When I host wine entertainment events, whether live and in-person (before the pandemic) or virtually on Zoom, I’m always asked the same wine questions regardless of my guests’ location, age-range, or income level.
For years I’ve been helping wine lovers answer these questions and now I’ve memorialized them with this list of the fifteen most frequently asked questions I get from my clients, students and readers.
#1) Why does wine cost what it does?
The simple answer here is real estate! That’s right, the zip code of the vineyard has a significant effect on the price of a bottle of wine. The most expensive wines in the world tend to have the costliest land per acre. Places such as Napa Valley, Grand Cru Burgundy vineyards, and Classified Bordeaux estates tend to have some of the highest prices. These vineyards produce very high-quality fruit, often in tiny amounts. Think of a beachfront property vs. the house across the street. These grapes cost more money to farm and purchase.
In addition to the cost of vineyard real estate and grapes, other aspects that contribute to the cost of wine include winery equipment, most notably new French oak barrels, which can run upwards of $1,000 per barrel.
One of the highest hidden costs happens once the wine leaves the winery. There are all sorts of markups that significantly compound the original production costs. In the US, there is a three-tier system. The winery by law must sell their wine to a distributor, which in turn marks up the wine and sells it to a retail store or restaurant, which marks the wine up again before it reaches the consumer of the bottle. Often this markup can account for up to 50% of the cost of a bottle of wine.
The more expensive the wine from the start, the more significant the compounded markup becomes.
#2) Why do I get headaches when drinking wine? Is it the sulfites?
Sulfites are a naturally occurring substance found in many dried fruits, juices, and foods. With wine production, sulfites are added as a protective measure to ensure the grape juice does not encounter any spoilage or bacteriological issues. Sulfites cause very severe allergic reactions to those who are sensitive; there’s a warning on the bottle, but sulfites aren’t the culprit of a wine drinker’s headaches. Wine headaches are a particular issue, but the causes vary from person to person. Many people only get headaches from red wine (white wines tend to have more sulfites added). The reality is that it has to do with histamines and all sorts of other complex organisms that grapes carry on their skins.
In addition, more industrial wines use conventional farming methods that use chemicals in the grape growing process and then make adjustments to the wines in the winery to achieve a certain style or flavor. I try looking for wines that are organic or biodynamic. But there are plenty of small producers around the world farming without chemicals that use minimal intervention in the winery.
If you have serious issues, you might want to talk to your doctor.
#3) How long can I keep a bottle of wine?
It depends on the quality of the wine. Less expensive wines are made to be drunk right away, while more expensive wines that have a better pedigree and a higher sticker price can age for many years. In red wines, particular grapes, such as Nebbiolo and Cabernet Sauvignon, are generally suitable for more extended aging, due to their tannic structure. Not all wines are meant for aging though, and in today’s world of immediate consumption, it’s safe to say the majority of wines that you will encounter are meant to be drunk relatively soon. Most people I talk to have some bottles that were gifts they’ve been saving. My answer is to drink it now!
#4) At what temperature should I drink my wine?
The answer is just how you like to! There are guidelines, but I don’t see people anytime soon walking around with thermometers checking their wines, except at tasting exams.
Below is the recommended temperature serving list. I play with temperature quite a bit. I like particular whites colder than others, same with reds. I don’t want to go below 40° and above 70° for any wine. You can always make a wine colder or warmer by putting or taking it in/out of the fridge. You could also have an ice bucket nearby to get the temp just right. For a red, you can take a cloth and set it on top of the ice and just place the bottle on top to stay cool, not freezing cold.
- Sparkling Wine 40 – 55° F
- White Wine 45 – 60° F
- Red Wine 50 – 64° F
If you have a wine cooler or cellar the best temperature to keep these at is between 55 – 60° F.
#5) How should I store my wine?
The best way to store wine, especially if you are starting to get a little serious, is to get a wine fridge. There are plenty of options at many different price points. Or, just find a cool, dark room (like a closet) and get a rack to lay your wines down until you are ready to make the investment.
The wine should be laid on the side and not disturbed until it’s ready to be drunk.
#6) Why should wine be stored on its side?
The bottle needs to be stored on its side so the cork can stay moist. A dried-out cork will allow oxygen into the bottle and dry out the wine. However, if you’re drinking the wine in a few days or weeks, it’s ok to keep upright.
#7) Do winemakers add flavor to wine?
Winemakers do add several additives to wine to help stabilize, preserve cleanliness, or to aid the fermentation along. The flavors and aromas that make up wine occur naturally due to the chemical compounds converted during fermentation. Some winemakers do add ingredients to increase specific characteristics, but in most countries, especially in Europe, adjusting wine is illegal.
#8) How do wines get their different aromas and flavors?
Chemical compounds and changes in the juice that occurs when grapes are fermented convert into some of the same compounds that occur in everyday foods we eat. So, when you taste apple or lemon, chocolate, or cherry in the wine, it isn’t actually chocolate you taste, but the chemical compounds found within chocolate that are realized through the magic of fermentation. Each grape variety has a unique set of compounds that come to life through the fermentation process. Make sense?
#9) What are your favorite wines?
As someone who tastes 1000s of wines a year, that’s a tough question! Of course, I love all of the great wines in the world from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Napa Valley, Barolo etc… I have a pretty open-door policy on drinking wine and accept all of the children of Vitis Vinifera, but my main considerations are the following:
- Is it tasty?
- Who’s the producer?
- Does the wine have typicality to its region, grapes, and winemaking style?
- Is the bottle a good value?
- Would I buy another bottle?
That said, I drink a fair amount of the following wines at home and they are all under $25 a bottle. In addition, I always have some “off the beaten path” stuff hanging around from my winemaking and import friends.
- Grüner-Veltliner from Austria
- Falanghina from Campania, Italy
- Chablis from Burgundy
- Rosés from Provence
- Bubbly Rosato from Cava
- Chianti Classico from Tuscany
- Côtes-du-Rhône Villages from France
- Carménère from Chile
#10) How do you pick what to drink?
Here are some of my considerations when picking something to drink at home or in a restaurant:
- What’s the weather out?
- What I am eating, or if I am not eating, what environment I am drinking in – inside vs. outside?
- Who I am drinking with – business vs. friends?
- If I’m in a restaurant, I scope the “By the Glass” list to see if it offers any interesting wines that I like and have value. If I find something interesting, I’ll try a glass and then move on to a bottle. If I don’t, I can expect the wine list to follow suit, so I’ll typically ask the sommelier or wine manager what they are digging and go from there.
- If I find something new, I’ll typically do a background check and see what my colleagues and other consumers have said about it.
- At home, it depends on what I am having for dinner, but I often have two or three wines going at a time for different moods and foods. I recommend getting something like a Coravin or Repour so you can have a few things open at once for a week or two; compare and contrast and have some fun!
#11) Why are wine labels so confusing?
Wine labels are confusing for many reasons. First of all, every country and region in the world that produces wines has its own set of laws that determine what information should be on the label. Not to mention the myriad of different languages wine labels can possess.
In Europe, which is referred to as the Old-World, wines are often labeled by the specific region which they are from. Many are named for a particular village or vineyard. Throughout history, specific areas were identified, and laws were drawn up to protect the integrity of the region. We call this regional wine labeling. Also, in the Old World, wine labeling laws tend to be much stricter.
In the New World (US, Australia, Argentina, Chile, etc.), wines are labeled by the grape variety. For the average wine drinker, it’s much easier to understand a label that reads Chardonnay than say Chassagne-Montrachet.
I wish it were more accessible. But to enjoy wine, there is a certain amount of research and knowledge acquired to navigate through its international waters.
#12) What are “the Legs”?
Have you ever heard the phrase, “That wine has great legs”? Legs, also known as tears, are simply a measure of the amount of alcohol a wine has. In wine speak, we call this “viscosity.” When you swirl your wine, take some time to investigate the viscosity. If the legs that run down the side of the glass are thin and move quickly, the wine has a lower alcohol content. If the legs are thicker and move slower, this indicates a higher alcohol percentage. In blind tasting, this is used to sort out the possible climate and winemaking style of wine.
#13) What are tannins?
Tannins are the phenolic compounds in wine that make your mouth feel dry. Tannins come from skins, stems, and seeds in grapes, which is why red wines are generally more tannic than whites. Red wine grapes are crushed then kept in their skins for some time in what is called maceration, which brings out the phenolic and color compounds that make red wine what it is. Tannins can also come from wood, so wines aged in oak will possess some tannic presence. Wood tannins are typically less harsh than grape tannins.
#14) Why is wine buttery?
Buttery is an extremely polarizing word in the wine industry. Some love buttery wines and others, not so much. The buttery feeling you get in a glass of wine is most likely from two things.
The first is that the wine went through what is called malolactic fermentation, which converts sharp malic acid into the creamier lactic acid, which produces the flavor of diacetyl (butter/cream).
The second is from oak aging or from oak chips, which impart creamy sensations to a wine’s feel along with flavors of vanilla and baking spices.
#15) What’s with the slurping you wine pros do when tasting?
This is a funny one. Wine pros slurp the wine to introduce oxygen and aerate the wine further in their palates. Slurping, swishing and swirling the wine around the mouth opens up all the aromas and textural components of the wine. It takes a little bit of time to develop this skill, but once you do, it’s a lot of fun and makes tasting way more enjoyable!
I hope this helps you on your journey to understanding wine and having more confidence and fun while doing so!
Please feel free to comment below or reach out for further info.