Written by Alan Collins, local wine expert and co-host of Cocktail (and now Wine) Cinema.
Hi everyone, and welcome to Wine Cinema. As much as I enjoy a good cocktail, and I consider myself somewhat knowledgeable, I am far more obsessed and informed about the subject of fine wine. In what I shall refer to as a 30 Minute Wine Rant™ I am going to take more of a “teach a person to fish” approach to decoding wine, as opposed to offering any specific recommendations. So try to hang on, as I will be throwing a lot of information at you.
More than most other beverages, wine can seem a bit overwhelming, and it is a good deal more complicated now than it was a few decades ago. There are so many more wines from so many more places that keeping up with it is not possible, but that is not our goal today.
Topics I will touch on will include, but are not limited to: the difference between fine wine and commodity wine, beginning to understand what’s on the label (and why it does or does not matter), where grapes are grown and how it impacts the quality and style of a wine, the long wine tradition of Europe and the upstarts of the new world, where and how to buy fine wine, and more.
Fine wine vs. commodity wine
This is a subject, as are most of the things I will be discussing today, that is heavily influenced by my own opinion. I have, however, spent enough time discussing these points with various wine professionals that I feel confident in my assessment.
There is quite a lot of grey area here, and some commodity wines are perfectly acceptable, but basically most fine wines are produced in smaller quantities by wineries that own and manage their own vineyards and make their own wine. These wines tend to come from hillside vineyards. The vineyards often have proximity to mountains, rivers, or large bodies of water that can moderate temperatures and in some cases protect the vineyards from storms. These vineyards are usually not irrigated, mostly worked by hand, and grass is usually left to grow between the rows helping to promote more of a vineyard ecosystem. Wines grown in this way are often said to have a “sense of place” or terroir. The ingredients of fine wine are usually limited to grapes, yeast and sulfates.
By comparison commodity wines are usually grown on flat lands and look a lot more like a field of wheat or corn in the way it’s grown. They tend to grow in hotter areas, be worked mostly by machine, tilled dirt between the rows, often irrigated. These types of vineyards are also sometimes fertilized and overcropped, producing fruit that is watery and not very flavorful. Because grapes like these don’t have the right balance of components that make good wine (sugar, tannin and acid) the juice is adjusted in the winery with all sorts of gross additives to “correct” any aspect of the wine that is out of balance.
The Old World vs. the New World
This has already come up a couple of times, but I think it’s a really important point to understand on the road to demystifying fine wine. Pretty much all wine can be sorted into these two categories, but it’s often just as much about winemaking style as location. Many “old world” wines are produced in the U.S., and many “new world” wines are made in Europe. There are implied elements of style for each: new world wines tend to be riper, sweeter and heavier, while old world wines tend to be dryer, earthier, and often a bit lighter (this depends on the region in question).
You can also see this personified in the attitudes between new world and old world wine makers, best illustrated by this anecdote. Several years ago I met with a second generation winemaker from California. The young man talked at great length about the “history” of the family winery. About how his grandfather had made wine at home, then his father started a winery, and he would be carrying on the long family tradition of winemaking. A couple weeks later I met with a young Italian who was the fifth generation to make wine at his family’s winery in northern Italy. He said, “In the history of Italian wine my family is still very young and it will be many years before we really master our vineyards.”
Where to buy Fine Wine
With this section we will move away from my wine mysticism, and more into the realm of the practical.
Where not to buy wine is almost more important, and if you have been buying most of your wine at the grocery store then it’s time to shop elsewhere. Most chain grocery stores have pretty bad wine departments, filled almost entirely with dull commodity wines with sensational names and tacky labels. If they do have a few decent bottles they are likely to be some California mega winery like Caymus, and who knows how long they have been sitting there.
Whole Foods are hit-and-miss, but all of the Plum Markets have good wine departments by any standard. Here are the places locally I would recommend shopping for wine, and who you should try to talk to.
Plum Dexter/Maple Most of the staff here is pretty good, but Mike is the buyer, Phil is also extremely knowledgeable
Plum North Campus Again good staff here, Jorge is the buyer
Village Corner The owner Dick is super knowledgeable about wine and spirits and has a great selection of both
Morgan & York Kyo is the buyer and has one of the best selections of small estate producers around. The selections lean old-world here
Everyday Wines Mary is the owner and always has great recommendations. George is also great
Hometown Pharmacy (used to be Wenks) The buyer, Hugo takes advantage of lots of good closeout deals and you can always get good wines at great prices
Finding a wine shop you like and building a bit of a relationship with some of the staff will quickly improve your ability to select fine wines. When you find a wine you like, pay just as much attention to the grape, the region, or how it was made (usually available online nowadays) as you would the brand. Especially with wines from European countries, you can often find similar wines from the same area even if you are not able to find the specific one you originally liked.
When you are still figuring out how to select good wines, it’s okay to just get one bottle of many wines to experiment with. Once you have started to hone in on some things you really enjoy, and are becoming more adventurous and confident in your selections, I think it’s better to up your purchases to 2-3 bottles of each wine. This is based on the idea that in the long run it’s better to make one friend than many acquaintances.
Industry tastings are where I am able to do the majority of my research on wines, but there are some options for consumers to be able to try a large number of wines with low investment. Most of the tasting groups are pretty much shut down right now, but things will resume eventually I hope.
Getting the most out of your wine—drinking vs. tasting
Now that I have you chock full of my puffed up and elitist opinions about wine, and you have visited one of the shops I recommend to stock up on, how do you best enjoy your wine? The first thing to know is that most wine is served at the wrong temperature—this is often true even at very fine restaurants.
Red wine is almost always served too warm (ideal red wine temperature range 55-65). While white wine is almost always served too cold (ideal white wine temperature range 50-58). There is always a healthy debate about the best temperature ranges, but these values represent a reasonable starting point.
Tasting wine is a bit different from drinking wine, and while I always end up drinking, I always start out tasting. To taste wine we must have a clean glass, a room without too many smells flying around (i.e. not your kitchen in the middle of dinner prep), a bottle of wine at the proper temperature, and your undivided attention for 30-60 seconds. We are going to try building our palate memory and to do that we will need to focus all of our attention on the wine during our tasting. Here are the steps:
- Pour 2-3 ounces of wine into your clean & dry glass. Don’t pour more, less is better for this process
- Swirl the wine and try to get as much of the glass covered with the wine without throwing it out of the glass
- I like to give a few swirls and then slowly turn the glass on its side to make sure I am getting the best aroma distribution
- Observe the color and clarity, then stick your nose in the glass about as far as you can. It will feel awkward if you are not used to it
- Inhale slowly to smell the wine—this first sniff is referred to as “initial impact” and it is when we will perceive the aromas most intensely
- After 10-15 seconds, your threshold of aroma perception will begin to fade and you need to give your nose a rest by taking a few breaths away from the glass
- Do this process twice, giving the aromas in the glass your full attention and trying to associate aromas you know to aromas in the wine
- Now take a medium-sized sip and draw some air though the wine, this will vaporize some molecules and send them up into your olfactory bulb
- Repeat this process twice, spending 10-15 seconds each time, again thinking about the flavors in the wine and trying to make associations
- Make sure that your wine is in view while you are doing all this to create an association between the flavors and smells and the specific bottle.
This does sound rather mystical again, but this technique will help you to begin building a palate memory and create associations between other wines and flavors and aromas. It takes a lot of practice, but if you do this every time you open a bottle you will quickly start to notice your library of smells, tastes and wines begin to expand. Doing exercises like this is how we start to move past the “all wine tastes the same” phase, but it will only work if you take the time to focus your attention on tasting and building memories. After you have completed the exercise and are just drinking wine you will begin to notice that you perceive things in the wine that you noticed while you were “tasting”, even though you are no longer focusing all your attention on the wine.