Answers to 10 Common Questions
about Wine

By Ed McCarthy, Mary Ewing-Mulligan

As wine becomes more and more of a common choice of drink for many, the same questions about wine pop up again and again. Here are the answers.

What’s the best wine?

This is probably the question customers ask most frequently in wine shops, wanting to know, in other words, “Which wine should I buy?” The retailer usually responds with a barrage of questions, such as

  • “Do you prefer red wines or white wines?”

  • “How much do you want to spend for a bottle?”

  • “Are you planning to serve the wine with any particular dish?”

As all these questions suggest, the “best wine” depends on your taste and circumstances. There’s no single “best wine” for everyone.

Which vintage should I buy?

This question assumes that you have a choice among several vintages of the same wine. Most of the time, however, you don’t. Nearly every wine is available in only one vintage, which is referred to as the current vintage.

For white wines, the current vintage represents grapes that were harvested as recently as nine months ago or as long as three years ago, depending on the type of wine; for red wines, the current vintage is a date one to four years ago. Sparkling wines often have no vintage date at all but when they do, the date is generally three to eight years ago — or more, for the most elite Champagnes.

Classified-growth red Bordeaux wines are a notable exception: Most wine shops feature several vintages of these wines. A few other fine wines — such as Burgundies, Barolos, or Rhône wines — could also be available in multiple vintages, but often they’re not because the quantities produced are small and the wines sell out.

What grape variety made this wine?

Most non-European wines tell you what grape variety they’re made from right on the front label — it’s often the very name of the wine. Traditional European wines blended from several grape varieties usually don’t give you that information a) because the winemakers consider the name of the place more important than the grapes, anyway, and b) because often the grapes they use are local varieties whose names few people would recognize.

If you really want to know what grape varieties make a Soave, Valpolicella, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rioja, Côtes du Rhône, or other blended European wines, you’ll generally have to look it up.

How do I know if a wine is flawed?

When a wine is flawed, your sense of smell is your best guide to determine that.

A faulty cork is the most common culprit. In serious cases of cork taint, the wine has an offensive, moldy odor, like damp cardboard. In fact, this so-called corkiness gets worse when the wine is exposed to air.

When a wine is just slightly corky, it doesn’t have a rank odor — it just seems lifeless, as if its aromas and flavors were neutralized. If you are not the winemaker or someone very familiar with that wine, you might not realize that this is not the normal style of that wine, but comparing the wine against another bottle of the same wine will clarify the situation.

If you detect a vinegary note in a wine’s smell, that wine has deteriorated with age or poor storage, combined with winemaking issues. If a wine smells flat or dull, with cooked-fruit aromas, it has probably suffered from exposure to oxygen, usually because of overly warm storage or an ill-fitting cork.

If you don’t like the taste of a wine — for example, it is too tannic for you, or too acidic; too tart or too sweet; unbalanced — the wine is not necessarily flawed. It’s just not for you!

Are there any wines without sulfites?

Sulfur dioxide exists naturally in wine as a result of fermentation. Winemakers use sulfur dioxide at various stages of the winemaking process because it stabilizes the wine and safeguards the wine’s flavor.

Very few winemakers refrain from using sulfur dioxide, but some do. Winemakers who produce what they call natural wines generally do not add sulfites during winemaking; however, the wines generally have a short shelf life.

If a wine does not carry the phrase Contains Sulfites on its label, the sulfite content must be less than 10 parts per million according to U.S. regulations, and sulfites were probably not added during winemaking. U.S. wines that are labeled as organic wines (not to be confused with the category of wines produced from organic grapes) cannot have sulfites added.

What are organic wines?

The standards of organic agriculture established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2002 contain two categories for wine:

  • Wine made from organically grown grapes; these are wines whose grapes come from certified organic vineyards.

  • Organic wine; these wines come from organically grown grapes and are also produced organically, that is, without the addition of chemical additives such as sulfur dioxide during winemaking. (Current EU regulations, however, do allow organic wines to contain added sulfur.)

Many more domestic wines, by far, fall into the first category than the second, because most winemakers do use sulfur dioxide in making their wines.

Not all wines from organically grown grapes are labeled as such. Some winemakers whose vineyards are certified organic prefer to promote and sell their wines based on the wines’ quality, not the incidental feature of their organic farming.

Still other winemakers who are deeply committed to organic farming have chosen not to have their vineyards certified as organic. For some of them, the certification represents bureaucracy and extra paperwork.

What is a wine expert?

A wine expert is someone with a high level of knowledge about wine in general, including grape growing, winemaking, and the various wines of the world. A wine expert also has a high degree of skill in tasting wine.

Historically, most wine experts in the United States gained their expertise through informal study or work experience. University programs in enology (winemaking) and viticulture (grape growing) amounted to scientific overkill for people whose goal was breadth of knowledge about the wines of the world.

Today, many people become wine experts through the programs of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), or various professional sommelier organizations, which include examinations at the end of study. Some examinations entitle successful students to use letters after their names, such as CWE (Certified Wine Educator), MS (Master Sommelier), or MW (Master of Wine). MW is the oldest wine credential and the most difficult for wine experts to earn.

Some people who write about wine or sell wine are truly expert in a particular aspect of wine, such as Spanish wines or Champagne, even if they hold no third-party credentials.

Are wine experts sommeliers?

People constantly assume, incorrectly, wine experts are sommeliers. Actually, a sommelier is a wine steward. It is a job title for individuals who run the beverage operation of a restaurant, from selecting the wines and spirits that the restaurant purchases and maintaining the inventory through to advising diners on their beverage choices and serving the wines.

A successful sommelier needs to have not only expert knowledge of wine but also training and experience in restaurant operations and a keen understanding of food-and-wine matching.

The Court of Master Sommeliers conducts a series of examinations through which individuals can prove their knowledge of wine and spirits and their service skills. Those who succeed at the highest tier become Master Sommeliers, a highly respected category. Other sommelier training programs also exist in the U.S., Canada, and various other countries.

How do I know when to drink the special older wines I’ve been keeping?

Unfortunately, no precise answer to this question exists because all wines age at a different pace. When you have a specific wine in mind, you can get advice about its readiness to drink in several different ways:

  • Consult the comments of critics like Antonio Galloni, Robert Parker, or Steve Tanzer.

  • Contact the winery; in the case of fine, older vintages, the winemaker and his staff are usually happy to give you their opinion on the best time to drink their wine.

  • If you have several bottles of the same wine, try one from time to time to see how the wine is developing. Your own taste is really the best guide.

Do old wines require special handling?

Like humans, wine can become somewhat fragile in its later years. For one thing, old wine doesn’t like to travel. If you must move old wine, give it several days’ rest afterwards, before opening the bottle. (Red Burgundies and other Pinot Noirs are especially disturbed by journeys.)

Older wines, with their delicate bouquet and flavors, can easily be overwhelmed by strongly flavored foods. Simple cuts of meat or simply hard cheeses and good, crusty bread are usually fine companions for mature wines.

If you’re going to drink an older wine, don’t over-chill it (whether it’s white or red). Older wines show their best at moderate temperatures. Temperatures below 60°F (15.5°C) inhibit development in the glass.

Decant red wines or Vintage Ports in order to separate the clear wine from any sediment that formed in the bottle. Stand the bottle up two or three days before you plan to open it so that the sediment can settle on the bottom. An important concern in decanting an old wine is giving the wine too much aeration: A wine in its last stages will deteriorate rapidly upon exposure to air, often within a half hour — sometimes in 10 or 15 minutes.

When you decant an old wine, taste it immediately and be prepared to drink it rapidly if it shows signs of fading.