Wine Q&A – Part 1
Q: How many harvests do you get a year?
Just one, starting around September in the northern hemisphere and March in the southern hemisphere. The harvest of fruit is gathered and taken to the winery, and the whole cycle begins again with the vine dormant over winter and bursting back into life in spring.
Q: How much wine does a vine produce?
It depends on many factors including the vine’s age, the variety being grown, the growing conditions, the style of wine being made and, importantly, the quality of the wine. The volume of fruit harvested is determined by natural factors and the hand of the winemaker: removing bunches during the growing season concentrates the remaining fruit, and is a common practice for quality wines. It takes just over a kilo of grapes to produce enough juice for one bottle of wine, but depending on the factors above one vine might produce enough fruit for just a single bottle of high quality wine, or enough for several bottles.
Q: What are sulphites?
Sulphites are organic compounds that occur naturally in grapes and many other fruits and vegetables. But sulphur dioxide is also added to wine as an anti-oxidant and anti-bacterial agent to prevent the wine from going off. The levels are extremely low, but some winemakers are trying to avoid adding extra sulphur dioxide, though this does run the risk of wines spoiling more quickly.
Q: What does the year on the label mean?
This is the year the grapes were harvested, not the year the wine is released. Almost all quality table wines are the product of a single year, though blending of two or more vintages is common in some wines like Champagne and Sherry, and in some inexpensive wines. A very few top-end wines are multi-vintage too, like Vega Sicilia’s Unico for example.
Q: What is tannin?
Tannin is a compound extracted from grapes skins, pips and stems and is most noticeable in red wines where there is most skin contact during winemaking. Tannin is also contributed from new oak barrels. The way the wine is made can influence how much tannin and other phenolic compounds (like colour pigment for example) is extracted from the grapes and ends up in the wine. Tannin is a preservative that enables wine to age and which gives a wine structure and texture. With age tannins become more rounded and polished.
Q: What exactly are ‘legs’ and what do they tell you?
There’s a common belief that ‘legs’ – the rivulets of wine that run down the inside of the glass after you swirl it – is an indication of alcohol level and quality, but it is not so simple as that. The cleanliness of the glass and the viscosity of the wine can also cause differences in the ‘legs’, so it is not a foolproof indicator of high alcohol or quality.
Q: How do you know how long to lay down a wine and when is the best time to drink it?
That is a tough question and impossible to answer with a blanket definition. The vast majority of wines are made for immediate consumption, but will also be good to drink for a couple of years. In general, red wines age better than whites and certain grape varieties and wine styles age better than others: wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Port wines can be very long-lived for example. Whether such wines improve with age is a subjective opinion: older wines trade some of their fruit and vibrancy for developed flavours, and it is a trade-off that some like more than others. Jonathan also believes that traditionally made wines – made without too much technology – generally have a superior ageing capacity.
Q: Should you always decant red wines?
It is rarely necessary to decant a red wine: in most cases you can simply open, pour and enjoy. But many people believe young wines that are very tight and appear ‘closed’ can benefit from being decanted and exposed to oxygen. Some older wines throw a sediment in the bottle which is unpleasant to drink, so decanting these off the sediment can make them easier to pour for guests.
Q: At what temperatures should you serve red and white wines?
Again, few people will bother to measure temperature with a thermometer, but as a rule of thumb whites are often served too cold and reds too warm: many white wines, like serious white Burgundies, are best just very lightly chilled, whilst some reds – not just Beaujolais but bigger, more structured reds – can taste better if kept cool before serving. Sparkling wines should always be served well chilled. As a guideline, still white wines will show best around 7-9 degrees, and reds around 17-19 degrees Celsius.
Q: How do you know a wine is “Estate Produced”?
That information is usually featured on the label, though sometime it needs a bit of de-coding! In classic French regions words like “Mis en Bouteille en Château” or “au Domaine” literally say the wine is ‘estate bottled’, whilst in Germany the word ‘Erzeugerabfüllung’ means much the same. In English-speaking nations the term “Estate wine” or, specifically, something like “Estate Chardonnay,” is sometimes used. Champagne is a special case, where the code letters RM indicate the wine was made by a ‘récoltant-manipulant’, someone who grew the grapes and made the wine. ‘NM’ on the other hand, indicates ‘négociant-manipulant’, normally one of the big houses that has bought grapes and parcels of wine to make its production. Some regions have historically separated the farmers who grow the grapes and the technicians who make the wines, like Champagne, Rioja and Port for example. It is not necessarily an indication of inferiority that a wine is not estate bottled: many great wines are made from fruit purchased from expert growers.