In my internet wanderings I often come across questions relating to wine, and now that I feel like I know some things about things I thought I’d share what I would say to someone who asked me these questions.
How long can wine last in optimal conditions?
First of all, let’s talk about what ‘optimal conditions’ are when it comes to storing wine.
Ideally you want to store wine in a place that fits three main criteria: cool, dark, and dry. Light, heat and dampness** can all wreak havoc either on the cork or the wine, so you want to try and curb these things as much as possible if you plan to hold on to a bottle for more than a few months.
**Edit: My wonderful stepdad (and personal wine oracle) has gently reminded me that dampness is not quite the red flag I thought it was. Also, I forgot that wines also like to age undisturbed – jostling them around or moving them too much can shorten the life of a wine. The more you know!
So, how long can a wine last in these conditions? Well, like many things in life, it depends. On what, you ask? Read on to find out.
As I mentioned earlier this year I’ve been taking a wine course at a local college as part of a bigger plan to get my WSET Level 3 certification. I was worried about the jump from WSET level 2 to level 3 so I’ve been taking this other course to help fill some knowledge gaps and get practice on blind tasting, something I still find quite intimidating.
Since September I’ve been spending my Tuesday evenings in a classroom, writing notes about soil and climate and trying my best not to embarrass myself during tastings. This week was the final exam and though I really enjoyed it, the course really kicked my butt.
I know, what a weird statement. It’s just wine, right? How hard can it be??
Tasting is a Game of Persistence and Practice
I was nervous for the blind tasting part of this course. In fact, the exercise of tasting wines blind and trying to identify them was my entire reason for taking this course and not just plowing through to WSET level 3. I can now proudly say that I don’t think I completely suck at tasting, but does that mean I have a good track record for correctly identifying wines?
No, correctly identifying wines from a few whiffs and sips is still incredibly challenging. I am getting better at it though, and feel confident enough to continue with the plan to take a WSET level 3 course over the next few months, so silver linings and all that.
Italy, my Everest
Italy is hard, you guys. Like, really hard. Much more difficult to figure out than France, which I attribute to a few key reasons:
You know how France has a bunch of regions and you’re just supposed to know the grapes used in that region when buying a bottle? Italy is like that, only with a bajillion more regions and often a few different kinds of ‘typical’ wines in each region. It’s a ridiculously large amount of information to learn in the span of a few weeks.
Also like France, the Italian wine industry is old and famous and well-loved and has pretty strict rules, which means the delicious stuff tends to be out of my price range. Amarones and Barolos will continue to be wines I gaze at longingly on store shelves for the foreseeable future.
On top of the cost (or maybe because of the cost) I don’t drink Italian wine much, which means my taste tends toward others things, which means that my palate is so far out of its depth with Italian wine that tasting these wines blind becomes a bit of a joke.
Clearly I have some remedial studying to do…
The (New) World is my Oyster
Fortunately, where I floundered with Italy, I flourished with the new world. Maybe it’s because the labels are more helpful, or because the wines are more affordable (and therefore my palate is more familiar with them), or because I happen to live near a fantastic wine region. Whatever the reason, I had a much easier time learning about wines from South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile, America and Canada.
To give some perspective, where my tasting notes were sadly sparse and I correctly identified zero of three wines on my Italy test, on my new world test my tasting notes were much more detailed and I correctly identified all four varietals and three of four regions. Totally vindicated!
Onward and Upward
So Wines II at George Brown College is done and dusted. I should get my marks back in a few weeks but I feel confident in my knowledge and tasting ability, which was the whole point of taking the course. I finally feel ready to tackle WSET Level 3, which is good because I start in January.
Bordeaux, France, aka Gorgeoustown. (image from SuperCar-RoadTrip.fr on Flickr – click through for more info)
I recently had dinner and caught up with my friend Cat. I first met Cat during my first year of university where we were both fresh-faced and over-eager campus student leaders.
The last time we saw each other was last November when I was visiting New York City. We met up and wandered around the Union Square market, toured Eataly (where Cat bought a big and slightly scary-looking octopus) and where Cat showed me her favourite wine shop – Appellation Wine & Spirits. They were having a tasting, she said, and added that the staff there were so friendly and their stock so interesting that this shop had become a regular ritual for her. Turns out she was correct on all counts. I was sad to leave that wonderful place but ultimately both me and my bank account were happy it isn’t my local wine shop.
Us, pretty much. And by that I mean we’re both Meryl.
In case you couldn’t tell, along with being a good friend, Cat is a fellow wino. We had a great time last November talking about and enjoying wine and it was then that she first told me about her dream to one day become a winemaker.
Fast forward to last week, when we got together. We spent the evening catching each other up on our lives and our wine journeys. I told her about this blog and some of the plans I’m mulling over and she told me about the soul searching she did while walking the Camino trail. Always a doer, walking the trail led her to realize that learning to be a winemaker was a much more pressing and insistent goal than she originally thought. So, she left her corporate job in NYC to begin this new adventure, and will shortly be moving to none other than Bordeaux to begin a combined MSc/MBA in the wine industry. And, wouldn’t you know it, Cat has started a wine blog to share this new chapter.Talk about exciting!
Needless to say I’m impressed and very excited for her. Cat has always inspired and motivated me and this new adventure is no different.
It’s nice to have a wine buddy, someone who is learning like I am and who I can share my hair-brained and novice questions and comments with (What the heck is the deal with appellations?? Does this taste like school chalk to you? Yes, this tastes like a Merlot, but that’s all I’ve got!).
This will be Cat and I in our old age. Ok fine, it’s us now.
Catching up with Cat has also left me thinking more about my own wine-related ambitions, and the personal journey I’d like to take. I find myself renewed when it comes to writing and learning about wine and pushing myself to always taste with intention. For the past few months I’ve be mulling over the decision to enroll in more structured courses. Would they be too easy? Too difficult? To what end would I take them, or would it be purely self-indulgence? But then again, wine is a wonderful thing, and who couldn’t use a little self-indulgence every so often?
Well, I’ve decided that next January I’m going to take a WSET course and see where that takes me. Sometimes you have to jump and do something without knowing what use it’ll be later.
I have, of course, already begun looking up flights to France, because who wouldn’t want to visit their wino friend in wino Mecca?
When I first started drinking wine I was happy to taste new wines but was timid about opening bottles. I was especially intimidated by the waiter’s corkscrew, which people always made look really easy but I could never seem to use correctly. Luckily, I had some private wine-opening tutoring care of my parents and now prefer the waiter’s corkscrew over any other model.
I would be remiss in this whole knowledge-transfer business if I didn’t show how to open a bottle with my favourite kind of corkscrew, so I made a video about it.
Watch and learn, friends! (And enjoy a cameo by Yours Truly at the end)
It’s not just our tongues that affect our impressions of wine. You and I know this, of course, since we talk about the smell and look of a wine every time we taste something new. But what about the label? How does that affect our impression of the wine?
Labels influence the drinker, and are not to be underestimated. The label can mean many different things, but when it really comes down to it the label is a reflection on how the company wants you to view the wine. It’s all marketing, and the aim is to match the wine to the drinker its intended for. So How Do They Influence You, REALLY? Old world (eg. France, Italy, Spain) wine labels tend to have pictures of vineyards and castles on them, and the language (when it’s in English) highlights history and tradition. These bottles are signalling that they are to be taken seriously.
“Look at my maturity and hidden depths! Sip me while reading Foucault and pondering the virtues of humanity.” – Old world label
New world wine labels (eg. California, Australia, Canada) tend to have more modern labels, with quirky images and names and vibrant colours. These bottles are signalling that they are friendly and accessible.
“Hey, girl, hey. I’m like that person you’re eyeing from across the room, all mysterious and cool. Have a glass of me at the cottage after a day of wakeboarding.” – New world label
I did disagree with this video’s opinion of sommeliers – bus boys with dubious credentials who happen to know a lot about wine? Ouch! This video doesn’t give somms enough credit – those people really do have a fair bit of training and tasting. However, this was still an enjoyable video. I recommend a watch if you’re into wine or psychology – or both, like me!
I had a long weekend a couple weeks ago and decided to head home to visit my family. While planning what I’d like to do with my parents the idea of a wine tasting came to mind. It had been a while since we’d done one and we thought, why not?
I was also bringing home two good friends who live in the Niagara wine region of Ontario, and so I suggested we frame the tasting as a Canada-Europe grudge match. My stepdad was happy to oblige and managed to find three Canadian reds and three French ones, pairing three different varietals – Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.
I should note that the French wines are most likely blends (most French wines are) and so my stepdad was probably guided by the region in matching these wines with their Canadian counterparts, since each region specializes in a few different types of grapes.
So, how do we do tastings? I thought you’d never ask!
I happily benefit from my stepdad’s years of practice in planning and hosting tastings – by the time I met him he had it down to a science and an art. Over the years he has devised a double-blind system that means no one at the tasting will know which wine is which.
The wines all nestled in their sleeves, waiting for us to enjoy them
My mom and stepdad are a great wine tasting team – he will open the bottles and either decant them or put them in sleeves, and then she will come by and put a little coloured sticker on each bottle. He doesn’t know which wines are which colour and she doesn’t know which wine she’s labelling – it’s win win!
He’s also created a great grid to help structure the tasting.
In case you can’t make out the wine list, here is what we tasted:
Clos deu Marquis, Saint Julien, France (1997)
Marynissen Vineyard, Lot 66, Niagara Peninsula, Canada (1997)
Chateau de Courteillac, Entre-De-Mers, France (1998)
Mission Hill, Merlot, BC, Canada (2001)
Couly-Duthiel, Les Gravieres, Chinon, France (2001)
We usually make it an informal and fun affair, and put out cheese and baguette to munch on as we go. The baguette helps cleanse the palate, wiping out the flavour of a wine before going on to another. I usually stay away from the cheese until I’ve finished filling out the grid because the flavour of the cheese will change how you taste the wine, and that usually makes things go haywire for my still-learning palate.
So How Did the Tasting Go?
All set up and ready to go
My main goal was to try and correctly identify some wines. It sounds like an easy task but is actually pretty hard! I’m good at knowing the flavours I do and don’t like, and am getting better at being able to differentiate between varietals, but knowing which wine is exactly which? I’ve got a ways to go.
My place at the table
I made a bigger effort to fill out the entire grid this time, even though my stepdad always tells us the only thing he needs from us is our rankings (he keeps all the sheets from each tasting he hosts!). These tastings are great practice at being able to identify what I’m smelling and tasting, so I focused on that for the first few minutes. It was a while before I even took my first sip!
It was a really tough tasting in terms of the rankings. Everyone around the table agreed that we all really liked all the wines! I managed to come up with some sort of ranking, but to be honest I could easily have switched my numbers around and been just as happy. And no, my stepdad wouldn’t let me rank ties – I asked!
I managed to correctly identify two of the wines – a new personal best!
Interestingly, the averaged rankings are close to my rankings. With one exception, each average rank is only one off from mine, and a couple ranks were the same. All but one of us chose the same wine as our number one pick, and of course once we had averaged our rankings we were all dying to know which wine was which.
And the winner is…
They’re arranged in order of average rank first to sixth, left to right
I can tell you, we were all surprised that a Niagara wine ranked number one! It just goes to show that sometimes a wine or region will surprise you, and that its worth trying new wines because you never know what you’re going to like.
Once the grand reveal was over, there was only one thing left to do – go back and re-taste! Like good wine tasters, we finished the bottles.
I don’t think we used enough glasses…
See? Tastings can be lots of fun, and aren’t very difficult to arrange – you should try it!
Now that we’ve met and gotten to know each other a little, I think it’s time I told you just what the heck I’m talking about. Let’s do some wine term learnin’!
Here are some common terms I use when talking about wine. You might find them helpful if you’re new to the world of fermented grapes.
Varietal – This is a fancy word for the type of grape used in a wine. Chardonnay, for example, or Cabernet Sauvignon. Wines have more than one varietal are called blends. It’s a personal pet peeve of mine when bottles don’t tell you the wines used in their blend – I don’t care that it has a cute name, I want to know what I’m drinking!
Breathing – This is the process of letting the wine come into contact with air for a period of time. It happens automatically whenever you open a bottle, but some wines will offer a better flavour if you give it time to breathe, which is why you’ll see some wines being decanted before it’s served.
Embed from Getty Images Opening Up – This is what happens when you let a wine breathe. As wines open up their flavours mellow out and become more cohesive. There have been many times when I haven’t really liked a wine on the first sip, but after letting it sit for a while the flavour changes and I love it.
Lay Down – This is a phrase I like to use when talking about saving a bottle for the future. I like to think of the bottles going to sleep for a long winter’s nap in a subterranean cellar somewhere – or, if your collection looks like mine, tucked away under your bed.
Nose – This is a more informal word I use for ‘bouquet’, which is essentially the smell of the wine. Since smell is tied so closely to flavour I really like to give my wines a good sniff, and I encourage you to get into the habit too. Go on, get your nose right in that glass!
Finish – This is the initial aftertaste of a wine. I say initial because sometimes a wine can linger on your tongue for quite a while, but the finish is something different. It is the end of the taste process – you can often get a totally different observation as the wine passes the back of your tongue than when it passes another part. Try it sometime.
Legs – Legs are those spindly strands of residue that trickle down a wine glass when you swirl the wine or take a sip. Whether or not a wine will have legs depends on the amount of alcohol a wine has, and how quickly or slowly they slide down the glass has to do with a wine’s sugar content.
Sparkling – Ah, bubbly, I love you so! Sparkling wine is a term used for any wine that has those fizzy bubbles in them. Some people refer to any bubbly wine as Champagne, but those people wrong. All Champagne is sparkling wine, but not at sparkling wine is Champagne. This is another pet peeve of mine! Calling all sparkling wine Champagne is like calling every dog a Labrador Retriever. Don’t be that person!
There are many other wine terms, and I’ll explain them as I go. There are also lots and lots of more exhaustive lists out there, especially if you’re interested in learning why some wines evoke certain characteristics. (I’m still learning that myself!) I suggest starting with Wine Magazine’s list, but Wikipedia is always a good go-to for learning the basics.
To me, tasting is the heart of the wine universe. Everything else I know about wine either begins or is validated by a sip. And often when I’m full up on new wine information and don’t know how I’ll ever remember it, I turn to the glass.
So how do you taste, anyway?
There are lots of opinions out there on how totaste wine. My own approach skews more toward the casual, which I fully admit might rankle some of the more traditional wine buffs out there. If you’re looking for how to be able to guess the wine from tasting it, I wholeheartedly suggest looking into the more serious methods. For me, tasting is about building my personal knowledge and preferences and about learning the characteristics of different wines so I can make better guesses about which wines I might like.
Here are the steps I take when tasting any wine, whether it’s on a casual Tuesday night or a fancy dinner party.
Choose Your Wine(s)
If I’ve been eager to try a certain varietal/region/style, I usually go for that. I tend to get into phases where I keep returning to a varietal or region repeatedly to try and reinforce my knowledge of its general traits. For me, repetition is key to learning. Delicious, delicious repetition.
The circumstances I’ll be drinking the wine under come into play too. If it’s just me I will often take a chance on something new and unfamiliar, since I only have myself to impress or disappoint. If I’m going to a dinner party I will usually choose a favourite since I like to share my finds with other wine lovers. If I’m celebrating something, I’ll pick up a bottle of bubbly. With so much wine out there it can help to let your circumstances guide the tasting.
Choose Your Glassware
Which glass to use when is another thing many people feel strongly about. I don’t tend to follow the rules very closely, and I don’t think the casual drinker needs to be concerned about them either. There are some instances where a specific glass might enhance your tasting experience but ultimately any glass will do when you’re thirsty for some vino!
I tend to use stemless glasses for both reds and whites in a casual setting. They’re easy to use (and clean!) and stand a smaller chance of breaking, but keep in mind that if you’re drinking a chilled wine your hand on the glass will heat up the wine over time.
When it comes to sparkling I admit I’m a little torn. Lately I have been using stemless flutes, and generally go with the flute style because the smaller surface area slows down the escape of C02, meaning the bubbly stays bubblier for longer. However, I do admit to being a fan of Marie Antoinette style glasses, and use them on occasion. Something about them just makes me feel like I’m a flapper in the 1920’s – so glamorous!
Sniff, Swirl, Sip
Finally, the good part! Tasting is pretty simple – the main thing to remember is to take your time and enjoy each sip.
Look at the wine. What is the colour, exactly? Is it clear? Opaque? Does it have legs – those spindly little lines left behind on the side of a glass after you take a sip?
Smell the wine. What kinds of things do you smell? Flowers? Citrus fruits? Leather? Smoke? A lot of the flavour will come from the bouquet, linger a little on this step to truly get to know the wine.
Swirl the wine, and then smell again. Do you smell different things after the wine has been agitated a little? Often a wine will offer different things if it’s been swirled or left in the glass for a little while. This is what people talk about when they say a wine has ‘opened up’.
Now – TASTE! Does it taste the same way it smells, or do you get a different flavour? How does what you smelled interact with what you’re tasting? Where does the wine linger on your tongue, or does it even linger at all? What sort of quick aftertaste, or finish, does it leave? How does the flavour change the longer the wine sits?
Dos and Don’ts of Tasting Wine (Ok, it’s mostly Dos)
DO choose the wine and glassware that feels right to you.
DO change it up if you want to. Different wine or glassware for different occasions – or different moods!
DON’T do what I do and hoard your favourite wine items for a future tasting – there’s no time like the present to use those glasses!
DO write down your observations, it can help you remember them for next time.
DO take your time – sniff, swirl, and enjoy every sip! (And if you don’t enjoy the sip, why are you drinking that wine??)
Tasting is a simple way to get to know any wine and have delicious fun building knowledge in the process. Now go forth, my friend, and taste!