. New Zealand-based Foley properties, Clifford Bay and Vavasour, use screw caps for all bottlings. Here, in California, Eos and Firestone, have made the switch for several white wines.
As wine producers struggle over how a cork or screw cap may impact the image of the winery, dialogue over packaging continues to evolve. Obviously, cork’s centuries long link to wine stored in glass bottles ensures it won’t be going away anytime soon. However, in recent years, concern over the possible connection between human activity and climate change has come into play. In an effort to reduce the carbon footprint while bringing down costs associated with shipping and storage, some wineries and restaurants have utilized alternative packaging, including cardboard-styled Tetra packs and kegging systems. While these approaches have obstacles to overcome in terms of brand image and the ability to control oxidation, their use is growing in the marketplace. I look forward to exploring these approaches another time.
Wine Magnets: Blinded by Subjective Objectivity in Science
While a sucker for sunsets, rainbows and unicorns, in my heart of hearts, I’m a skeptic. You say ‘up’ and I counter with a winded retort on subjectivity, perception and gravity. It’s annoying: a trait which causes my spouse to roll her eyes before engaging in a series of yogic breathing exercises designed to prevent her from clubbing me with a rolling pin. I can’t help it. Whether by nature or training, I try to poke holes in arguments.
So, it comes with surprise that the first time I was exposed to wine magnets, I was startled by the result. When Friend A poured a street-gravel tannined Petite Sirah, the wine’s structure was reminiscent of bathroom tile grout and the 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers defense. T'wasn't subtle. Then Friend B produced a gadget purported to tame tannins and make wine more approachable. Despite my skepticism, when the wine was poured through the device attached to the top of the bottle, I detected a change in the structure. The wine now seemed more polished and approachable. And, while it seemed suspect that chemical changes could be triggered by magnetic forces, I was a reluctant believer.
Flash forward to 2007. I was present during a Mythbusters taping where the B-Team comprised of Tory, Grant, the briefly tenured Jessi Combs and a colleague from the winery set up a double blind trial to evaluate whether these devices really worked. While they tasted through the exercise, I followed along off-camera. With a Lilliputian sample size of 5 people, this wasn’t dissertation material. Yet, the results were unanimous. At no point could tasters, including myself, discern any difference between the structure & taste of the wines poured directly into a glass versus those utilizing the wine magnets. (Sadly, several minutes of frantic internet search reveals the segment never aired.)
When repeated during informal tasting sessions with friends and colleagues, the evidence mounted against the efficacy of wine magnets. But, does this mean the devices are nothing more than snake oil? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
Because red wines contain thousands of phenolic compounds, it is possible chemical changes may be taking place, which we simply haven’t been able to identify. And, while it’s unlikely the magnets themselves trigger changes in wine, perhaps other materials used in the construction could be the catalyst. Or it may be the simple fact that bottle top versions of the devices act like a decanter by exposing wine to more oxygen.
We invite you to judge for yourself. As with our home aeration trial outlined in a previous blog, it’s easy to evaluate a flight utilizing several devices. When possible, have a friend, co-worker or trained pet mask bottlings to ensure personal bias doesn’t impact your judgment. In one, have the wine poured directly into a glass. For the others, wine magnet devices like Bev Wizard, The Wine Clip and Perfect Sommelier can be employed. It’s also possible to jury-rig your own version by taping kitchen magnets directly to the neck of bottle. This is clearly ‘research’ with a small letter r. However, despite the rudimentary and informal nature of the investigation, it is sure to trigger lively and entertaining debate.