Is old wine better? What about screw-tops? Here are the wine questions you were too afraid to ask, answered. Asked by Beck and answered by Nathalie.
There is no such thing as a stupid question. But that doesn’t us feeling daft asking a question we assume we should know, or that everyone already knows!
But this is a safe place, no judgement here. So here are the wine questions you were too afraid to ask, answered. Asked by Beck and answered by Nathalie.
Is old wine better?
It’s a common misconception that all wines improve with age. Wines do change with age. Some get better, some don’t. For starters, most of the wines on the market are designed to be drunk young (between 1-5 years) like a fresh, crisp New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. These wines won’t benefit from being stuck in a dark cellar or cupboard (in our case) for years.
Wines that do age better will dependent on their type, where and how they were made, the weather and even how they have been stored. The general rule of thumb here is that tannin (see below) and acidity (that stuff that gets your salvia glands going) plays a big part in ageing, and therefore red wines – with high levels of tannin and good acidity – will generally age longer and better than whites.
What is the taste difference between old and young wine?
Imagine two red wine glasses in front of you. Both are made from the same grapes, place, and producer, but one is ten years older than the other. The first glass looks bright and smells like fresh berries, tastes slightly sharp or tart, and has lots of that dry mouth feel. The other’s colour is slightly muted, and it has a more earthy, pruney, and leathery smell. The fruitiness is still there, but its taste is subtle while these other flavours come through.
If you tried the same test with a wine that is meant to be drunk young, the older wine would probably lack much taste and the fresh fruit would have faded along with the colour.
What exactly is tannin?
Unless you are a chemist and understand what “polyphenolic compounds” are – no, me neither – it is easier to think about tannin as a texture – that slightly bitter, dry mouth sensation you usually get with big red wines. You may hear wine-knows describe it like black tea or a green banana.
Tannin come from grape skins, seeds and stems, as well as oak barrels. Grapes soaked in their skins for longer times (a process that helps a wine get its colour and flavour), and then oaked, will have more tannin.
Tannin is important in wine because, while it doesn’t have any aromas itself, it reacts to modules in the wine and any oxygen that manages seeps in, creating more complex and subtle smells and flavours. The longer this happens the more flavours develop while the bitterness subsides.
What is the deal with screw-tops? Does it signal cheap wine?
There are certain types of wine you nearly always see with a screw-top – Austrian Grüner Veltliner, NZ Sauvignon Blanc – in fact, many wineries now use screw-tops and it is by no means an indication of quality.
There are different closures for wine and unless you are going high-end and have a wine for ageing, most wines won’t have a 100% nature cork, rather something in-between (cork dust and glue) or plastic and resembling cork.
My wine tastes sweet, but I was told it was dry. Eh?
Sweetness is a complicated thing. A wine can be technically dry, but its bold fruit flavours can give the impression it’s a sweet wine. Wines from warmer countries tend to be riper, more alcoholic and fruitier – and an Australian Shiraz is a good example of something that is fruity sweet but technically dry. Even wines which have low acidity– like a Gewurztraminer – can be mistaken for being slightly sweet.
Unless it is obviously a fortified wine, it can be hard to tell if a wine has any sweetness by the label. If in doubt (and this doesn’t also equate) look at the alcohol levels – low alcohol tends to mean the yeast did not finish the job (of converting sugar to alcohol) and more sugar is therefore present.
How do you get bubbles in sparkling?
There are different ways to get bubbles depending on the sparkling wine type. But the traditional method, used for the likes of Champagne, Cava, Crémant and English Sparkling, is extremely labour-intensive and the most expensive method.
All sparkles are made from a base wine – usually tarter and sharper than standard wine as grapes are picked earlier to keep those acidity levels high. After the base wine is bottled, sugar and yeast is added to the mix. As the yeast eats the sugar it releases carbon dioxide. Since the extra carbon dioxide has nowhere to go, it pressurises the bottle and carbonates the wine. After some time – often years – the carbon dioxide dissolves in the wine, forming tiny bubbles which remain in the bottle until you pop the cork. Apparently there are approximately 49 million bubbles in a standard sized bottle of Champagne!
Does a bottle’s dent matter?
There are lots of opinions on a bottle’s dent – or ‘punt’ as it is called. I have had many people tell me the larger the punt the better the quality, yet there is no unified answer on punts. Some believe it is aesthetic, others say it helps separate sediment, while the rest suggest it is simply down to a traditional style that gave a bottle extra strength (helpful with transportation).
However, most would agree that a wine’s quality cannot be judged on punt alone.
Why are some wines more expensive?
You have to imagine all the things that go into wines – land, grapes, barrels, bottles and cellar space, plus the pickers and the makers, not to mention what happens after the wine is made. Distributors, wholesalers and retailers all look to make a profit – and don’t forgot import duty. The cost can start to increase. Buying a bottle at a restaurant is another- and the biggest – mark up.
If you are a producer who decides to make wines in a desirable location, with low yields (fewer grapes that are allowed to stretch out nicely), which are picked by hand to eliminate any that didn’t make the grade, and then fermented in brand-new oak barrels – that will obviously cost more.
Then you have another factor – the brand/ popularity and a buyer’s perceived value. For example, Champagne is seen as more prestigious that Crémant (other French sparkling wine) – which means they can command higher prices.
Is boxed wine any good?
There are a number of advantages to boxed wine – or a bag in a box. Unfinished wine lasts weeks rather than days (although not a problem here), you can store it easily, cost vs volume is attractive and it can go festival camping with you.
Despite all of this, quality – or perceived quality – is a big problem. It is clear you won’t get a superior wine from a box, but quality has come a long way. Many producers are still reluctant to put their wines in boxes, so selection and grape variety is quite limited.
For those wines that are meant to be drunk young and stay fruity, bag-boxed and canned wine is a good vehicle. It is becoming increasingly popular though which in turn will encourage more winemakers to bag it.