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Wine 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 unpleasant.

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 later?

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.

Q:  With 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 UK.

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. 

Q: I quite fancy making my own wine. What is the best way to start?

A: 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.

Q:Does anyone still drink sherry?

A: 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 matter?

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 more interesting.

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 years.

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.

Q:  Weíre 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).

Q: 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?

A: 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!

Q: I drink quite a bit: how much can I drink without damaging my health?

A: 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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 necessary?

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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