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Wine Tip: Ask Dr. Vinny

Let Dr. Vinny answer your toughest wine questions

Posted: December 7, 2009

Hello there! I'm Dr. Vinifera, or "Vinny" for short. Ask me your toughest wine questions, from the technical aspects of winemaking to the fine points of etiquette. I hope you find my answers educational and even amusing. Looking for a particular answer? Check my archive and my FAQs.

Dear Dr. Vinny,

I have many of the sweeter-style German Rieslings from the past few vintages. Often I drink them alone, as I don't know what to pair with such rich wines. Any suggestions, traditional or not?

—Michael, Seattle

Dear Michael,

You're in luck, as Rieslings of any sweetness level are known for their versatility with food. I'm not sure if you’re talking about the dessert, late-harvest style Rieslings, or some of the versions that fall into the in-between, semi-sweet or off-dry category like spätlesen or auslesen. The off-dry wines are great with a variety of pork and seafood dishes, and that splash of sweetness can temper spicy foods, especially fiery Chinese or Thai dishes with chile peppers next to their names on menus. Ham, sausages and barbecue are also good matches.

For more decidedly sweet Rieslings in the beerenauslese, trockenbeerenauslese or eiswein style, their level of sweetness limits their pairing ability a bit, but there are still some terrific options. My first thought is to go for pungent cheeses, especially blue cheese. And if you have a sweet tooth, pair them with dessert—especially crème brûlée or flan, fig, apricot or peach desserts, cheesecake or apple pie.

—Dr. Vinny

Dear Dr. Vinny,

Some wine tasters call some wines "sexy." What do they mean by this?

—Donald H., North Miami Beach, Fla.

Dear Donald,

I’ll give you a hint: if someone calls a wine "sexy," they like it.

Having used the term myself, I'll defend the use of "sexy" as a wine descriptor. It's an emotional response to a wine, another way of saying "seductive" or "opulent." I find that sexy wines are often full, rich, and have a supple texture and flavors that entice you to take another sip. The opposite of a sexy wine is a wine that is stale, boring, flat or flaccid.

—Dr. Vinny

Dear Dr. Vinny,

I've heard that the actual level of alcohol in a wine can vary up to a percent or so in either direction from what is posted on the label, based on some legal formula. What is the rule?

—Michael S., Westlake Village, Calif.

Dear Michael,

You're right that the alcohol percentage by volume required by the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (or TTB) on wine labels is only so accurate. First off, only bottles of wine with more than 14 percent alcohol are required to list a percentage at all. Below 14 percent, it's up to the producers if they want to list it; if not, the label needs to read "white table wine" or "red table wine." Since the TTB defines wine as having at least 7 percent alcohol, when you don’t see an alcohol percentage listed, you can assume that it falls between 7 and 14 percent.

If an alcohol percentage is listed, it's not required to be perfectly accurate. If the wine is measured above 14 percent alcohol, the TTB allows what they call a "tolerance" of 1 percent over or under the percentage listed on the label. If a wine under 14 percent alcohol is voluntarily listed on the label, the tolerance grows to 1.5 percent in either direction. So, a bottle of wine listed at 12.5 percent alcohol can actually be anywhere between 11 and 14 percent.

Wines above 14 percent are taxed at a higher rate and are classified as "dessert wines" or "fortified wines," even if the high alcohol is the result of natural fermentation and the wine doesn't taste at all like a dessert wine—it's simply a ruling for tax assessment.

By the way, the TTB regulates all statements on any bottle of wine sold in the United States, domestic or imported. You'll notice that the alcohol percentage is usually on the additional strip that imported bottles slap on with all the other required info.

—Dr. Vinny

Dear Dr. Vinny,

In a recent question you talked about a wine "breathing." What does that mean, exactly? And how long should a wine "breathe"?

—Krishnan, India

Dear Krishnan,

To say a wine is "breathing" is to say a finished wine is aerating, or being exposed to oxygen. A wine is "alive" in the sense that there are constant chemical reactions taking place, but wine doesn't breathe in the sense that you and I do. I think the term appeals to the romance of some wine lovers. Who doesn’t want to give life to a wine gasping for breath? Let it breathe!

"Breathing" begins the moment a cork is pulled or a twist off is uncapped. But if that's all you do, the amount of surface area that the wine has that can be exposed to oxygen is only the size of a nickel. For more aeration, pouring a glass will help, as will swirling that glass around. To maximize the "breathing" phenomenon, though, you'll want to use a decanter.

Typically, as a wine is exposed to oxygen, it becomes more expressive, releasing aromas and flavors. But aeration can also expose flaws, or make an older, more delicate wine deteriorate more quickly. It can also take the bubbles out of a bubbly. You will probably notice the effects of aeration within minutes, but some wines will continue to evolve in your glass or decanter for an hour or more. Each wine is different, but typically young, tannic red wines need the most air to become expressive.

—Dr. Vinny

Dear Dr. Vinny,

What is the definition of a "super Tuscan"? Does it always contain Sangiovese?

—Dolph, Denver

Dear Dolph,

In the 1970s, some Tuscan producers came to believe that the legal rules governing the production of Chianti were too restrictive. (For example, they required the use of some white grapes in this red wine, and they prohibited blending in non-traditional grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Syrah.) Or these vintners wanted to make wine outside of the allowed Chianti zone. They coined the term "super Tuscan" to distinguish their wines from the inexpensive, low-quality wines that were associated with the term vino da tavola, or "table wine," that they were forced to put on the label.

Today, most super Tuscans use the legal appellation of IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica), which gives producers more flexibility than Chianti and other Tuscan DOCs and more prestige than vino da tavola. The wines tend to be modern, big and rich—and often carry a price tag of $100 or more a bottle.

Some super Tuscans do contain Sangiovese, either 100 percent or in blends. But others are made solely from Merlot (such as the famous Tenuta dell'Ornellaia Toscana Masseto), from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah (Riccardo Baracchi Toscana Ardito), or from even more unusual blends, like an amalgamation of Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot (Argiano Toscana Solengo).

—Dr. Vinny

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