Tag Archives: wine faqs

The ‘Body’ of a Wine

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‘Can you bring along a nice medium-bodied red?’ some good friends of ours suggested when we were going to dinner with them.  That gave me a good steer as to what was wanted but it is interesting that the word ‘body’ was used as it’s one of those wine words that you hear quite a lot but, in my experience, is not always properly understood.  (Our friends clearly did!)

For me, the easiest way to explain it is to contrast drinking water with taking a spoonful of honey or syrup.  The water doesn’t really have any weight in your mouth – if it was a wine, you’d call it ‘light-bodied’ – whereas the honey or syrup seems much denser and heavier – typical of a ‘full-bodied’ wine.  And, of course, wine isn’t just light- or full-bodied, there’s a whole spectrum in between and, in fact, most wines could be described as medium-bodied.

What determines the body of a wine?  The main factor is alcohol and so wines from hotter regions, where the grapes will become riper (and therefore potentially produce more alcohol), are more likely to be fuller bodied than those from cooler climates.  As an example, many German whites have only 8 or 9% alcohol and are some of the lightest bodied wines of all; most English wines, like the Sharpham, below, are similarly lacking in weight.  But you can have light bodied reds, too: most Beaujolais, Bardolino and Valpolicella fall into this category. 

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At the other end of the scale, there are a few full bodied whites – some Rhones and Australian and Californian Chardonnays – but many more reds: Zinfandels, Italian Amarones and Châteauneuf du Pape all often weigh in around 15% alcohol or even more, and are likely to be decidedly full bodied. 

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Why is all this important?  In trying to pair food with wine, you don’t want the food overpowering the wine nor vice versa.  So, with a delicate, subtly flavoured dish, choose something at the lighter end of the range – it can be white, red or rosé – while for a more robust dish, a fuller bodied example will probably work better.

There’s a lot more to say about food and wine pairing (some other time, perhaps) but thinking about the body of the wine is a first step.

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Nasty, smelly wine!

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Ians mugshotYou open a bottle of wine and instead of the lovely, fresh appealing aromas you were hoping for, a nasty smell hits your nose. Something is obviously wrong, but what? – and what, if anything, can you do about it?

It depends on the smell. Perhaps the most likely is a musty, mouldy smell. This suggests a ‘corked’ wine. Corked wine is nothing to do with bits of cork floating about in the glass, which are harmless (take them out with a spoon or your finger and be more careful opening the bottle next time) – but is the result of a problem in the cork production process which has tainted the cork, which, in turn, has spoiled the wine. Nothing you can do except take the bottle back for a replacement or refund.

Another possibility is the wine might smell a bit like sherry or vinegar and a white wine might also be an unduly dark colour. This wine is oxidised – oxygen will, somehow, have got into the bottle and ruined the wine. This happens at times with plastic bottle stoppers that don’t fit properly or with poor corks or poor storage and, again, there’s no remedy – just take it back for a refund.

The opposite of oxidation – where too little oxygen is present can also be a fault. It is usually called ‘reduction’ (and that’s a useful shorthand, although I know that some scientists think the term is misleading). Reduction is most often – but not exclusively – found in screw-capped bottles and shows in a number of ways: smells of sewage, manure or rotten eggs are common. Happily, this problem is not always terminal; introducing some oxygen to the wine by, for example, decanting or simply leaving it in the glass for a few minutes, can revive the wine but, if it doesn’t, your remedy is as before.

There are other faults that are less common, but sometimes even wines in good condition can have unusual and unpleasant smells; one winemaker used to say that “good Burgundy smells like s**t!” So, how can you tell if there’s a problem? Perhaps, only by experience, and, in fact, even experts often argue whether certain smells represent a fault or are a characteristic of the style of wine.

I should say that none of the faults I have mentioned would actually harm you if you drank the wine. But you wouldn’t enjoy it, so my advice is, if you’re unhappy with how a wine smells, then reject it. Most wine waiters, wine merchants and supermarkets are keen to please their customers and will usually exchange or refund quite willingly. But you do need to ask – and sometimes be persistent!

Ungrafted vines – revisited

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Some time ago, I wrote a blog titled “Ungrafted Vines: A Taste of History”. It has since become the most read of all my blogs. Even now, 21 months later, several people every week hit on it. So, perhaps, it’s time to revisit a topic that’s clearly of interest to many of you.

Firstly, what do I mean by an ungrafted vine? It’s a vine where the whole plant – including the roots – is a single entity. You might think that all vines are like that, but most vines used for the wines we drink today are not – and we need to look back over a hundred years for the reason why.

In the 1860s, phylloxera, a microscopic bug that attacks vine roots and eventually kills the vine, was found in a vineyard in southern France. Over the following four decades or so, it spread quickly and devastated many vineyards in Europe and beyond. At the time, no-one knew what it was or how to deal with it. It was feared that the world’s entire wine industry would be wiped out. The cause of the problem was finally identified in the 1880s, but the solution took far longer to discover.

Phylloxera came to Europe from America where the native vine has developed resistance, but the European vine, which is genetically different, has not, so all our familiar varieties are vulnerable to attack. One solution considered was to plant American vines in place of European, but the wine they produced was not found to be of the same quality.

Fortunately, it was eventually realised that, by using the roots of an American vine and grafting (attaching) a European vine to them, you could have wines from Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or whatever and protection from phylloxera. Problem solved!

So what about ungrafted vines? There are a few places in the world where you’ll still find them. They are either so remote from other vineyards that the bug has never spread there or the soil is very sandy (which the bug doesn’t like). Parts of Chile, a small area of Portugal and parts of Cyprus are among the places you’ll find that little bit of history – a vine that is a single entity from tip to root, but everywhere else, grafted vines are the only way to produce the wines we like.