How Long Will Wine Last?

Someone should do a survey on wasted wine. You probably have wasted some yourself. You crack that bottle for dinner and, for whatever reason, you don’t finish the whole bottle. Next day, you see the partially filled bottle and assume it’s gone, dead, undrinkable. You paid full price for it and you enjoyed only two-thirds. Here’s how to get more from every bottle you buy.

First of all, wines are like little kids: they’re tougher than we think. They contain alcohol which helps to preserve them. The more the alcohol, the better they will stand up to abuse (like leaving it open overnight). Red wines have the additional natural preservative known as “tannin” (it’s the mildly bitter-tasting component). In some wines, high natural wine acidity and/or residual sugar also preserve them.

But you can give the wine an even better chance of survival by re-corking the bottle and putting in into the fridge. Re-corking it keeps the oxygen out; and while some oxygen is good for wines (another column), too much will just spoil it. By putting it into the refrigerator, you lower the temperature of the wine. Remember chemistry class? Things change more slowly the colder the temperature? Works with wine, too! Most wines that are re-corked and kept cold will stay fresh and tasty for at least the three or four days that even a near teetotaler would take to finish them off. That vintage Porto or Sauternes? A month is not out of the ordinary in my experience. “But, I don’t like my red wines chilled” you say? Just take it out an hour before you want to enjoy it.

Those do-jiggers that suck out air or cover the wine with inert gas? Be my guest: but unless you are talking about an older wine (which probably should be drunk up fast anyway) or those bottles of single-malt scotches (which most of us tend to consume over longer periods of time), these accessories are a waste…of money.

How to Open a Wine Bottle

Sometimes the “wine expert” at the party is the one who knows how to open the bottle. Many wine drinkers don’t face this question because they never need to; they unscrew the cap or push the spigot on a bag-in-the-box. But if you have trouble opening wine that comes in a bottle with a cork in it, read on.

There are dozens if not hundreds of devices to get the cork from the bottle. Corkscrews can come with a screw shaped like a carpenter’s wood screw, or a helix (looks like DNA). Get one with a helix; you’ll get a better grip. Leaving the niceties of the operation to the sommeliers for now, the first thing no matter what corkscrew you use is to get the capsule off. You can take the knife-edge and, circumnavigating, decapitate the capsule at the lip. Or, you can just slide it off in many cases. Or just start a cut at the bottom of the capsule with a knife and peel it off.

The most commonly seen is the “waiter’s” or “captain’s” corkscrew, complete with knife-edge, a helix, and a lever all folded into the body. After taking off the capsule, take the pointy helix and start it as closely to the center of the top of the cork as possible. Slowly twist the helix in. With practice you’ll know when to stop (so as not to pierce the bottom end of the cork and possibly force some of it into the bottle). Once you’re ready to pull the cork out, let the lever out so it can touch the lip of the glass. Grasp it (so it doesn’t chip the glass by slipping off) and lift the other end of the corkscrew, drawing out the cork. Piece o’ cake.

If you have what is called a “Screwpull”, it’s even easier. Just take the “clothespin” part of it and place it over the neck. Then insert the helix part through the top of the clothespin. It automatically centers itself at the cork, so just keep on twisting clockwise.

You may have seen the “winged” corkscrew, the one with the wings that must be pushed down to extract the cork. They’re neat looking but remember that most have a literal screw and also lack the length on that screw to grab those bottles with long corks.

Lastly, the “ahso,” the corkscrew that is not a corkscrew. Its two tines are meant to be inserted one after the other (longer one first) between the cork and the glass. Using a seesaw motion, you carefully force the tines as far as they can go, twist them to get a grip and pull up. They’re actually easy to use but intimidating to tackle.

Don’t let frustration with opening the bottle keep you from enjoying wine. There is an opener for everyone. The trick is finding the one that works best for you.

How to Get the Biggest Bang for Your Wine Buck

No matter how much or how little you have to spend on wine, no one likes to feel as though he or she has paid too much for a bottle. In fact the ideal situation, from a wine-buying standpoint, is to select a reasonably priced bottle that tastes like so much more. The trick is knowing how to find some of these little discoveries that we call wine values.

Before we go further, please understand that a wine value does not necessarily mean buying the cheapest wine on the shelf. Value is getting the most for your money, and there are wine values in all price categories.

Here are some ways you can get the biggest bang for your wine buck:

1. Consider a lesser-known varietal. For white wines, instead of automatically heading over to the Chardonnay section, try a Pinot Blanc from Burgundy, or go with a crisp, refreshing Sauvignon Blanc. For reds, instead of Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, think about a Pinot Noir or a crowd-pleasing Rhone-style wine.

2. Look at wines produced in lesser-known regions. In California, for instance, go beyond Napa and Sonoma, both world-class winemaking regions, and venture into areas like the Central Valley where you’ll be surprised by the quantum leap in the quality of some wines there. Expand your horizons and check out wines from the rest of “The New World,” including Australia, New Zealand, and South America.

3. Get to know a winery’s “second label.” Some of the finest wineries in the world, from Caymus in California to first growth Château Lafite-Rothschild in Bordeaux produce other wines made from grapes that are not as high quality as those used in their showcase wine. A good wine merchant should be able to point you to some super seconds. In case you’re wondering, the second label of Caymus is Liberty School, and Carruades de Lafite is the “super second” from Château Lafite-Rothschild. Other popular second labels are Hawk Crest from the highly-rated Stag’s Leap Winery in Napa and Pavillon Rouge from the famous Château Margaux in Bordeaux.

4. Buy in bulk. Either buy by the case and receive a 10 to 15 percent discount at most wine stores, or buy your favorite everyday varietal wine in 1.5 liter bottles, the equivalent of two regular-sized bottles. You can get a very quaffable Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon for under $15 in the 1.5-liter size.

Wine Sizes: A Size for Every Occasion

Just as we have choices when choosing what size cup of coffee we want these days, in the wine world, there is a size for every occasion, from petite to grande.

  • 750 ml. – “Full Bottle” – Most everyone who drinks wine is familiar with the standard 750 ml. This is the size most commonly seen in wine shops, grocery stores, and on restaurant wine lists. There are 25.4 ounces of wine in a 750 ml. bottle and the standard restaurant pour is a 5-ounce glass. That means you get about 5 glasses to the bottle.
  • 375 ml. – “Half Bottle” – Many wine retailers carry at least a small assortment of half bottles of wine, including Champagne. Some restaurants, especially wine destinations where they are known for their wine selection, will feature an interesting assortment of half bottles too. Half bottles are often just right for a party of two to share because they hold 12.7 ounces of wine, or 2 ½ glasses. The 375 ml. size offers the perfect solution for the dinner party divided between selecting a bottle of red or a bottle of white for the table—you can order both, or for those who enjoy pairing different wines with each course of a multi-course meal.
  • 250ml Tetra Pak carton – A relatively new wine package on the market is the 250 ml Tetra Pak carton. It is the ultimate juice box for adults with its package that of course doesn’t break, but also packs easily for the beach, barbecues, and tailgates. Some wineries are beginning to “bottle” decent wines in this handy package that is the equivalent of 1/3 of a full bottle or almost 8.5 ounces and yields a generous single serving.
  • 187 ml. – “Airplane Bottle” – The cute little bottles seen on airplanes are the single-serving size technically known as the 187 ml. Some of the bigger, mainstream wineries have responded to consumer demand for single servings by marketing 4-packs of 187 ml. bottles, often featured either at or near the check-out register for an impulse buy. They are perfect for the wine lover who simply wishes to have a glass – nothing more, nothing less. They use a screw top closure, which eliminates the need for a corkscrew.
  • 1.5 liter – “Jug”, “1.5 ml.”, or “Magnum” – Back in the day the most basic, inexpensive wines were blends of cheaper grape varieties that were literally packed in jugs for mass consumption – hence the name “jug wine.” Though you will still see a few jugs on the market, today’s jugs are generally packaged as a larger version of the 750 ml bottle. In fact, the 1.5 liter size is equivalent to two 750 ml. bottles, providing
  • about ten 5-ounce servings to the bottle. This size is great for a party. While it is true that many wineries traditionally have packaged their most basic wines, many wineries are now bottling their premium wines in the 1.5 liter bottle, corresponding to the trend that Americans are drinking better. On wine lists, especially at wine destinations, it is common to find a selection of 1.5s either listed as a “Magnum” or under a special section of “Larger Format” bottles. This section may even include larger sizes such as double magnums, the equivalent of four 750 ml. bottles. The usual suspects under this larger format heading are typically fine Bordeaux, Champagne, California collectibles, and super Tuscan Italian wines, though other wine regions certainly produce larger format bottles. Big bottles add an instant element of festivity and drama to any party.

No matter what the occasion or mood, there is sure to be a wine size that fits perfectly into your day.

Drinking wine is easy. Talking about wine can be hard. Finding words to describe sensations in your nose and mouth is difficult for anyone, but it’s an important skill to develop if you want to learn about wine. Otherwise, you may find it hard to explain your preferences and share your wine experiences, good or bad.

It’s true that each wine drinker has her own personal response to each wine she tries. Yet experienced tasters agree on the meaning of certain terms, which gives them a common vocabulary. Some terms are familiar to anybody with taste buds: sweet and sour, for example. Others may sound strange to beginning tasters, yet they’re among the most basic wine descriptors. You don’t have to use these specialized words – “yum” and “yuck” are pretty useful too – but they can help if you’re trying to communicate your impressions to someone else.

The simplest way to learn the lingo is to get close to people who know about wine. Take advantage of the free or inexpensive tastings at wine shops and listen to what people say. Even if you aren’t participating in the conversation, you’ll be able to compare your impressions to the comments of more experienced tasters.

When you’re in a restaurant with an interesting wine list, don’t just order the first bottle you recognize. You’ll learn more if you ask the wine steward to help you make a choice. Most wine stewards are delighted to talk about their favorite bottlings.

Here are a few of the most common terms used to describe wines:

Body: The weight and fullness of a wine in your mouth. Think of it in comparison to milk: skim milk is light-bodied; whole milk is medium-bodied; heavy cream is full-bodied.

Fruitiness: Of course wine is made from grapes, but the magic of fermentation gives most wines subtle aromas of other fruits as well. Some people just sense a general fruity quality; others can identify more specific aromas, like apple or pear in white wines, raspberries or cherries in reds.

Dry, Off-Dry or Sweet: A dry wine is one in which there is no sugar remaining after fermentation. An off-dry wine is slightly sweet, but not so sugary that you couldn’t happily enjoy it with a savory meal. Sweet wines are usually considered dessert wines, which are usually enjoyed with sweet desserts, or by themselves at the end of a meal.

White wines are most likely to be off-dry or sweet; red wines are almost always dry. But even dry wines can have intensely fruity aromas.

Tannin: A quality found almost exclusively in red wines, tannin plays an important part in the texture of wine. At low levels, tannin can give a wine a slightly rough or scratchy feeling in your mouth; at high levels, tannin can make a wine unpleasantly astringent, making you feel as if all the moisture had been wrung out of your mouth. A strong cup of black tea gives a very similar sensation.

Many people say they don’t like “dry” wines when what they’re really trying to say is that they don’t like rough, astringent wines. Remember, dry refers only to the sweetness level of a wine. If you want a wine without much tannin, call it soft or smooth and a wine pro will better understand what you’re talking about.

Acidity: Acidity is simple to understand – just imagine a sip of lemon juice. Acidity is the lip-smacker factor that gives wine its zing. When a wine drinker likes the acidity in wine, she might describe it as zesty or crisp. Wines that are perceived as too acidic are often described as tart or even sour.

All wines contain some acidity, but it usually tastes stronger in white wines than reds, and in dry wines than off-dry or sweet wines.

Just as with food, every taster has her own impressions of a wine. One taster’s “zesty” could be another taster’s “tart”; a wine that’s pleasantly off-dry to one person could seem cloyingly sweet to another. But if you learn the basic terms, at least you’ve got some common ground.

Sweet Wine Versus Fruity Wine

Virtually all but the most experienced wine tasters have a tendency to confuse the taste sensations of sweet and fruity. To make matters worse, those who “get it” usually have a difficult time explaining the difference between sweet and fruity without offering a chemistry lesson.

The “sweet versus fruity” dilemma is most likely to come up when people taste new wines (at least new to them) whether they are experimenting with a new bottle from a restaurant wine list, at a dinner party with friends, or at a formal wine tasting with a group of strangers who quickly become new friends.

Essentially, they put the glass to their lips, take a sip, and with a look of surprise or utter disdain on their face share their first impression of the wine, either quietly to their partner, or perhaps not so quietly to the group — “This is sweet!”

In reality, more often than not, that “sweet” tasting wine is in fact a fruity wine, but all that the taster knows, and rightfully so, is that the wine tastes sweet to them. So how does one tell the difference between sweet and fruity?

One way is to pour yourself a glass of iced tea or even hot tea. Take a sip. It is bone dry, tannic even. Add a squeeze of lemon and taste again. The tea remains dry but there is a fruity component that offers an element of perceived sweetness. Add sugar or honey and now you will taste both fruity and sweet. Can you taste the difference?

Another way is to do an informal tasting at home or at a wine bar. First, taste a glass of Sauvignon Blanc and then taste a Riesling. While the Sauvignon Blanc could very well have tropical and/or citrus flavors and a tanginess that could be mistaken initially for “sweet,” you’ll get a better idea of what sweet really is when you put it up alongside the Riesling which typically has a lot more residual sugar (i.e., sugar left behind during the fermentation process) than the Sauvignon Blanc. For those who automatically write off Riesling because it is “too sweet,” keep in mind that better made Rieslings are well balanced, with acid that makes the wine taste more lively and refreshing rather than cloyingly sweet…but that is another story.

Theoretically, higher alcohol wine will produce a drier style of wine because more of the sugar in the grapes is converted to alcohol. Due to the cooler climate in winegrowing areas such as Germany, the grapes are not as ripe as those from say, California, so there is less sugar in the grapes to be converted to alcohol in the first place. This you will see on the label as German wines have about 8-11% alcohol by volume whereas it is not uncommon for California wines to be register more in the range of 12% to14% alcohol by volume.