Wine Basics


Most white wines should be served chilled to about 50°F to 60°F, while Champagne and sparkling wines should be served a little cooler at 40°F to 50°F. Most red wines should be served at about 60°F to 65°F, while Beaujolais should be served cooler at about 50°F to 60°F. (The typical wine cellar temperature is 55°F, while a refrigerator is normally about 37°F.) White wines may be chilled in the refrigerator for about two hours before serving, while reds will benefit from about one-half hour of chilling. Wines that are served too cold will lack aroma.

Rather than refrigerating ahead of time to cool the wines, an ice bucket may be used. The bucket should be filled with half ice, and half cold water, and should be deep enough to allow submersion of the bottle to the neck. The time required to chill red wines in an ice bucket is about 5 minutes, Beaujolais 15 minutes, 15 to 25 minutes for whites, and 30 minutes for Champagne and sparkling wines.

Order of Tasting

Tasting should begin with white wines, and then move on to the red wines. Wines should be tasted in order of body-style, starting with light, then medium, and then full-bodied. (Light-bodied wines have the lowest alcoholic content, while full-bodied wines have the highest alcoholic content.) For whites, the order should be Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and then Chardonnay. For reds, the tasting order would be Pinot Noir, Merlot, and then Cabernet Sauvignon. Other orders of importance are from dry to sweet, from young to old, from high acidity to low acidity, from light oak to strong oak, and from low tannins to high tannins.


Lighter-bodied wines will be lighter in color (e.g., a Sauvignon Blanc is lighter than a Chardonnay, and a Pinot Noir is lighter than a Cabernet Sauvignon). Raise the glass in front of a white background (such as a dinner napkin), and tilt the wine away from you, noticing the color near the rim. Check for both color and clarity. A wine that has a brownish tinge is probably oxidized, and should be avoided.

Before You Sip

Swirl the wine in the glass to release the aromas. This practice is known as aerating, and helps mix the wine with air. Notice the droplets of moisture falling back into the glass. Strong and sweet wines stick to the glass, forming “legs” as they flow back into the wine. This is due to the higher alcohol level in certain wines, which adheres to the glass. Raise the glass to your nose and smell the aromas or bouquet of the wine. This is an important part of enjoying a glass of wine, as taste begins with smell.

Aroma and Flavor

For a young wine the aromas are actually the smell of the grapes, intensified by the fermentation process. Older wines develop more complexities (and therefore aromas and tastes) than do young wines. Smelling the aromas of wine will enhance the flavors soon to come with the first sip. Once in the mouth, the tastebuds can detect a variety of flavors and textures, such as fruitiness, acidity, bitterness and tannins. Wine should be held in the mouth for a few seconds, and even swirled about, to release its flavors. After swallowing the wine, take note of the remaining flavor, which is often referred to as the “finish.” Good wines will have a lingering, pleasant finish, whereas lesser wines may have none at all or even leave an objectionable flavor in one’s mouth.

The different aromas and flavors emitted by wine run the gamut from fruit to vegetables to tobacco and leather. Elements that create the various flavors and aromas of wine include: the varietal of the grape(s) used, the region and vineyard in which the grapes were grown, the fermentation process including type of barrel used, the aging process, and the various additives and methods used in the creation of the wine.

Fruitiness is an important characteristic when tasting wine. Some of the more typical fruit flavors found in white wines include apples, pears, citrus, peaches, melons, pineapples and mangos. Red wines feature fruit flavors such as red currants, red cherries, black cherries, black currants, blueberries, blackberries, plums, figs, raisins and prunes.

Cool region wines generally have more acidity than wines grown in warmer regions. Heat produces a higher sugar level, decreasing the acidity level. Higher acidity wines taste crisper, and often work very well accompanying many dishes. White grapes generally have a higher acidity than do red. A good example of a varietal high in acidity in Sauvignon Blanc.

Many wines, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, are made through the process of barrel fermentation and/or barrel aging. The time that the wine is exposed to the oak barrels determines the degree of oak flavor in the final product. Oak barrels may be made of American oak, or French oak, each of which imparts a particular flavor in the wine. Also of importance is the size of the barrel, with the smaller barrels resulting in a greater amount of oak flavoring of the wine. During the production of oak barrels, the wood is heated by fire and the interior becomes toasted. The more charring of the wood, the stronger the presence of oak flavor will be in the finished wine. Wines aged in oak for a good length of time will darken a wine, produce a stronger aroma, result in a richer taste of vanilla, and cause a fuller body texture.

Most wines can generally be classified as “dry,” meaning without sweetness (or low residual sugar). Those wines that are sweet include dessert wines such as Sauternes and Port, and wines labeled as “late harvest.”


Tannin is a naturally occurring component of the skins, seeds and stems of wine grapes. It is present most often in red wines, where the juice soaks in the skins to obtain the red color. During the aging process, the tannins bond with the color pigment in the wine and then settle as a deposit in the bottom of the bottle. Tannins result in an astringent, dry texture while drinking the wine. Generally, the deeper the red color of wine, the higher level of tannins present. As Cabernet Sauvignon grapes have the thickest skins, the wine is most tannic. In the making of White Zinfandel, the wine is made with very limited contact with the skins, resulting in a light blush wine with little tannins. Wines with heavy tannins, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, and Red Bordeaux, often improve and soften with age, allowing time for the tannins to integrate with the wine. Such wines often produce sediment, which settles to the bottom of the bottle. These wines should be decanted to leave behind the sediment when pouring into the glass. Wines with a lower tannin level will feel smooth, soft and silky, while those with a higher level will seem firm and more structured.

Storing Wine

Wine bottles should be stored on their side, to ensure the cork stays moist. Dry corks can become damaged, and allow your precious wine to leak out, resulting in oxidation of the contents.

Most white wines should be drunk within two years from their vintage year (the year the grapes were harvested as shown on their bottles), while many reds should be drunk within three years from their vintage date. An exception to this rule applies to those wines with a high tannin content, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Red Bordeaux, which may be stored for many years. The tannins (a natural byproduct from the grape skins) soften as the wine ages, further enhancing its flavor. Other European wines, such as some Red Burgundies, vintage Port, Champagne, and Sauternes may also improve with prolonged bottle aging.

After opening a bottle of wine, the bottle must be refrigerated. The cork should be placed back into the wine bottle, and it should last about two days in your refrigerator. Rather than just reinserting the cork, it is better to use a stopper and evacuation device. The wine should last about four days. Another solution to retard the spoilage of the partially consumed wine is to purchase a wine-preserving device that uses inert gas, and then inserting a stopper. This kind of device will allow storage of wine in the refrigerator for at least a week, so would be a good solution for very expensive wine.

For long term storage of wine, over three years or so, the ideal environment is 55° Fahrenheit, with between 60% – 75% humidity, and an environment free from vibration. There are many wine storage solutions available for long term storage of your fine wines. For short-term storage, a cool dark space with a steady temperature is best. Temperature swings can cause damage to the wine, as can vibration. A ride in the car to a friend’s home can actually cause damage to a wine, but once set upright for awhile, the wine will return to its original condition. This phenomenon is sometimes known as “travel shock.” Wines that have a fuller body such as Cabernet Sauvignon, are less apt to be affected by travel.

Wines that benefit from long term storage include Red Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon and Rhone Style Reds. In some cases, these wines may be cellared for up to 30 years or more. Most other wines will not benefit from long term storage, and in many instances, will deteriorate with age. Most experts do not generally recommend purchasing wine for its investment value, as wine prices fluctuate over time. If you choose to do so, the large format bottles, such as Magnums, are most valuable, as their large volume allows the wine to age more slowly, thus holding their value longer.

“Corky” or “Corked” Wine

Occasionally, a bottle of wine may be contaminated by a fungus-infected cork. This can result in what is referred to as “corky” wine, or “corked” wine. This situation is somewhat prevalent, with some experts estimating that as many as 5% to 10% of wines having this problem. Screw caps and synthetic corks would prevent this problem, and much of the industry is headed in that direction. Corked wine will have a musty, moldy smell and taste, somewhat like wet cardboard or mushrooms, and should be returned to the place of purchase for a refund.


Exposure to extreme heat, severe temperature fluctuations, as well as damage or deterioration of the cork, can lead to oxidation of the wine. Such a wine will be thin and lose aroma and flavor. To check for oxidation, raise your glass of wine to a white background. The color should be free from browning, a sure sign of oxidation. Some experts predict that as much as 25% of wine sold in the U.S. has been damaged due to exposure to extreme heat.

One sign of possible wine damage is a raised cork. Such a condition is caused when the wine has gotten too warm, and the contents of the bottle expand, pushing upward on the cork. This allows oxygen to enter the bottle and may cause spoilage of the wine (oxidation).

When the cork is removed from a bottle of wine, it should be inspected to ensure that the bottom is moist with wine, but that this moisture has not run the length of the cork to the top. Such a condition indicates that the seal has been lost, and the wine would be subject to oxidation. (It is not necessary to smell the cork, as there is no useful purpose in doing so.)

Another sign of a wine problem is that the fill line has dropped. The typical wine level in the bottle is into the neck. A lower fill level indicates wine leakage or evaporation, which often results in oxidation of the wine. Very old wines may have a slight decrease in the fill level due to their age. Wines that are less than four years old with greater than one half inch of air space (ullage) between the cork and the liquid level of the bottle generally indicates a problem. Normally, about one eighth inch of fill space is created during the bottling process.

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