dr. vinny frequently asked questions

Hello there! I'm Dr. Vinifera, or "Vinny" for short. These are my most frequently asked questions, from the technical aspects of winemaking to the fine points of etiquette. I hope you find my answers educational and even amusing. Want to see more of them? Check my archive.

I found a bottle of [insert random old wine here] in a [cupboard/attic/garage/crypt/beaver's dam]. Is this wine delicious? And what is it worth?

First off, many—even most—wines don't get better with age. Wines that are built for aging are about as rare as people who truly have a taste for aged wine. Secondly, without excellent storage conditions, even wine built to age will age badly. Ideal storage conditions include a constant, humid, 55 degree-ish temperature, away from light, heat, temperature fluctuation and vibration. Even with all these variables accounted for, there's no guarantee that a wine will make it for the long haul.

I can't tell you if a wine is delicious just by reading its name. There's no easy way to tell if a bottle of wine will taste good—except, of course, to open and drink it.

Not every bottle is collectible, and just because a bottle is rare, unusual or old doesn't necessarily mean it's valuable. The Wine Spectator auction database tracks the most collectible wines. If you're sure you have a gem, you can look for a buyer by contacting wine merchants, the producer of the wine or an auction house. Auction houses will want documentation of how the wine was stored, and they prefer to deal with larger collections rather than individual bottles, which generally aren't worth their time.


Sulfites are bad, right? Do they cause my headaches? Are U.S. wines higher in sulfites than wines from other countries?

Sulfites get such a bad rap—they are naturally present in many things we consume, including wine (it's a byproduct of fermentation). Most winemakers also choose to add some additional sulfites to wine for protection against oxidation and bacterial spoilage. This is a good thing, especially if you've ever been anywhere near an open bottle of spoiled wine. It can be ugly.

About 1 percent of the general population is sulfite-sensitive (as are about 5 percent of asthma sufferers). If you're looking to avoid sulfites, check out organically made wines, which won't have any added sulfites, although they'll still have trace amounts. But don't blame sulfites for any headaches or hangovers. Sulfite reactions are like a bad asthma attack, or they might result in hives, not headaches or hangovers.

The laws of the country where a wine is sold govern its label. And here in the United States, labeling laws require the mention of sulfites in wine. Wines from all over the world contain sulfites, but if you drink them outside the U.S., they won't mention it on the label. It's confusing, and it leads people to believe that there's a different set of wines sold abroad.


How should I store my wine? Do I need to rotate the bottles?

Do your best to keep the wines away from light, heat, vibration and—most importantly—temperature fluctuation. For most people, this could mean a corner of a closet. Keep the bottles lying on their side so the cork stays moist and doesn't dry out.

If you have a cooling unit, cellar temperature should be maintained at 55° F, with 70 percent humidity and a 10 percent chance of rain. (Just kidding about the rain.) Humidity is good because it's another way to protect from drying, brittle corks that might cause premature aging.

You don't need to rotate your bottles, and actually, I strongly advise against it. I like my bottles to lay still, so that the sediment collects on one side and your bottles aren't cloudy and chewy with it. Furthermore, there's some concern that vibration or other disturbance of older wines can lead to premature aging. Even if you think this is hogwash, I can say for certain that vibration (or rotation) will not help your wine. So you can let sleeping bottles lie.


When should I drink my wine? Is there a general rule, or does it vary from bottle to bottle? How much should I trust Wine Spectator's drink window recommendations?

It varies from bottle to bottle, and it also varies from taster to taster. What are your own experiences with aged wines? Wine Spectator reviewers give drink recommendations with reviews. These aren't written-in-stone, lightning-will-strike-you-down rules, they're just advice. If you find you like your wines on the younger (or older) side, adjust accordingly. I find that most wines in the market drink well upon release, and are best within a few years. There are, of course, exceptions, especially among the top wines.

Treat drink recommendations as, uh, recommendations. This means that if your own experience tells you that you love or hate older or younger wines, you should act accordingly. Tasters make these recommendations in good faith, based on years of experience of tasting wines. My understanding is that older wines are an acquired taste, and I don't recommend aging a wine unless you like aged wines. One person's "accurate" drink window is another person's "over the hill" and a third person's "infanticide."


What does it mean when a wine is listed as "drink now"?

A window of "drink now" means that the taster doesn't believe this wine will improve with any additional bottle age. Many (actually, most) wines are ready to drink upon release, and many wine drinkers prefer to enjoy these wines when they're still young and have their youthful flavors and structure. However, "drink now" doesn't mean "drink immediately or the wine will turn to vinegar." Even the most approachable wines will usually deliver pleasure for several years past the vintage date.

If you know you prefer your wines with a little more bottle age on them, or if your experience with the producer or vineyard in question differs from ours, follow your own palate, always.


How long will my wine last once it's opened?

Oxidation—which begins as soon as the cork is pulled—is the enemy of wine. Refrigeration will slow oxidation, but it doesn't stop it altogether. In the rare instance that there is leftover wine at my house, I can drink an opened bottle for about three days before I start to notice it fading. My mother-in-law nurses hers for a week. Personal taste and frugality are big variables here. If you transfer the leftovers to a smaller bottle (where less surface area is exposed to oxygen), you might get some extra mileage out of it.


When should I use a decanter?

Decanting does two things: separates the wine from any sediment that may have formed and aerates the wine. While some feel that extra boost of oxygen can open up a wine and give it extra life, others feel it makes a wine fade faster, and that swirling wine in a glass is sufficient aeration.

A particularly fragile or old wine should only be decanted 30 minutes or so before drinking. A younger, more vigorous, full-bodied wine (and yes, even whites) can be decanted an hour or more before serving. I've had wines that were decanted for hours and even days that were showing beautifully, but these experiments can be risky.

One more tip about handling an older wine—set it upright for a day or more before drinking, so the sediment can slide to the bottom of the bottle and make it easier to separate while decanting.


What are these crystals on the bottom of my cork?

They may look like rock candy or—yikes—shards of glass, but those are actually tartrate crystals clinging to your cork. It's a completely harmless and natural occurrence. Odorless and tasteless, they're made of the same stuff as crème of tartar (which you might cook with).

Some wines go through a process called "cold stabilization" to remove this sediment, although purely for cosmetic reasons. Even though tartrate crystals are harmless, it can be unpleasant to bite down on them, so if it looks like some are sitting at the bottom of your bottle, you should decant the wine to get rid of them before serving.


If wine is made only from grapes, where do all these other flavors in tasting notes come from?

Wine descriptors have both a semantic and a scientific foundation. Let's start with the semantic part, which can be baffling to many wine newbies because it sometimes seems so high-falutin'. (And sometimes it is.)

The vocabulary (and poetic license) wine lovers use to communicate what they taste or smell in a wine is just that—a vocabulary. If your bedmate's snores remind you of a chainsaw, if your mother-in-law's turkey is as dry as sandpaper, if the sulfuric smell of a match reminds you of scrambled eggs, you're using the power of words to describe things the way wine lovers do.

Scientifically, aromas and flavors in wine come from both the grapes and the fermentation process. Each grape variety has a unique physiological makeup with aromatic compounds that vary with how the grapes are grown (both climate and farming practices). These are then amplified or modified during fermentation, which can vary with the type of yeast and fermentation process. Hundreds of aromatic compounds called esters are released during fermentation. Some of these esters contain the same molecules that are found in things like vanilla, cherries, honey and roses. In fact, many of the descriptors have a chemical foundation. It's simply a matter of recognizing them and putting words to them.


How do you tell the difference between "cork taint" and "brett"?

A wine afflicted by cork taint—a "corked" or "corky" wine—is suffering from a compound called 2,4,6-trichloroanisol, or TCA, which results in musty, dank or moldy notes. It reminds many folks of wet cardboard, damp cement or the smell of old books. TCA is created by an interaction of mold, chlorine and phenols (which are organic compounds found in all plants). The compound can develop in corks themselves, which is why they are often linked to TCA. But it can be difficult to pinpoint a source of TCA, since it can also originate in cardboard cases or wooden pallets. Indeed, entire wineries have been contaminated with it.

Brettanomyces, or "brett," is a yeast, and since it can ruin a wine, it's generally considered a spoilage yeast. At low concentrations, some people find that it can add a pleasantly spicy component to a wine. At higher levels, it gives wine a barnyard, horse-stall or metallic note. Brett can develop at practically any stage of production, but it's more likely to be found in a winery than in a vineyard, often hiding out in barrels. When it takes residence in a cellar, it can be really tricky to get rid of it.

Thresholds of perception (and tolerance) for TCA and brett vary, so there are some people who don't notice these flaws, others who might mistake one for the other, and more sensitive tasters who find wines marked by these flaws undrinkable.


How can two wines get the same score when one is much more expensive than the other? If they both get the same score, why would someone pay $200 for one rather than $20 for another?

I think this is one of the most mind-boggling things to comprehend when you're a rookie wine-lover. Wine Spectator tasters review wines blind, which means they do not take the producer or price into account when they evaluate a bottle. And yes, it is true that there are many wines in the market that are better quality (or more enjoyable) than their counterparts that cost many times more.

There are other things to consider when purchasing a wine. Your own experience and preference with wines should be your biggest guide. Wines from a variety of styles and flavor profiles might get the same score, so be certain to read the tasting notes to see if it sounds like a wine you'd like to drink.

Some people might prefer one style over another. They might have brand loyalty, or even a personal connection with the producer. They might prefer the vintage, or the appellation, or even just the way the label looks. They might just want to spend more money just because it's burning a hole in their pocket and they can afford it. And if someone is unfamiliar with wine, they may assume the more expensive one is more expensive for a reason.


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