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Wine Tip: Ask Dr. Vinny

Saucy answers to your toughest wine questions

Posted: September 2, 2013

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. Read some recent questions, then submit your own.

Dear Dr. Vinny,
My husband and I are beginner "winers." What is the best way to go about learning from A-Z and everything in between?

—Cathy C., Jensen Beach, Fla.

Dear Cathy,
Welcome to the club!

Everyone’s journey is different, but I think that once you’ve been bitten by the wine bug, you’re going to discover an urge to start reading about wine and, of course, to start tasting as much as possible.

One of the best pieces of advice about wine I’ve ever heard is to make every sip count. Every time you get a chance to put some wine between your lips, you should be recording it—mentally, in a journal, by taking a photo with your phone, or perhaps all three. After a while you’ll start stringing these experiences together, and wines will start becoming reference points to each other.

When I first started drinking and buying wine, I also had a couple of wine shops that I developed a relationship with, where we could talk about the last few bottles I tried, and which I liked more than others, and get recommendations for my next purchase. Learning the wine lingo can be tough at first, so just saying “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” is a good place to start. The rest will come later.

As far as reading about wine, I can recommend a terrific website and magazine you might want to start with, and a great online school you might want to check out. Happy discovering!

—Dr. Vinny

Dear Dr. Vinny,
Why do only red wines have sediment?

—Shyam C., Kozhikode, India

Dear Shyam,
It’s true that sediment is more likely to occur in red wines than in whites, but white wines can sometimes leave sediment, and whites are also more likely to leave tartrate crystals, which are a different kind of deposit. Both sediment and tartrates are harmless, but people avoid them because their texture can be unpleasant.

I’ve had a lot of sediment questions lately, but to briefly review, most sediment—particularly in young wines—comes from leftover bits of grapes, grape seeds and dead yeast cells that are a normal byproduct of winemaking. But red and white wines are typically made using different methods, and red winemaking simply lends itself to more sediment than white.

In typical red winemaking, crushed grapes and their juice are fermented together, while white wines are usually just made from the juice of the wine. You can think of the smushed-up grapes like a tea bag that “steeps” longer in red wines, while the whites usually get much less contact with those solids. And since those solids are where sediment comes from, it follows that whites will have less sediment in the end.

Separating wine from these grape solids comes later, through racking, fining or filtering, though sometimes a winemaker will choose to bottle a wine without fining or filtering. While there are some terrific unfiltered white wines, I think that most wine lovers expect their whites to be clear, for cosmetic reasons.

—Dr. Vinny

Dear Dr. Vinny,
What is the proper etiquette when you pour a wine that you didn’t realize had sediment? “Oh my! I’m sorry! Let me ...”

—Blair C., St. Joseph, Mo.

Dear Blair,
Sediment is harmless. If it’s in a young wine, it’s usually just a byproduct of winemaking, possibly because the winemaker chose to not fine or filter the wine. Sediment is also typical in older wines, which is why we usually talk about decanting them. The only reason people want to avoid sediment is because it can be gritty and make a wine glass all gunky.

I really don’t sweat sediment. Sure, it can show up in reds when you’re not thinking about it, so it’s always good to be careful when you’re getting to the end of the bottle (or the bottom of the decanter), which is where sludgy sediment usually ends up. These days, wine bottles can be so heavy I don’t always know when I’m coming to the end of the bottle. Sometimes a wine you expect to have sediment doesn’t, and one you don’t expect to does. I think most wine lovers understand this.

If you’re serving a friend at home or a patron in a restaurant and you accidentally pour a glass full of sediment, I’d say “Oh my! I didn’t realize this wine was throwing so much sediment.” (That’s how the cool kids refer to it—“throwing sediment.”)

What happens next depends on the situation at hand. If you’re in a restaurant and a wine by the glass was ordered, offer to get a new glass. If it’s from the bottom of a bottle of wine the patrons ordered (or brought in themselves), you could offer to take the glass away, and out of sight you could pour it off its sediment into a decanter and then into a fresh glass, leaving as much gunk behind as possible.

If I’m at home when it happens, I might offer to take the glass myself, or just pour it into a fresh glass, skipping the decanter in between because, ugh, cleaning decanters. After a while, the sediment will settle in your glass and you can just drink around it.

—Dr. Vinny

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