Storing Wine 101 – Avoiding the Grapes of Wrath

February 26, 2010

Although many wines are made to drink right off the shelf, most benefit from a couple years of careful storage. When I first heard this I decided to try it for myself. I scurried down to the local store, picked up a cheap bottle of white, and set it on top of the refrigerator so that in two years or so, I could take it down and impress a hot date with the heavenly elixir it would certainly become.

The day finally arrived and I poured a glass for the lucky girl. Without knowing it, however, I committed every mistake possible for storing wine and after two years the bottle turned to rancid vinegar. After the first sip, my date’s mouth began to twitch and her jaw silently worked as if she were chewing gum. She tried to speak but no words came; I was reminded of a poorly dubbed 60’s era Kung Fu movie. There was no second date. The experience could have been different had I only known a few key points about wine storage.

First, forget whites. Some will age but trying to store many whites is like drafting the chess champion to play linebacker. Most don’t have the structure for the job. Instead, look for reds like Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, and even Zinfandel.    

Second, store the bottle on its side and in the dark. This part is easy. Find the right spot then walk away and forget it.      

Third, keep your bottle away from vibrations. Refrigerators, generators, or even your roommate’s awesome stereo speakers are enough to affect the aging process of wine. These vibrations may be subtle, but to a bottle of wine, it’s like being attached to one of those machines that tests the suspension on cars.

Fourth, keep your wine in a cool place where the temperature is constant. Think of your wine as a high maintenance girlfriend. If the temperature gets too high or too low, she’ll get sour.

Below are a couple recommendations that will benefit from two to four years of proper storage.

Franciscan 2006, Cabernet Sauvignon ($23.99): Cabernets are one of the ultimate candidates for aging. Flavors of cherries, black currant, and cedar will be fuller and rounder in a few years.

Mandolin 2007, Syrah ($11.99): This wine is loaded with blueberry and black pepper. Aging will mellow the strong tannins and improve the overall balance.

Waiter! A Can of Your Best Wine!

February 17, 2010

People working in the wine industry often tell you that price has nothing to do with the quality of wine. I disagree. An $80 bottle is better than a $3 bottle every time. Having said that, I’ve found many $20 bottles show better than lots of $60 bottles, and many $12 bottles taste better than a lot of $30 bottles. The point is, if you do your homework, under-priced wines are easy to find. Knowing this, I decided to do my homework in the under $4 price range to see if I could find a true gem quietly hiding on the bottom store shelf next to the dusty cork stoppers.  

The requirements for this test were simple: each wine had to come in a regular 750 ml sized bottle, and cost under $4. I wanted to test the cheapest stuff available without going to Mexico. At this price, I could afford to try a lot of candidates so I was fully expecting to have a few good suggestions to pass on. After all the bottles, after all the hope, here is my suggestion: spend more.  

Anyone who tries these products and then claims he doesn’t like wine is like the guy who only rides “It’s a Small World” and claims he doesn’t like Disney World. It only takes another $4 to open the door to so many wonderful and truly top notch wines (I’ve recommended several of them in previous columns). Split the cost with a friend and move up to the next tier. After all the tasting, I arrived at only two wines under $4 that I can name here. One just makes the cut while the other is the big surprise of the entire experiment.

Crane Lake 2008, Cabernet Sauvignon ($3.99): I’ll give a slight nod to this bottle. If you’ve just lost a bet and need to save that $4, the structure in this wine is slightly bolder and more complex than the other similarly priced wines. But that’s really like saying it’s the valedictorian at summer school.

Charles Shaw (Three Buck Chuck) 2007, Sauvignon Blanc ($2.99):  This is the one bright star of all the wines sampled. Filled with citrus and summer, its acidity is nicely balanced. A crisp finish leaves just enough fruit and a hint of sweetness. Let me be clear, this is not just the best of a weaker lineup; this is a darn good wine.

Fear and Loathing in the Liquor Store

February 9, 2010

“Can you pick up a bottle of wine? I’m making chicken.”

Hearing those words is all it takes for the facial tics to begin. Pick the right one and I’m the hero. Pick the wrong one and it’s like I’m the guy wearing white socks with the tuxedo. Too much pressure! I step into my local liquor store, gazing at the labyrinth of wine racks, feeling the same dread as when I look at the mountain of snow that the plow makes at the bottom of the driveway. I take a few more steps past the Argentinean wines and my brain begins to make that noise the car makes when you try to start it after it’s already turned on. My heart beats faster. I walk further, past the Malbec and I see that scary clown from Stephen King’s movie It standing by the Chianti. Through brown and crooked teeth he spits out the phrase, “Red with beef! White with fish and chicken!” Does that old rule still apply? I begin to lose my nerve. With sweat pouring down my face I panic. I bolt past the Merlot, past the Chardonnay, and past the clown. In a few short seconds I’m safe once again in the beer section. Looks like it’s beer with chicken again tonight.

It shouldn’t be this hard. Choosing a wine for dinner shouldn’t feel like a meeting with the IRS guy. Below is a quick guide that will get you through many common dinners.

Steak/Cabernet Sauvignon: Many times Cabernet goes with food like cats go with vacuum cleaners but steak and Cabernet is a classic. Try Sebastiani 2008, Cabernet Sauvignon ($17.99).

Salmon/Pinot Noir: Yes, a red with fish. Pinot goes with most anything so if you’re on the spot in a restaurant in front of the in-laws, Pinot is a safe bet. Try Castle Rock 2008, Pinot Noir ($10.99).

Italian food/Chianti or Zinfandel: A good rule of thumb is to drink wine from the same region that the food comes from. Chianti works with most tomato sauces. Zinfandel is spicy enough to pair perfectly with spicy sausage. Try DaVinci 2007, Chianti ($13.99) or McManis 2007, Zinfandel ($12.99).

Pork/Chardonnay: Pork just works with Chardonnay. In addition, so many creamy sauces and rich herbs used with pork do, too. It’s like the guy dating the cute girl. If it doesn’t work with her, there’s always her hot sister. Try Chateau St. Jean 2008, Chardonnay ($13.99).

A Few Good Blends

February 1, 2010

When I was growing up there was a family in my neighborhood with eight kids. I remember one of them captained the high school volleyball team, graduated near the top of her class, and became a dentist. Another from the same family is serving time for holding up a gas station. According to the story, he locked the keys inside the getaway car. It’s funny the diversity you can get from exactly the same parents. Blending wine is just the same. When mixing the components together, the goal is to get the product to inherit the best qualities from each of the parent grapes. The project’s success depends not only on the quality of the parent wines but also on the skill of the wine maker. There are no guarantees. A skilled wine maker recognizes a weakness in the juice and adds a little wine from a grape known to be strong in that area. The result, hopefully, is a wine that is greater than the sum of its parts. True, some blends turn out to be thugs, but the ones listed below lean heavily to the dentist side.

Fifth Leg 2007, White Wine ($10.99): The three varietals in this wine give fantastic aromas of butter, lemon, and oil. I know the oil part may sound weird but how many times have you been tempted to try the suntan lotion at the beach because it smelled delicious?   

Clos LaChance 2005, Meritage Red Wine ($15.99): Five different grapes go into this blend. If you’re interested in Bordeaux style wine without paying the price that typically goes with them, this wine is for you. The softer tannins and structure are packaged perfectly with red fruit to show a wine that tastes like it’s been cellared for over a decade. It’s great with steak, lamb, or just on its own.

Chateau St. Jean 2004, Cinq Cepages ($59.99): Yes, that’s a big price tag but if you’re trying to impress someone who’s out of your league this just might get you there. Although the label says Cabernet Sauvignon, there are five varietals in this juice. It’s loaded with bigger, masculine flavors of tobacco, cedar, and leather. It even shows a huge amount of oak, something that often overpowers a wine. This time, however, the oak is integrated nicely. It’s like the champion wrestler who can wear a good suit and speak well at parties.

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