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Here are some general questions (with answers) that I hear all the time. If you have a question of your own, please ask and I'll post it here.
  1. What's the best way to quickly chill wine?
  2. How can you tell if a wine is spoiled and can I return it?
  3. What's the best way to open a champagne bottle?
  4. Why do some wines taste sweeter than others? Is there sugar left in the wine?
  5. How long should I wait to drink my Cabs, Merlots, etc.?
  6. Does the vintage really matter?
  7. What's the best way to keep leftover wine from going bad?
  8. What's the deal with screwcaps? Are those really good wines?

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  1. What's the best way to quickly chill wine?
    If you don't have an hour in the fridge, fill an ice bucket or your sink with 1/3 ice and the rest cold water. According to the Mythbusters, adding salt to the water/ice combo will make it cool down even faster. Spin the bottle every minute or so. Takes about 10 minutes.

  2. How can you tell if a wine is spoiled and can I return it?
    Corked wine has a characteristic odor, variously described as resembling a moldy newspaper, wet dog, or damp basement. In almost all cases, the wine's native aromas are reduced significantly, and a very tainted wine is completely undrinkable (though harmless). You can't tell by sniffing the cork. If you pour a glass and smell nothing, then taste nothing but wet cardboard and it doesn't open up with 10-15 minutes of aeration, it's probably corked. Even poorly crafted wine tastes like some form of fruit.

    Corked wine is not pleasant and if you drink enough, you'll come to recognize it pretty quickly. We encounter it at least once or twice a month at our house. If it's a recent purchase from a good wine shop, put the cork back in and return the unused bottle. Most will give you a refund. At a restaurant, talk to the waiter and request a new bottle. It's there loss not yours. However, you can't just return the bottle if it's not what you expected.


  3. What's the best way to open a champagne bottle? I know everyone loves to send the cork flying, however, "popping" the cork is not only dangerous, but can lead to loss of the beverage. The easiest/safest way to remove a cork is to take the metal guard off. Then hold the bottle in one hand and cover the cork with a towel in the other. Slowly twist the cork until it gently pops out. Not as fun, but definitely classier.

  4. Why do some wines taste sweeter than others? Is there sugar left in the wine?
    If it's not classified as a Dessert or Late Harvest wine, then the wine has been fermented dry, which accounts for almost all the wine made today. Some grapes are naturally sweeter tasting than others, like Grenache and Zinfandel. If they're grown in very hot places, they develop high levels of sugar. To make a dry wine, winemakers have to ferment it all out, which accounts for the high levels of alcohol that usually accompany wines that taste "sweet" or as I like to say ripe or fruity. If you don't like to taste fruit in your wine, drink French or Italian wines. Their grapes can't get as ripe and thus aren't the fruit bombs found in many of the New World regions.

  5. How long should I wait to drink my Cabs, Merlots, etc.?
    Most wines are drinkable upon release, but many definitely get better with age. Many wineries offer recommended cellaring times for their wines with the tasting notes. However, if you have the proper storage, here are my recommendations:
    • Cabs, Bordeaux blends, Barolos, Barbarescos, Brunellos: A minimum 5 years after the vintage date. Any wine made with a majority of Cab, Nebbiolo or Sangiovese has a lot of tannin and needs the time to integrate and mellow out. Inexpensive Cabs and Chiantis (under $30) are generally made to drink younger, but in my experience some extra time is necessary to get the true flavor of the wine. If you can hold on for 10+ you're in for a real treat.

    • Syrahs, Merlots, Cab Franc, Petite Sirah, Tempranillo, Pinot Noir, Malbec: These are all less tannic wines than the previous group, so they are more approachable when young. That said, depending on the producer and region, these wines all have the potential to age for quite a long time and are usually better with at least an extra 2-3 years in the bottle and could need 5-7 to reach their full potential.

    • Barbera, Dolcetto, Mourvedre, Grenache and Zinfandel: These are the fruit bombs of the group with softer tannins and acidity. Most are made to drink within a year or two of release. Some have the potential to age longer. As I've recently discovered with my Zins, they lose that powerful punch of fruit I love if you wait more than 2 years to drink them. The ripeness turns into a dried fruit component that can be quite nice, but isn't always a pleasure. The same goes for any high alcohol grenaches (15+%abv.) Drink them sooner rather than later, as once the fruit dies all you'll get is heat.

    • White Wines: Some Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Semillon and Roussannes have the ability to age, but for the most part whites are made to be drunk within 3 years of the vintage date. If the wine wasn't a deep gold color when you bought it, it is long past it's prime and probably won't taste pleasant. Drink Pinot Grigios, Albarinos, Torrontes, Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc when they're young and fresh.

    • After Dinner Wines: Because of the sugar and alcohol levels in most "dessert" wines, they can generally age for a long time and the better examples Sauternes, Vintage Port, Ice Wine, TBAs should be aged as long as you can stand to keep them. Buying these beauties in a half bottle will help shrink the aging time and allow you to discover their riches while you're still relatively young.

  6. Does the vintage really matter?
    The answer is yes. How much depends on the region. Vineyards in the Old World – France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Portugal and the rest of Europe – are subject to the whims of Mother Nature, much more often than the generally sunny climes of the New World (North & South America and the Pacific Rim). Without the right weather at the right time, some areas fight to get the grapes to ripen and you'll taste it in the wine. Though there are differences from year to year in the New World, the fairness of the weather keeps the quality fairly consistent. You may prefer one year to another, but at least they're usually always drinkable. With the Old World off vintages can provide something of a bargain and really great ones (usually 3 a decade) will cost a fortune.

  7. What's the best way to keep leftover wine from going bad?
    Well, I'm embarrassed to admit this is rarely a problem in our house. There's really nothing you can do for free except recork the bottle and place it in your refrigerator, which will slow down the oxidation process a bit. Sometimes doing this overnight will help the wine taste better the next day, as we've often found with French and Italian wines. For a small price, the Vacuvin pump and Private Preserve spray (both force the oxygen out of the bottle) are two systems that work pretty well, as long as you drink the wine within a few days. My suggestion is if you like how the wine tastes as you're drinking it, finish the bottle.

  8. What's the deal with screwcaps? Are they good wines?
    Screwcaps are no longer only used by bulk wine producers. In an effort to eliminate cork taint, some wineries, mostly in New World countries (Australia, Chile, USA, New Zealand), are moving to the Stelvin/screwcap encloser. The cork industry claims that only 1% of all wines are corked. From my experience that number is much higher. The thought behind the screwcap: no cork = no corked wines. How does this affect the aging of wine? For that, we'll have to wait and see. Many believe that without the extremely tiny amount of oxygen let in by a cork, the wines won't properly develop in the bottle. The cap hasn't really been in use long enough by high-end winemakers to determine whether that's true or not. Of course, if you don't want/need the wine to age, it's a much cheaper (cork is very expensive) and presumably cleaner way to go.
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