Every day we get asked tons of questions about wine and all things associated with it. We're happy to answer any and all questions people have, but we thought we would put together a list of the top questions we're asked just about everyday -- if not a few times a day.
How Do You Know If A Wine is Good?
Let's be honest here: the reason people ask this question is so they can learn. When well-intentioned sommeliers like ourselves say, "If you like it, it's good," it's an infuriating answer, not to mention slightly patronizing.
True, if you like it, go for it, but just like art, literature and automobiles, there are quantifiable measures to deciding if a wine is good or not. But also like art, literature and automobiles, the quality is in the mouth of the taster.
Complexity - Complexity refers to the number of aromas and flavours you can pick out in a wine. Generally speaking, the more you can detect, the higher quality the wine.
Balance - Just like in cooking, you want all the elements to match -- nothing to salty, nothing too sweet. In wine, you're looking to see if the alcohol, tannin, residual sugar and acid are all in harmony and nothing sticks weirdly out of proportion.
Concentration - High quality wines have great concentration, meaning aromas, flavours and structure are fairly compact.
Finish - When you swallow the wine, how long does it last on your palate? If the flavour is gone with the wine, it has a short finish; if it lasts for several seconds after the wine has left your mouth, it has a long finish. A long finish is one indicator that the wine may be able to age for a few years and that it's a good wine.
If a wine has these characteristics and no flaws, it's likely a technically good one... which brings us to our next most-asked question:
How Do I Know If A Wine Is Bad?
There are some visual cues like colour of wine (both reds and whites turn amber/brown as they get on in age), and state of the bottle (the cork is leaking, or starting to get pushed out, or crumbling). But while it's good to note the physical appearance, it's not always a true indicator that a wine that is off, so your best bet is to try it.
First, smell it. If it smells like a wet basement, vinegar or baked fruit, it's a no-go, but if you're still unsure, give it a sip and see what happens (most likely, nothing good).
Corked wine smells strongly of cork, with no other aromas (fruit, spice, earth etc.) detectable. It will also taste of cork with few, if any, other flavours.
Oxidized wine tastes flat and almost sherry-like. It's been exposed to oxygen and has likely taken on a darker, brownish hue.
Maderized wine tastes cooked. It's usually because the bottles have been stored in a hot environment for too long and have now taken on the flavours of dried fruits and roasted nuts, similar to fortified wine like Port and Maderia (where the name "maderized" comes from). In fortified wines, these flavours are great; in table wines, they're not.
Fizzy wine. If you get a table wine that's not a sparkling but has bubbles anyway, it's gone. Scientifically speaking, some yeast was still present in the wine after it was bottled and it interacted with the existing sugars and started refermenting. It's not unlike the process of making Champagne, but in still wine, bubbles are a flaw.
When & Why Should I Decant Wine?
The five Ws of decanting can mystify the best of us, and really it comes down to the two reasons why to decant listed below.
To remove sediment - This doesn't happen nearly as much these days as it has in yesteryear, as today's wines are often fined and filtered before bottling. However, some big tannic reds that are getting on in years (say, a decade or more) will start to have tannins "fall out" of the wine and settle at the bottom of the bottle. There's nothing harmful in drinking them, but the texture is unpleasant, not to mention the stuff it leaves on your teeth is not very attractive. To remove the sediment, pour wine slowly into a decanter while shining a candle or flashlight in the neck and shoulder of the bottle so you can see when the sediment start rising up. Stop pouring when you see it nearing the neck.
Aeration - This is the most common reason to decant a wine. Bigger, bolder reds that have spent a good number of years in bottle are often so "tightly wound" the aromas and flavours need to be given a good wake-up call. By pouring the wine from the bottle into a decanter or carafe, you allow a bit of oxygen to mix with the wine just enough to give it the slap on the bottom it needs to perk up.
Most wines that benefit from decanting are big reds like Barolos and Cabernet Sauvignons that are a few years old, though bigger whites like Viognier and Chardonnay can also improve with decanting.
Lighter reds like Pinot Noir or Gamay and wines several decades old rarely benefit from decanting, and can even be harmed by too much exposure to air. So be very careful when deciding to decant.
What's Your Favourite Wine?
This is the question we hate the most. It's like asking us to pick a favourite pair of shoes. Can't be done. We love them all at different times for different reasons: What are we eating? What time of year is it? What's the occasion?
We live in Toronto and are only a few hours away from wine country, so we often look to Ontario for some fantastic bottles, including many of those listed below. Even though we can't crown any one particular bottle as the "favourite," we do have a number in our heavy rotation list.
Riesling - Riesling is great. Not only is it delicious and comes in a variety of style from bone dry to sweet, the high acid level makes it a winner to pair with most foods. From cheese to pork, aromatic Thai to spicy Mexican, this baby's got you covered.
Chardonnay - It's arguably the most widely-grown white wine grape in the world, and for good reason. The grape itself is fairly neutral and it's up to the wine maker to push it in the direction he or she wants. From big, oaky California Chards, to mineral-driven Chablis, Chardonnay comes in all shapes and sizes, and with a bit of fun trial and error, it's easy to find one that's just right for you.
Rosé - We're not talking that sickly sweet White Zinfandel stuff you can buy by the jug from California. If that's your thing, more power to you, but we just can't stomach it.
No, we're talking blush wines more in the style of the South of France. Dry, crisp and elegant, they straddle both the red and white wine worlds: the body and richness of a red with the refreshing crispness of a white.
Rosés are great for sipping with goats cheeses, paired with fritto misto or with Sunday roast chicken.
Dolcetto d'Alba And Barbera d'Alba - These easy drinking reds come from the Alba region in Piedmont, Italy. They're similar in structure -- some argue Barbera is richer and more serious than the easy going Dolcetto, which means "little sweet one" in Italian.
Both taste of chocolate-covered cherries, with light spice and some rustic notes of leather or barnyard, and their bright acidity makes them food-friendly to go with anything from a meat ragu sauce to rich osso buco.
Cabernet Franc - Not everyone loves this grape, but we do. It has the weight and blackberry/cassis flavours of a Cabernet Sauvignon, but the complexity is kicked up a notch with the tobacco leaf and herbacious notes also found in the wine.
GSMs from the Midi - Grenache/Syrah/Mourvèdre for anyone wondering about the initials. Syrah offers spicy dark fruit notes, the Grenache gives power and weight, and Mourvèdre provides a rustic edge of wild herbs, leather and barnyard. GSMs are produced from California to Australia, but we like the Midi -- the hot area in the south of France that is made up of the Languedoc-Roussillon regions -- because it's easy to get mind-blowing, great wines at dirt cheap prices.