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Collecting and Storing Wine

We have been collecting wine and lecturing on wine topics since 1970. Until about 1985 my preference had always been to the French reds, in this order: Bordeaux, Rhone, Burgundy. However, the better French reds continue their stratospheric climb in price, which I will not pay so long as the Californians keep cranking out better wines at lower prices. And the West Coast wines have a more consistent quality owing to the more consistent climactic conditions. Even the California Pinot Noirs (the grape of Burgundy) get better every year, although those in the cooler climate of Oregon or Washington will probably prove to be the best of all. And as regards Chardonnay, no country makes a better one at any price than those from northern California.

Paul Hartman

So my cellar has changed since those early years. German wines are gone. Italian wines are now fewer in number than the Australian, and the wines from Chile are replacing those from Spain and Portugal. From France the only persistent acquisitions have been Chateau Neuf du Pape from the Rhone valley, and Meursault from the Burgundy region. Those I cannot give up.

The majority are now the great California cabernets, merlots, pinot noirs and "meritage" blends, and lots of chardonnay.

I should mention the Malbecs flowing out of Argentina. The Malbec grape is a blending grape in France, rarely seen on its own. But in Argentina it evidently grows like mad, producing a full bodied, flavorful red, about midway between a Cabernet and a Merlot, but with a visible "tang". A great wine with lamb, pork tenderloin, and other "lighter" meats. The extra treat is that it is pretty inexpensive.

Wine survives best if stored cool, preferably in the range from above 50 to below 70 farenheit. Cellars even without special equipment are usually remarkably capable of this range. At my Georgia home, when the outside temperature is 95 the cellar temperature is 65 - 70. In winter, it will not reach as low as 50. However, wine will survive at 75 - although it will age sooner - and the most important variable is that any temperature rise be gradual: sudden changes kill wine.

If you do not have a cellar, my advice is to both keep the inventory low and avoid keeping wines longer than 10 years past the vintage date, and under 5 years is the better strategy. Or obtain a wine refrigerator which can fit under a counter or in a closet; the prices have tumbled in recent years.

Always store wine bottles with the label "up" - that will allow identification without movement and come in handy later when you need to decant.

Serving Wine

A wine snob is one of the more annoying examples in life of how a little knowledge can turn someone into a tedious being; I have no doubt been one and hope I am one no longer. But having said that, it is also true that certain rules have survived simply because they make of wine the best it can be.

Most authorities agree that wine should be served in a clear, plain, stemmed, glass "the size and shape of a large orange." Such a glass will hold 12 ounces and should be filled only half way. White wines should be served chilled, the sweeter the cooler; 2 hours in a refrigerator will get it right, or 20 minutes in the freezer - just don't forget you put it there. Red wine should be served at "room temperature in France", which is 66, not the American choice of the low 70's. However this is a red wine rule honored in the breech, for the other rule is that a red wine should be opened and allowed to stand 2 hours in the room it will be served in (to "become chambres"). On the other hand, I would rather serve a red at 66 then give it two hours worth of air, since the small amount of wine exposed to the air in the just-opened bottle is pretty insignificant.

White wine is served before red, and young wines before older.

An older red which has deposited debris needs to be decanted. The old way was to pour with a candle under the neck so that you could spy particulate matter in the neck at the end of the pour. The easy way is to lift the bottle near the base, the label pointing to the ceiling (sediment lies opposite the label - if you stored it label up) and, in room light sufficient to see the fluid level in the bottle, pour in a smooth (no waves!) continuous motion into a funnel resting in a decanter until 2 ounces are left - which you sacrifice. If I am taking an old wine to someone's home or a restaurant, I decant it, wash out the original bottle, and return the wine to it; this act constitutes a considerable "airing" and no further air is required.

Here are a few more of my opinions on wine topics:

FAQ From the Wine Lecture Circuit:

Q: I'd like to bring a bottle of wine to someone's home, but I know little at this point. What is a fail-safe choice?

A:   Keep it basic and inexpensive. Anyone can find a great wine for $100 - but this is just showing off. Can you find a really decent wine for $10? The answer is Yes. A wine merchant can give you several choices in California Chardonnay at that price, and this is the preferred wine to bring, since it is neutral to what is being served. Chardonnay is a good choice regardless of the dinner choice as it functions as an aperitif wine, a first course wine, or even a main course wine when a red would otherwise be typical, since the only mismatch for Chardonnay is a light fish for which a more delicate white would be superior. (ie Meursault). Bring it cold. If the host has already selected a wine for a main course, your Chardonnay can be plugged in at the beginning, or saved for another time. Even old wine aficionados like me will appreciate a solid chardonnay regardless of cost.

Q: What am I supposed to do with the cork when a waiter presents it to me in a restaurant?

A:   Well, you don't smell it, as many people think. You examine the cork. The little ceremony of presenting the cork relates to verifying that the wine is genuine and has endured storage. It seems there is some history of unscrupulous restaurants saving prestige bottles and refilling them with less expensive wine. Therefore examining the cork to see if its label confirms the bottle label means you are not getting a bogus wine, if this practice even exists anymore. (You would break the cork in half to prevent it being "used" again.) Also, if the cork is intact, it suggests that the wine has not been contaminated. For less ambitious or young wines, the presentation of the cork is a mere ritual, and the waiter may not even know why he has been told to do it.

Q:When in a restaurant with a large wine list, how can I order a quality red and look like I know what I'm doing?

A:  Look to see if a Chateau Neuf du Pape is on the list under "French Reds". This is a wine from the Rhone Valley, typically blended from as many as 14 different grape varieties. What makes that important is that the wine maker can adjust the proportions of the varieties to suit the type of growing year, and obtain a great wine nearly every year. What that means to you is that the vintage year is less important as long as it is at least 3 years old and less than 20 - the wine will be very good . You can also tell those with you that the name means "New Castle of the Pope" and refers to the time when there were two Popes, one in Rome and a rival in Avignon, France. (The name is pronounced "Chateau noof do pop") If that wine is absent look for a Cabernet Sauvignon from Australia, Chile, or California.

Q: I have gone to a restaurant with 5 other people, and after we are seated, the waiter hands the wine list to ME. What do I do?

A:  If among the other 5 there is a known wine authority, pass the list to that person. Or, if you have all come with the intent of having sea food, pick a white. The usual situation is that all are perusing the menu and meal decisions are not yet made. If so, go with a white. If there is one on the list you already know to be good, pick that one. Or be bold and pick one you have never tried. Among whites, chardonnays are (usually) buttery or creamy with vanilla and pear flavors and a taste of oak barrels. A sauvignon blanc will be crisp, pale in color, seem "colder", and possibly nutty. Many females prefer a slightly sweeter wine, and a blush, like white zinfandel, will often delight them. Your last option is to punt the responsibility and ask everyone to order by the glass.

Q: How can I speed up the learning curve in becoming very knowledgeable about wine?

A:  Stick with learning countries and regions in the beginning, rather than particular labels or vineyards. Put off the difficult - wines of Italy and Germany - until last. Start with the customary varietals from California: zinfandel, merlot, cabernet, chardonnay and sauvignon, comparing the good but inexpensive with the great and expensive (upscale chardonnays: Far Niente, Chalone, Kistler, Berringer, Saintsbury). With France, start with Bordeaux reds, trying examples from the regions of the Medoc while you read about their differences. Compare those with California cabernet, merlot, and red blends like "Meritage". Build your knowledge on grape varieties and regions, and only then embrace the reds and whites of Burgundy, Rhone, and then Italy.

Q: What is meant by a wine that is "oxidized"?

A:  The other term is "maderization". Madeira (and Sherry) is a wine which is "matured" at high temperature and fortified with brandy, and air oxidation is part of the process, giving the wine a characteristic taste and usually a golden yellow to tawny color. What is great for Madeira, however, is regarded as a flaw in conventional white wines. Air oxidizes alcohol to ethylic aldehyde. The wine goes from pale to golden yellow (it has "gone madeira") and develops a taste which many find "odd". You can usually tell this without uncorking, since most white wine bottles are clear glass, and the color alone reveals that you held that white wine Too Long.

Q: There was this movie which extolled the virtues of Pinot Noir. I will often order one, but I am not sure if it is a great choice.

A:  A year ago I started buying West Coast Pinot Noirs (California, Oregon, Washington) at the $10 level, to determine which was "best" at the price. I settled that: Estancia Pinot Noir was the best, under $10. But one night I ran out of this wine, and opened an under $10 Cabernet from J. Lohr. (discounted price, such as Sams or Wal-Mart). The difference was extraordinary. The Cabernet was "out-a-sight" - deep, rich, complex, the Pinot thin; no match at all.

So, what can I say. If you are serving the "other white meat" (pork), no matter how prepared, go with a Pinot Noir if the discussion of wine and main course is likely to arise. (You can use the arguments I have given here.) Otherwise, skip all that stuff, and serve a good Cabernet. That is my "final answer".

Want to know about the words and phrases used among the in-siders at wine tastings? Here is a link to such a glossary. Go .