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Wine Tip: Ask Dr. Vinny

Our fearless wine expert answers all your toughest wine questions

Posted: January 30, 2012

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,

Why do some types of wines tend to have differently shaped bottles than others?

—Steve R., New York

Dear Steve,

For most wine producers, the shape of the bottle is meant to communicate the style of wine to consumers, though some prefer to pick a bottle shape that will stand out instead.

In the 19th century, wine bottles developed into their basic shape and size—which, you'll notice, makes it easy for wines to be stored horizontally. From there, three basic bottle shapes (and a bazillion variations) emerged. So-called "Bordeaux-style" bottles have straight sides and tall shoulders, and are typically used for wines using traditional Bordeaux grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc. "Burgundy-style" bottles are slightly fatter, with more sloping shoulders, and are typically used for the traditional Burgundy grapes Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, as well as for Rhône-styled wines. The tall, thin bottle with subtly sloping shoulders is identified with the Alsace and Mosel regions, and with the Riesling grape.

Some theories as to how these shapes emerged include Bordeaux producers wanting a pronounced shoulder to trap sediment when pouring wine, or that glassblowers found it easier to make the Burgundy bottle. However they developed, it's clear that to the vast majority of producers today, these three bottle shapes are a way to tell a wine lover what's inside.

—Dr. Vinny

Dear Dr. Vinny,

I have found there are not any breathing holes in the cork of some wines. Is it a must to have breathing holes in a cork?

—David W., Shanghai, China

Dear David,

A good cork shouldn't have any "breathing holes" in it at all—in fact, its primary job is to protect the wine inside the bottle from exposure to air, which would prematurely age it.

I understand your confusion, though. Most corks contain at least a few small channels and cracks, which I'm guessing is what you thought of as breathing holes. But a cork's unique texture and structure is what makes it a good, tight closure. It's elastic and nearly impermeable, which means cork can create a good seal. There is evidence that most corks do allow passage of tiny amounts of air and other gasses over time, which is why older bottles will typically show signs of evaporation. But given a good cork, that takes decades.

I also think part of your confusion may be over the term "breathing." When people say a wine is breathing, that means it's being exposed to oxygen after the bottle is opened—in a wineglass or decanter, for example. Wine isn't alive the way you or I are, of course, but it's "alive" in the sense that chemical reactions take place. When a wine is exposed to oxygen, more reactions take place, similar to how an apple starts to turn brown when you break its skin.

Wine and oxygen have a strange relationship. When you're trying to preserve a wine, you want to avoid oxygen. But when you open a bottle, you typically want to make it interact with oxygen by swirling your glass or decanting the wine, so that it will become more expressive and release more aromas and flavors. But then, after a while—say, a few hours for more delicate wines and up to a couple of days for more robust ones—all that oxygen will cause a wine to begin to fade, its aromas and flavors will flatten and dull, and eventually the wine will start to turn brown and take on stale, nutty notes.

—Dr. Vinny

Dear Dr. Vinny,

Is storing wine underground a viable option? I don't mean to just toss the bottles in the dirt, of course, but in an appropriate, sealed container. Temps in Las Vegas get pretty hot. Absent a proper storage facility, is underground storage OK?

—Timothy G., Las Vegas

Dear Timothy,

Sure, there's a reason why wine cellars and caves are historically built in the ground. It typically stays cool, dark and humid underground, perfect for wine storage. I'm sure you realize it's not convenient ("Honey, I'm going in the backyard with a shovel to get a wine for dinner!"), but burying your wine could work for long-term storage. My only concern is that the labels might decompose, as would any cardboard or wood container. But if you have the wine stored in a decomposition-proof container, and you draw yourself a decent pirate map to remember where it was buried, I think that's a fine idea.

—Dr. Vinny

Dear Dr. Vinny,

During table service at a restaurant, is the wine tasted before the decanting?

—Joe A., Lakewood, Colo.

Dear Joe,

I think a wine should usually be tasted (and approved) before you fuss with decanting, unless there has been some conversation about it otherwise.

There are a couple of scenarios in which a discussion should happen to make sure the customer and the server are on the same page. For example, if I'm bringing my own wine to a restaurant (one with a corkage policy that I've called ahead to verify), I might tell the server to just go ahead and open or decant the wine. After all, if I don't like it, it's not like I can send it back.

The other unusual situation is with a particularly old or fragile bottle of wine, where pouring a taste might jostle the sediment a little too much. As a patron, I can say, "Go ahead and decant it first," or the server can ask, "Is it OK if I decant this before presenting it for tasting, so as not to disturb the sediment?" Either way, that kind of direct communication can clear up both the wine and the expectations, and it warrants a good tip.

—Dr. Vinny

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