We’re gonna hook you up on your wine-talk 

Christopher Stagnitta, a wine & spirits consultant with Prestige Beverage Group out of Church Hill, Maryland, has traveled to wineries around the world and provides the scoop on wine tasting.

Wine Temperature 

Americans drink red wine too warm because we keep our homes warm, says Stagnitta. Steak houses serve red wine at 60-62 degrees. If you drink wine too warm, all the tannins and alcohol come out and, even though it’s a good wine, it might taste a bit nasty

Stagnitta suggests: putting the red into the freezer for 15 minutes before you leave the house or serve it. That’ll bring the wine to the slightly lower-than-room temperature that’s prime for drinking by the time people show up and are ready to drink.

Many people have started chilling reds now, at a higher temp than whites though.

If a white wine tastes slightly funny, chill it. The taste will go away — unless it’s “corked”

Prosecco wine at Severn River
A glass of good Prosecco, rather than champaign, can be quite tasty

“Corked” Wine 

Wine is not always consistent. Even wineries will taste the wine before serving it to ensure it’s not corked. When the waiter pours you a splash and waits for you to taste it, don’t be embarrassed; taste it.

Fact is: one in 10 bottles will have a “cork” taste. So taste the wine, and tell the waiter if it tastes funny. Don’t automatically accept the bottle because it’s a “good” restaurant or a high-end wine.

“Turned” Wine

Don’t drink cloudy wine. It could be the wine is too soon out of the barrel and the tannins haven’t settled, or the bottle was too hot at one point in its life. If you have a really old bottle and it’s cloudy, the tannins are likely to have gone wild.

There are several ways to filter it before drinking. But for us average drinkers, the wine was usually left in the sun or hot place, and drinking it is a crapshoot on a headache later.

BTW — If you simply don’t like a wine at an official tasting, just dump it into the bucket. Nobody should be offended. Those giving out samples of even high-end wines, taste, and dump. It’s perfectly normal.

Oaky Wines

Don’t feel bad if you don’t like oak barrel wine. To some people, it’s like chewing on wood. Stagnitta didn’t like chardonnay until he realized it was the oak flavor he didn’t like. He now drinks steel barrel-aged chards and enjoys the cleaner taste.

Wine With Meats

“That’s crap,” Stagnitta says of automatically paring red wine with beef and white with fish. He suggests that you: 1) drink the wine that you enjoy and, 2) chose one that goes well with the spice, flavor, and character of the food. Then, ignore those people who tell you otherwise.

An oaky or heavy red — or white — works with spice; lightener wines with light foods. A lighter wine could be both a red Pinot Noir or a white Pinot Gris.

Great Frogs Winery
Photo courtesy of Great Frogs Winery

A “buttery” (smooth) chardonnay might be better with fish if the fish is cooked with butter. Heavy, oaked chard could go well with a steak cooked in butter (think Ruth Chris steak). A fish seared with light oil is likely to be paired with a sauvignon blanc, but it could also be red zinfandel.

When in doubt, ask the waiter for a recommendation. I ask even if the restaurant serves only one of each type of wine by the glass. A good server knows how the dish is flavored and can suggest the type of wine that works best. If they don’t know, at least you tried.

Here’s a breakdown of wine types.

How Long to Hold Onto Wine 

Whites don’t last in the cellar because they’re not aged in oak for long or not at all. Reds that age well have been stored in oak before going into the bottle. That’s why wine sellers will tell you some wines keep and others are for drinking fairly soon after buying.

Reds will improve with storing a few years. Whites, not so much. Wine stores and wineries can usually tell you how long you can safely store a particular wine.

If you keep red wine in a rack, you should turn it every six-to-eight months.

Cleansing the Palette Between Tastings 

It just depends. Some people swear by a swish of water in your mouth, others use crackers, and some say chocolate is the best at cleansing your pallet between tastings. But Stagnitta says saliva is the best.

Bread and crackers have a yeast flavor that changes the taste. Same with chocolate. Water is okay, but it hides the taste for a while. Just take a couple of swallows without anything in your mouth.

Legs 

Legs are the drip of the liquid inside the glass after you swirl the wine. Wine fanciers love to swirl their wine around the glass and read the color and the “legs.” Legs show the alcohol content.

Pinstripe (evenly spaced) legs generally mean more alcohol. However, dust, pollen, detergent left on the glass and all sorts of other things affect legs, so it’s not a good measure.

Basically, “legs” don’t matter. If you go to a wine tasting and someone is going on about legs, don’t be impressed.

Decanting

“Decant everything,” says Stagnitta. It opens up the flavor of the wine. If you want friends to know how good a bottle you bought is, keep the empty bottle nearby. The first glasses after aerating are the best.

Decanting is not to keep particles out. It’s to add air to the wine. Some wines include a lot of wine junk — bits of grape skin, stems, pits (known as “tannins”) — on purpose. Molly Dooker winery recommends you pour a sip out of the bottle, then shake the bottle of wine (with cork in the bottle), and serve it immediately after shaking. Amazingly, that smooths out the bitter tannins and creates a fuller-bodied wine.

Wine Prices

Don’t be judgy based on price. The wine’s year can trump the expensive wine label. For example, 2021 is expected to be a great year for California wine, but some 2020s are better for the price because people read the reports and aren’t scooping up outside the range which might be priced lower. After all a 2020 from a “great” winery is still better than a 2021 from a “good” winery.

Calluna Vineyards in Sonoma County, California
Calluna Vineyards in Sonoma County, California

Stagnitta gave us a challenge: bring your favorite high-end Cab and let’s have a taste-test against his lower-priced ($20-$40 range) selection. The group of serious wine drinkers — ten higher-income, middle-aged friends — took up the gauntlet. Everyone sipped the challenge wine and the comparison bottle.

They didn’t try to guess which was which, but rather, which they liked best. Nearly every time, half liked the high-end bottle and half preferred the cheaper bottle. Nobody consistently preferred the more expensive wines.

That’s not saying some were better at tasting “fine” wines. The point is: the wine quality was good for both and the rest is simply a matter of what appeals to your taste buds.

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