Instant Wine Smarts
You've bought a bed, a car, maybe even a house. So why is choosing a bottle of wine so nerve-wracking? When faced with a wide selection, many novice wine buyers assume the solution is to "trade up." If you spend more, the wine will be better, right? Not necessarily.
Don't assume that a $20 bottle is twice as good as a $10 one. As with other expensive foods and drinks (like caviar and exotic cheeses), high-priced wines may take you into acquired-taste territory. Here, three successful wine-buying strategies.
- Buy brands. Surprised? Just like cereal, software, and running shoes, best-sellers in the wine world are popular for a reason: They consistently offer good value for the money.
- Narrow it down. The "big 6" grape varieties break down into 3 whites (Riesling, Sauvignon or Fume Blanc, Chardonnay) and 3 reds (Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon), which make up the bulk of quality wine sold in the United States.
- Do your tasting homework. No, you don't need to study wine to enjoy it. But a little trial and error with different wines will help you zero in on the grapes and tastes you like. They all taste like wine, but each is distinct, in the same way that a Granny Smith and a Golden Delicious apple both taste appley but differ from each other.
Wine Corks: Skip the Sniff
Little information about a wine can be gathered from the cork. "The only thing that's revealed is your naivete," says Willie Gluckstern, compiler of countless New York City restaurant wine lists and author of The Wine Avenger (Simon & Schuster, $14, amazon.com).
There is a way, however, to determine if a bottle of wine is "corked" and therefore undrinkable: The wine may smell moldy and have an astringent taste. You are entitled to refuse an unsatisfactory bottle in a restaurant and to be reimbursed for one by a wine store.
How to Hold a Wineglass
“You should always hold the glass by the stem, no matter what the shape or size of the glass or the type of wine,” says Michael Greenlee, the sommelier and wine director of Gotham Bar and Grill, in New York City. “The most common mistake I see in restaurants and at dinner parties is people holding a wineglass by the bowl.”
When you do this with a Champagne flute or a wineglass, your body heat warms the drink inside. Of course, white wine and Champagne both taste best when they’re chilled. Holding your glass of Burgundy by the bowl will not affect its taste, but “if you’re trying to look at the color and the clarity of the wine, it’s hard to see them when your hand is wrapped around the glass and you have fingerprints on the bowl,” says Greenlee.
So pinch the stem between your index finger and your thumb. If holding the glass by the stem feels unwieldy, check the portion: A wineglass should be only a quarter to a third full.
Deciphering a Wine List
To choose a high-quality, well-priced bottle, Andrea Immer, host of the Fine Living Network's Simply Wine, suggests the following:
- Have a clear idea of what you want to spend. A good rule of thumb is to take the price of the most expensive entree as a baseline and then go up to about 50 percent more than that. If it's $18 for the steak, your ballpark should be $18 to $27. Why use this formula? The restaurant assumes most people will pay about the price of an entree for a bottle, so they work hardest to find good-quality wines in that price range.
- Narrow it down. Eliminate half the menu by choosing red or white, then go one step further and choose by grape variety, picking one that is crowd-pleasing and versatile. A no-fail white grape is Riesling, and the red grape Shiraz is superb.
- Start with a taste. If you're getting just a glass, ask for a taste of it before you commit. This is completely legitimate, and some restaurants will even serve you half a glass if you ask.
Bringing Out the Best in Wine
You can’t make Two Buck Chuck taste like Opus One, but the following tips can help even low-budget wines shine a bit.
Chill all wine (but just a little). Many people serve white wines too cold (making the flavors hard to taste) and red wines too warm (making the alcohol too prominent). White and rosé wines should be drunk at 48 to 56 degrees Fahrenheit, so pull them out of the refrigerator 15 minutes before serving. Reds should be around 58 to 68 degrees; pop them in the refrigerator for 15 minutes before sipping.
Decant young red wines. Decanting (pouring wine into a larger vessel to expose it to air) helps mellow harsh flavors and brings out the fruit scents faster. Any glass pitcher will do. Pour the wine and let it sit for at least 15 minutes before serving.
Refrigerate opened wine. Resealed with a cork, a bottle will last 2 to 3 days chilled. A screw top (which keeps out more air) will buy you an additional day.
Wine-Pairing Cheat Sheet
Barbecued Seafood = Riesling
Tomato Dishes = Sauvignon or Fume Blanc
Try: Dry Creek Vineyard
Clambake = Chardonnay
Try: Gallo of Sonoma
Salad Supper = Pinot Noir
Try: Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve
Baked Salmon = Merlot
Try: Columbia Crest Grand Estates
Burgers = Cabernet Sauvignon
Try: Beringer Founders' Estate
An Open Bottle of Wine
Air decomposes and oxidizes a bottle of wine once it's opened, and the wine spoils, "just like produce," says master sommelier Andrea Immer, host of the Fine Living Network's Simply Wine. Replacing the cork will keep it two or three days. To make it last the week, remove as much air as you can with a device like the Rabbit vacuum pump, moistening the stopper first for the tightest seal, advises Michael Aaron, chairman of Sherry-Lehmann Wines & Spirits, in New York City. Then refrigerate the bottle; all wines, including reds, last longer if chilled. But even when the wine is past its prime, that doesn't mean you have to toss it. "I put it on the cooking shelf and keep using it for up to a month," says Immer. Even better: Freeze it in ice-cube trays for up to six months and toss in a cube or two the next time you're making a sauce or a marinade, says Leslie Sbrocco, author of Wine for Women: A Guide to Buying, Pairing, and Sharing Wine (William Morrow, $25, amazon.com).
Get to Know Prosecco
Prosecco is a delicious sparkling white wine from Venice that costs half the price of Champagne. Keep a bottle on ice in the refrigerator and you'll always be ready to celebrate at a moment's notice. And try to find something to celebrate every 6 months. "Champagne and sparkling whites are very frail, and have a shelf life of only 6 months to a year," says Willie Gluckstern, author of Wine Avenger (Fireside, $13). He recommends any Prosecco by Zardetto ($15, wine.com).
Toasting with flutes is a must. A flat, wide-mouthed glass or fruit-cocktail cup disperses the bubbles instantly. "And what's the point in celebrating without bubbles?" says Gluckstern.