questions and answers
These are some of the readers' questions from my Sunday
Express column, together with my answers
Q. Why are so many red
wines oak aged, especially those from Spain and Australia? As someone
who recently gave up smoking a pipe my taste buds are greatly improved
and, as a result, I fine that oak aged wines taste sour and
A. Youíre right. Oak
ageing has become extremely popular in recent years, and Spain and
Australia are the chief culprits. Overoaked wines are nasty and I
canít stand them Ė I find they tend to be dominated by sweet
vanilla and coconut flavours, together with the bitterness you
describe. But at the right levels, a bit of oak can add some spicy
interest. Itís a question of balance. Fortunately, the trend in both
Spain and Australia these days is to use less oak, although Iím
afraid itís hard to tell from the label whether a particular wine is
going to be oaky or not.
Q. I often find plastic corks hard to remove.
Whatís the best way of getting them out?
A. I agree, they can be a problem. I avoid using my
normal corkscrew (a screwpull lever device) because the worm (the
technical term for the screw bit) is coated with teflon to make it
easier to get it in and out of the cork, and plastic corks tend to
strip this teflon layer off. So I use a good old fashioned corkscrew
and pull hard. It wonít be a solution for everyone, though, because
it does require a good deal of effort. This is where a Ďwaiterís
friendí style of corkscrew, which has a bit on the side that acts as
a lever against the lip of the bottle, could come in handy. The good
news is that the newer synthetic corks are much easier to extract than
their predecessors. Unfortunately, thereís no way of knowing what
sort of cork is in the bottle when you buy it.
Q. Iíve inherited a dozen old bottles of wine from
my father. Is there any way I can find out how much they are worth?
A. The simple answer is that theyíre worth as much as
someone is willing to pay for them, which may be a little less than
how much you see the same wines for sale on the likes of www.wine-searcher.com,
which should give you a rough guide. The important bit is how well the
wines have been stored, which is called provenance, and this will
affect the value. The two routes to selling old wines are through an
auction house (such as Sothebyís or Christies) or a fine wine broker
(such as Berry Brothers & Rudd, Seckford Wines or Corney &
Barrow). Just a word of warning: itís only the very best wines that
improve in value with age, so donít get your hopes up too high.
Q. I like my white wines to have some sweetness to
them, and for a long time Iíve been buying German wines. But I
bought a German Riesling recently that was quite dry, and it was in
the same tall, thin bottle as the sweet German wines I usually prefer.
This is confusing.
A. As youíve realized, German wines arenít always
sweet, or even off-dry. And the bottle shape is no guide to the
sweetness level. Usually, supermarket wines will have an indication of
the sweetness on the back label, often on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5
being the sweetest. If thereís no back label, drier styles will
likely have the word ĎTrockení on the front label, which is German
for Ďdryí. Dry German Rieslings are becoming increasingly popular,
but there are still plenty of sweeter styles around.
Q.What is the etiquette when friends bring a bottle
for dinner? Should we serve it, or are we supposed to keep it for
A. If someone brings a bottle as a gift, then thatís
what it is, and it is entirely up to you what to do with it. If
youíve already chosen the wines for dinner, perhaps with a view to
matching them with the food, then it is perfectly acceptable to thank
them profusely for it and put it to one side. However, they may have
brought a special bottle they are keen to try, in which case I would
open it: you might want to ask them whether the wine is intended for
drinking now or keeping. Itís a question of being sensitive, and
polite, and then you canít go far wrong.
all this talk about global warming, does this mean that in 50 years
time the UK might be producing wines as serious as those from France?
A: Nobody knows for sure what the consequences of
global warming will be. It could be that weíll enjoy warmer summers,
and this would certainly be good news for winegrowers in rather
marginal cool areas such as the UK. But then others are suggesting
that thereís a risk that the Atlantic conveyor, the current of warm
water known as the Gulf Stream, could slow down or stop. This is what
gives the UK its relatively mild climate considering its northerly
latitude. If this happened, then it would be the end of viticulture in
the UK and many other parts of northern Europe. So it could be good
news or bad news for the 200-odd vineyards currently operating in the
Q: Can you recommend a really good, affordable Port?
A: Yes. The very top ports, known as ĎVintageí or
ĎSingle Quintaí are quite expensive Ė expect to pay in excess of
£20 for these, and often a lot more. But the best Late Bottled
Vintage (LBV) Ports are a lot cheaper and can be almost as good. The
one I would recommend is Quinta do Novalís Unfitltered LBV Port
1999, which is £10.99 in Oddbins. Itís great for current drinking,
and will probably improve with a few years in the cellar.
I quite fancy making my own wine. What is the best way to start?
You could start with a kit, which includes grape juice concentrate,
but why not go the whole hog and grow your own grapes? The English
weather is a bit cool and damp for most wine grape varieties, but if
you use the right onesósuch as Bacchus, Rondo, Phoenix and Seyval
Blancóresults can be pretty good. After all, there are more than 200
commercial vineyards in the UK. Iíd recommend visiting one (there
are plenty near where you live) and asking lots of questions.
anyone still drink sherry?
Apart from maiden aunts and elderly university professors, you mean?
Yes, they do, but itís still an underappreciated drink. There are
lots of different styles to explore, and as long as you stick to
proper sherry, and avoid the hideous sweet manufactured concoctions
known as British Sherry and Cyprus Sherry, quality is pretty
consistent. First, thereís Fino and Manzanilla, which taste very
similar: they are fresh, dry and tangy, with a slight saltiness. These
are the sherries that work best at the table, and theyíre the ones
to drink with tapas and soups. Then we have Amontillado, which is a
bit darker and nuttier, but still dry, and Oloroso, which is darker
and a bit richer, with more raisin and toffee character. ĎCreamí
sherries are sweeter and lighter, and made for the British palate.
Q: We had a really good CŰtes du RhŰne when we
were on holiday this year. It was the 2004 vintage. However, since
weíve been back weíve tried a couple of these and they donít
taste the same. Why not?
A: CŰtes du RhŰne is the name of the appellation Ė
the French term for the local vineyard area where the wine comes from.
Within each appellation there are usually many hundreds of producers
who are all entitled to use the name on their label, and the quality
of their wines varies wildly, although they are supposed to all be
made from the same grapes in similar ways. The thing to look for,
therefore, is the producerís name Ė itís the best guide to
quality. French wine can be quite confusing!
Q: One of the wines you recommended was a 2004, but
I could only find the 2003 in my local store. How much does the year
A: It depends where the wines come from. In the classic
northern European wine regions, such as Burgundy and Bordeaux,
vintages matter a lot, because thereís considerable weather
variation from year to year, and wine quality varies significantly. In
countries such as Australia, South Africa and Chile, there is some
vintage variation, but much less, and for many commercial wines which
are blended to a particular style, vintage variation is hardly an
issue at all. But for most cheap wines, the best advice is to drink
the youngest wine possible, because it will generally be fresher and
Q: Iíve seen some wine producers describe
themselves as biodynamic on their labels. What does this mean?
A: Biodynamics is a form of organic farming, but it
goes well beyond organics by using a series of special
homeopathic-like preparations and tying-in the timing of vineyard work
with phases of the planets. To those used to scientific-based
agriculture, it seems a bit weird Ė spooky even Ė but wine growers
who employ biodynamics seem to care deeply about their vineyards, and
this probably helps them get good results. Typically, producers who
have tried it have stuck with it despite the increased labour costs,
because their wines have improved.
Q: Whatís the best way of preserving a
half-full bottle of Champagne? I assume the old trick of putting a
silver teaspoon in the neck of the open bottle is nonsense.
A: You are right: people think the silver spoon
method works because even an open bottle of Champagne will still be
quite fizzy the next day, and they donít make the comparison.
Because itís impossible to reinsert a Champagne cork, just stick a
normal cork (if you have one lying around) back in and then put the
bottle back in the fridge. Itís usually fine the next day, but
itís still drinkable the day after even. You can buy specialized
stoppers for open Champagne bottles, but they donít work any better.
Q: I donít have a cellar, so I stack my bottles of
wine in a number of wine racks on the ground floor. As I was stowing
away 50 bottles last week, I remembered I had once read Ė or perhaps
someone had told me Ė that one should stack the white wine above the
red wine, as red wine is more sensitive to light than white wine. Is
this true, or doesnít it matter? Iíve been fretting about this for
A: All wine, red and white, is sensitive to light.
Fortunately, most wine bottles are made of coloured glass, which helps
to cut down on transmission of the ultraviolet light frequencies that
are most damaging to quality, with brown glass offering better
protection than green. Still, intense light can damage wine of any
colour. However, Iíd only really be concerned if the bottles are
ever in a position where they are exposed to direct sunlight, for
example light shining through a window at particular times of day. If
this isnít the case, and you arenít planning to store the bottles
for decades, then you can relax.
Q: My boyfriend told me that a fail safe way to
judge wine quality is by the depth of the punt on the bottle. Is he
having me on?
A: Sort of. The size of the punt Ė the indentation at
the bottom of the bottle Ė varies widely. Its purpose is uncertain:
some people reckon it was originally introduced to make it easier for
the earliest hand-blown bottles to stand upright; others reckon its
function was to trap sediment. Some ambitious producers use heavy
bottles with big punts to give the impression of quality, and the
cheapest bottles used for everyday wine tend to have no punt at all,
so I guess there might be a loose correlation between punt size and
quality Ė but only a very loose one.
going on holiday in striking distance of Burgundy later this summer.
Weíd quite like to visit the vineyards and wineries. Can you just
turn up or do you have to book in advance?
A: Burgundy is a pretty wine region, and itís
wonderful to be able to see some of the most famous (and expensive)
vineyards in the world close up. Itís also quite complex, with many
hundreds of small growers and negociants. How serious are you about
wine? If you are a hardened wine nut with quite a bit of knowledge,
then visiting a small domaine (which will have to be by appointment)
will probably be the most rewarding experience. If you would rather
look at some of the vineyards and do a more general tasting, then the
large negociants which make dozens of wines from across the whole
region will probably be more appropriate (and less intimidating). If
you have internet access, itís worth looking at the official website
for the region, www.bourgogne-wines.com
(or phone 0033 3802 50480). In general, the more homework you do
before you travel, the more rewarding your visit will be.
Q: Last week I fell for some wines I tasted in
the Baden district of Germany but because I was on a Rhine cruise was
unable to stock up with more than 2 or 3 bottles to bring home. I have
got very competitive prices from the Breisach wine cellar for shipping
cases of 6 to me in Kent but am unable to find out about customs
procedures. Is there a personal duty-free allowance for wines
bought in the EC at full local duty paid prices and imported here for
personal consumption, equivalent to the 90 litres available when
bringing it in in person? R Taylor, by e-mail
A: Bad news, Iím afraid. Unless you import the
wine personally (either by carrying it with you in your luggage or in
the boot of your car), you must pay UK excise duty (currently just
over a pound a bottle) and VAT on the whole lot (the cost of the wine
plus the duty).
I heard that a doctor in England recently prescribed his patients
wine. Who was he, and can I get my doctor to do the same?
This was consultant cardiologist Dr William McCrea, who prescribed two
glasses of red wine a day to his heart patients in a Swindon hospital,
after studies showed that if people who have had a heart attack drink
moderate amounts of red wine, this reduces their chance of getting a
second heart attack by 50%. The wine in question was a Chilean
Cabernet Sauvignon. I doubt whether your GP will issue you a
prescription for a case of red wine, but you can always ask!
I drink quite a bit: how much can I drink without damaging my health?
First of all, Iím not a doctor: if you have any concerns about how
your drinking might be affecting your health, you should visit your
GP. Beyond this, the answer is unclear. Itís hard to give precise
limits because people differ in their ability to metabolize alcohol
(big people can drink a lot more than smaller ones, and irrespective
of size, men can drink more than women), and because most people
under-report their drinking to doctors (either intentionally or
unintentionally). For what they are worth, government guidelines are
that healthy drinking limits are 21 units per week for men and 14 for
women, where 1 unit is a standard drink (many drinks have this on the
label now; itís equivalent to a small glass of wine or half a pint
of weak beer). I think these guidelines are a little on the
conservative side, but if you are drinking significantly more you will
have an increased risk of health problems such as high blood pressure,
certain cancers, cardiomyopathy, liver cirrhosis and accidents.
A couple of years ago we were given a bottle of Dowís Late Bottled
Vintage Port 1997 by some friends. Should we drink it now or will it
improve with cellaring?
This is a wine for
drinking now. Vintage Ports (which are very expensive) are bottled
after just two years in cask and are meant to be aged for many years
in bottle before drinking. In contrast, Late Bottle Vintage Ports are
aged for a number of years in cask so that they are ready to drink
when they are bottled: generally, these wonít improve with
cellaring, and are best drunk within a couple of years of purchase.
Q: I enjoy white wine,
but it takes me three or four days to drink a bottle. Whatís the
best way of preserving the wine? Iíve seen some use vacuum pumps Ė
do these work?
A: There are a number of
devices on the market for preserving wine. The one you mention,
Vacuvin, tries to do this by sucking all the air out to prevent
oxidation (the harmful effect oxygen in the air has on wine). I have
tried this but I donít think it works. Itís likely that the oxygen
that dissolves in the wine as you pour a few glasses is enough to
cause damage, so taking out the air from a half full bottle isnít
going to protect it. This is also the idea behind another preserving
device which squirts in an inert (non-reactive) gas such as nitrogen
into the space left by the consumed wine. It doesnít really work
either, in my opinion. So the best bet in your case is to simply
recork the bottle and pop it back in the fridge. It should be fine for
three or four days. I find that opened reds donít live as long and
are best drunk within a day or two.
Q: Why are there so many different wines to choose
from? My local supermarket is quite a small one, but even that has
what looks like 200 wines on the shelves. It makes it hard to choose.
A: Good point. It reflects the diversity of wine, and
the way that even within the same country, wines made from different
regions and different grape varieties can taste quite different. Add
into the mix that within each region there are loads of producers,
some good, some less so, and the complexity spirals. If a supermarket
wants to have a selection that encompasses the main wine producing
countries, it will end up with a wide selection. Even if you really
know your stuff, choosing can be difficult, and no one has found a
sensible way of making selecting wine any easier, other than expert
recommendations and special offers. I guess this keeps people like me
in a job!
Q: We were recently driving through France and we
noticed workers in the vineyards pruning the vines back to virtually
nothing. They left the vines as almost bare trunks. Why is this
A: It seems pretty brutal, doesnít it? But experience
has taught winegrowers that treating their vines mean keeps them keen.
When they prune hard, leaving just a small number of buds on each
vine, it massively enhances the quality of the grapes that are
produced. Without pruning, vines would concentrate most of their
energies into producing dense foliage with lots of small bunches of
grapes that would be unlikely to ripen properly. Also, the dense
canopy would encourage the development of fungal diseases.
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