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.

3rd Cheapest on the List?

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I was in a restaurant with some friends recently when, inevitably, I was handed the wine list and asked to choose something nice for the group to drink.  I’d got as far as asking whether people preferred red or white when the person on my left offered the suggestion of the ‘3rd cheapest wine on the list’.

Not surprisingly, I queried the idea.  The reply was interesting: ‘the restaurant will know that no-one wants to buy the cheapest wine on the list, so they put the biggest profit mark-up on the 2nd cheapest.  So, the 3rd cheapest is probably best value for money’.   I would hope that not many restaurants were quite that cynical in their approach although I have often had the sense that famous names such as Chablis, Rioja and Chianti have attracted a bigger mark-up than less well-known bottles.

But what about 3rd cheapest as a strategy?  What happens if you don’t know the wine or whether it will go with the food you are choosing?  Or, even worse, if you do know the wine and hate it?  Do you trade up or trade down?  Perhaps you decide to just drink water instead?

For those who really aren’t confident about finding their way round a wine list, I have a better suggestion:  decide about how much you want to pay then, when your server comes to ask, point to a couple of bottles on the list at around that price and say, ‘I’m thinking of something like this, but what do you recommend?’  That way, you’re not going to be offered the dearest wine on the list and you will get some advice from someone who, hopefully, knows the wines on the list better than you.

So what did I choose?  A nice Old Vine Carignan from the south of France.  I thought it would go perfectly with the food we had ordered.  It just happened to be the 3rd cheapest red wine on the list!

 

To Decant or Not?

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In a couple of recent Bristol Wine Blogs I’ve mentioned ‘decanting’ a wine.  It’s a subject that causes considerable debate in the wine world. So, what do I mean by decanting and when and why might I think about doing it?

Thelema redDecanting, simply, is pouring wine out of the bottle it’s sold in into a decanter (or, indeed, any jug large enough to hold the contents).   There are 2 main reasons why you might want to do this: to separate the liquid from any sediment that might be in the bottle or to aerate the wine.

Many wines (and Vintage Ports) are bottled without being filtered (or, at least, with very minimal filtration).  This means that some of the solid matter that results from the fermentation process ends up in the bottle.  This sediment is harmless but you really wouldn’t want to drink it as it’s often quite bitter or astringent.  So, if you expect that there might be sediment in the bottle, it’s best to stand it upright for a few hours or, even, overnight (assuming it’s been stored on its side) to allow the sediment to fall to the bottom.  Then, when you uncork it, pour the wine very slowly into your jug or decanter watching the neck of the bottle to see when the first of the sediment starts to appear.  At that point, stop pouring.  You’ll have a little wine left in the bottle, but the liquid in the decanter will be clear and can be poured into your glasses without worrying.

The other reason for decanting is rather more controversial: to aerate the wine, otherwise known as ‘letting the wine breathe’.  Some, including renowned experts, are firmly opposed to decanting for this purpose, saying that the wine’s aromas are lost in this way.  Others, equally expert, disagree, suggesting that wines, especially robust or tannic wines, can be softened and made more harmonious by decanting.  I’m generally in the latter camp but, as with so much in wine, there are no absolute right and wrong answers. 

My advice is to experiment; open the bottle and taste.  If you’re happy as it is, go on and pour straight away – but have a decanter handy, just in case.

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.