Wine 101

How long is it before a wine goes bad or “turns”?

When a wine goes bad (“turns”), it is due to several possible factors. Possible reasons include oxidation, bacterial spoilage, or simple age. There may be noticeable off-aromas or flavors (or both). The wine may begin to re-ferment, and may be completely undrinkable.

As a wine ages in its bottle, minute amounts of air seep into the bottle through the cork. Rubber corks and metal screw caps can prevent this, but can create other possible problems of their own.

If a wine bottle is stored on its side, the cork will not dry out, and this can prevent spoilage. Wine bottles that are stored upright will tend to see their corks dry out, and that can lead to oxidation.

Storing wine in a cool, dark place, with a relatively stable temperature and humidity throughout the year, can prevent fluctuations in the air pressure in the bottle, which also can prevent spoilage issues.

Generally speaking, most red wines peak in quality at around 8-10 years of bottling, and then begin to slowly diminish. Most white wines don’t improve much once bottled, and will generally keep for 6-8 years before losing their luster.

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What is the difference between wooden bottle corks, rubber corks, and screw-tops?

Wine is packaged in many different containers. Bottles of all sizes, cartons, boxes… the list goes on. In some European countries, people can bring sealing, food-grade plastic bags to the winery and have them filled on the spot.

When it comes to traditional bottling methods, most consumers purchase wine in 750mL glass bottles. These are most often sealed using wooden bottle corks. In recent years, attention has been brought to the fact that cork trees take a long time to grow. Additionally, cork can contain bacterial spoilers that will taint the wine and ruin the entire bottle. Recycled cork is one option: Old corks are ground down, chemically treated, and pressed back into the shape of a cork for re-use. These are guaranteed to be spoilage-free.

Regardless, with increasing worldwide demand for wine, there’s simply not enough cork (and recycled cork) to go around. Some winemakers have taken to alternate bottling methods, in part for sustainability efforts.

Alternatives to wooden cork include rubber corks. These are made of food-grade rubbery plastic, and used exactly the same as a wooden cork. One down-side to these is aesthetics.

Other options include metal screw caps. These require no corkscrew and are literally unscrewed to open the bottle. They can be resealed by hand, and are generally air tight, so unsealed bottles may last quite a bit longer Additionally, some Oregon wineries like Torii Mor are actively researching the use of screw caps on a small portion of all of their wines, to directly compare how the various wines age and survive the years, versus wooden bottle corks.

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Should I purchase wine from a store, or go direct to the winery?

This is entirely up to you. Purchasing wine from a store is like buying milk or bread. Purchasing wine direct from the winery is an experience.

By visiting a winery, you will learn so much about the wine and the people that produce it, that you stand to gain new appreciation for the wine. You may also learn of other wines they produced that you might like and which you would not know about if you went to the store. Also, you may learn of case discounts and upcoming events happening at the winery.

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How much does a good wine cost?

The price of a good wine varies as much as any other product, and is based on a multitude of factors. The varietal and its relative cost to cultivate; The amount of grapes yielded in a particular vineyard’s harvest; The amount of time and artisan expertise required to ferment and produce the wine; The materials used throughout the production, particularly in barrelling and further ageing processes; The materials and production supplies used to bottle; And marketing, post-production sales, distribution overhead, and all the other things it takes to get that bottle into your hands. So many things determine how much a good wine is going to cost you.

With so many options available, both in terms of varietals and wineries producing that particular wine, and so many styles and production sizes, a given wine can range anywhere from $15 to eight times that, or even more.

This question is hard to answer, in part because individual taste and budget are big factors in determining what you may want to spend on a wine, how you might gauge the quality of wine in comparison to the cost, and the ultimate question: Would you purchase it again?

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When buying aged wine, how do I know if it’s still good or not?

An aged wine is one older than a winery’s currently released vintage, and which has been in the bottle for at least 1-2 years.

It’s not uncommon for a winery to allow its wines to age for 18 or even longer, to reach the right quality and be ready for release. This means a wine produced in 2017 might not be bottled and released by the winery until sometime in 2019. Even then, the wine is going to need time in the bottle to develop its own characteristics.

Most white wines age gracefully, but with a shorter lifespan than reds. This has to do with the chemical composition of white wines: Fewer tannins; Save for Chardonnay, most never see any oak; Lighter and more delicate flavors that may not improve with time; And so forth. White wines generally diminish in quality faster than reds.

Conversely, many red wines need a certain amount of ageing in the bottle for their flavors and qualities to emerge. Acids and volatile compounds interact with tannins and ultimately smooth out. Many red wines have a “sweet spot” of ageing at 4-6 years in the bottle. Some may need up to 8-10 years to really hit their max. After that, it may be a slow decline as they gracefully age.

When purchasing an aged wine, such as from a winery during a library sale or when getting a private tour of their cellar, your best bet is to ask the winemaker or winery staff for their recommendations. If you’re lucky, they may be pouring a selection of aged wines as part of the event, so you can get a first-hand taste of the product for yourself.

Generally speaking, if you’re thinking of buying aged wine, if it’s available in a magnum, chances are much better the wine is in better shape, than if just a 750mL bottle, as overall less oxidation has occurred throughout the wine.

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I’m thinking of starting a wine cellar. How shall I stock it?

As with any aspect of collecting wine, what goes into your wine cellar is entirely up to you!

Do you prefer red wines more than white? White more than red? What about rose or sparkling wines?

How large do you want to build your cellar, and for what reason? Are you going to entertain guests often, or do you wish to collect wines to later give out as gifts? Or, do you happen to live in a remote location and so only visit your favorite wineries once per year?

All of these factors play into the decision making process of stocking your wine cellar.

If you’re set on a particular wine and love it to death, great! Buy a few bottles, or even a case. Set it aside and forget about it. It’s a foundation wine and will help you build a stock in your cellar. Next, try new wines. Try new wineries. Visit new tasting rooms. Expose your palate to new options and you may realize that you don’t want to limit yourself to a cellar full of just a few good wines. Instead, perhaps 2-3 bottles from a given winemaker is sufficient, and you want to then move on to another.

The size of your cellar is going to be based on amount of space, your budget, and your intended use for that cellar. If you do run out of space, you always have the option to trade wines with your friends, or simply create more space by enjoying some of the wines you’ve been collecting.

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What are some differences between a young wine and an aged wine?

A young wine is one that was recently bottled, while an aged wine may have set in its bottle for years.

Depending on the varietal, vintner, and growing conditions for the grapes fermented, a wine may be drinkable when still young, or may require additional aging prior to opening.

Young wines usually show their full aromas and flavors immediately after opening. After prolonged exposure to the air, young wines may “fizzle out”, lose their flavors, become flat and sour.

On the other hand, an aged wine may require ten or fifteen minutes of decanting to properly “breathe” and expose its hidden layers of flavors and aromas. Additional air-time will not adversely affect the wine.

Chemistry helps explain why aging a wine may enhance or inhibit its qualities. The process of bottle aging allows a wine to sit in a stationary position for a long period of time, its chemicals slowly mixing with minimal amounts of oxygen that manage to pass through the cork. For this reason, bottles sealed with Stelvin caps or rubber corks may not age in the same way as a bottle aged with a traditional wooden cork.

For red wines, bottle aging can allow some volatile compounds to lose their punch, and produce a subtler, complex set of flavors in the wine. These compounds – tannins, phenols, glycerols, and sugars, present in higher concentrations in red wine, may benefit from moderate to long-term aging.

By the same token, aging a white wine will likely not benefit its qualities at all. Its lighter concentration of chemicals could be overpowered by lengthy aging, resulting in a flat, dull wine when opened.

Regardless of varietal, all wines have a cut-off point, after which time additional aging will not benefit their qualities. The cut-off can be determined from vintage to vintage, winery to winery, and, if you are collecting wines in a cellar, is something to carefully track.

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How does a wine barrel toast affect the aromas in a wine?

Prior to storing wine, oak barrels are toasted – their insides lit on fire, to as to produce a moderate layer of charcoal – which helps draw out qualities of the oak, seal the wood, and provide a neutral butter between the wine and “raw” wood in the rest of the barrel.

Based on how long a barrel is toasted, different qualities will show through in the aging wines it holds.

A wine barrel toast of 10 to 15 minutes will add spice to a wine.

A wine barrel toast of 15 to 30 minutes will expose sweeter, sugary aromas from the wood, such as butter and vanilla.

A wine barrel toast of 30 to 45 minutes will show darker, earthier aromas such as smoke, tobacco, and coffee.

Depending on a winemaker’s desired results, barrels of different toasts will be used to age specific wines.

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What are the primary wine flavor factors?

There are many different wine flavor factors and aromas that complete the tasting experience. We believe these characteristics can be simplified down to eight primary factors:

1. Sweetness – the amount of residual sugar in a wine, ranging from low (bone dry) to high (sweet).

2. Acidity – the amount of citric, malic, and tartaric acids in a wine, ranging from low (flat) to high (biting).

3. Tannins – the amount of phenolic compounds, drawn from skins and pips of grapes, which impart a sharp, bitter flavor to the wine.

4. Oak – the influence of compounds from the oak barrels used to age the wine.

5. Finish – the length and quality of a wine’s aftertaste, ranging from brief to endless.

6. Complexity – how the wine’s sweetness, acidity, tannins, and oak affect the wine’s overall flavor, ranging from simple to complex.

7. Body – how the wine’s components affect the intensity and richness of the wine’s overall flavor, ranging from weak to potent.

8. Balance – how all of the seven preceding factors balance out, ranging from unbalanced to well-balanced.

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What is a flabby wine?

The term “flabby wine” usually describes a wine that lacks acidity.

Though “flabby” is often used for white wines, as overall, they contain higher levels of acids, it can also be used to describe red wines as well.

The opposite of a “flabby” wine is a “biting” or “sharp” wine, and refers to one whose acid content is too high to make it very palatable.

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