There is only one reason we know that you MUST decant a bottle of wine. If the cork breaks as you open a bottle and you can’t get it out, the only option is to push it in. This makes decanting necessary.
After that, there are several reasons why you might WANT to decant your wine:
- A decanter of wine on the table is attractive and adds to the pleasure of a meal.
- The wine is too young and needs extensive aeration.
- The wine is quite old and needs a little aeration.
- The wine is quite old and probably has a lot of sediment that you don’t want to swallow.
Photo courtesy of The Manual.
Some restaurants decant wine, perhaps in an effort to justify overcharging. Some people decant wine because they think they look cool, even if it makes them look cork-dorky. And then there are the occasions when Aunt Gertrude is coming over for dinner and she gave you the decanter.
Wineries generally don’t decant their wines, although they should. They mostly serve younger releases that might benefit from some extra air.
If you are going to decant a bottle, here are some tips.
- Don’t decant too early or too late. A younger wine, and even one well within its drinking age, can be decanted hours earlier than you plan to serve it. This is not a requirement but it does get the maximum benefit of airing out the wine. But in our opinion, if you’re serving a very old wine, decant it just before serving, to let out some of the accumulated gasses in the bottle without losing flavors.
- Simple decanters work just as well as fancy ones. The objective is to expose the wine to air and to leave the sediment in the bottle. The ones that are examples of the glass-blowers’ art may be very pretty but not so easy to pour from. A simple carafe can do the job.
- Don’t decant too fast, but don’t make a big production of it, either. As the wine passes from bottle to decanter, it all meets air. If you pour too quickly, you’ll lose some of this benefit and are more likely to get some sediment into the decanter. Restaurant sommeliers and dedicated snobs will pour the wine very, very slowly, in front of a candle. That way they can see the first little bits of sediment and stop pouring. All very dramatic, to be sure, but the same thing can be accomplished in front of a well-lit white or light colored wall or even a piece of paper. Yes, pour slowly, but be reasonable about it.
- Consider double decanting. If you’re serving a bottle you’ve saved for a special occasion, you might actually want to see that well-anticipated bottle on the table. So if you think the wine would benefit from decanting, do so. Then pour the sediment out of the bottle, lightly rinse with a bit of wine and pour the wine back into the bottle. You’ll maximize the aeration as you pour twice and you still get to see that pretty label.
Of course, tasting wine in Saint-Chinian is just like tasting wine everywhere. Swirl, smell, sip and smile. But there is a difference in approach and attitude. This is a small region in the greater scheme of French wine. It’s not Burgundy or Bordeaux and doesn’t pretend to be. But Saint-Chinian makes some rather fine wines in a low-key atmosphere, with enough history to be of interest just because of its longevity.
It pays to get in the right frame of mind to appreciate what you’re tasting, without either over- or under-estimating what can be done with the grapes at hand. And these principles can be applied around the world in regions with small producers and limited production.
- Expect good wine and you’ll be rewarded. It makes no sense to visit a tiny tasting room of a vineyard you’ve never heard of and expect to find a new Latour. But you can find wines that have evolved over centuries into an expression of the terroir in a region that has only recently come close to its full potential. Contemporary Saint-Chinian wineries are clean, well-run and often organic (or naturel as they call it). You may not find great wines in Saint-Chinian but you can taste many very good ones.
- Consider the prices. What you get for what you pay in Saint-Chinian will astound the average American wine lover. Take a sip of a Rhône-style wine, for example, and ask yourself what it would equate to in California. Only then ask what you’d pay right there. You very well might be given a price under 10 Euros or eleven US dollars. As they say in the car commercials, don’t try this at home!
- Look for what makes the wines of Saint-Chinian unique. One factor is the contrast of wines from stony schist soil and those from clay or limestone. It is amazing to realize how different the wines from those soils can be. Considering that they may come from vineyards only a few miles apart is an eye-opener to the influence of terroir on wine. Then look for that unique tang of garrigue, the herbal brush that grows everywhere in the region, particularly the hillsides.
- Admire how far Saint-Chinian wines have come. In the past, you might have tried wine from this AOC – or all of the Languedoc for that matter – and found them rough, acidic and maybe just a little off. The local winemakers have realized in this century that there is real value, to themselves and their customers, in biodynamic techniques and sound sanitation. If you can remember the old days, you’ll appreciate the results.
- Think small. There are no grand houses in Saint-Chinian, even though every winery is Château This and Domaine That. They don’t need to reach a mass audience and they don’t try. So just as each wine tells the tale of the appellation, so they each say something about the men and women who tend the fields, nurture the grapes and make the wine. That they do so much so well is a testament to what winemaking on a small scale can be.
One way to think about a winery’s tasting room is that it is a sales showroom. In the same way that you buy stereo equipment, jewelry or other luxury goods, at a winery they show you many things you can buy, let you try out a few and then, if you buy, get one out of stock. Let’s face it, wine tasting is temptation.
Photo courtesy of SevenFifty Daily.
Just as there are many reasons to buy a specific wine, there are many reasons not to. Most obviously, if you don’t like the way a wine tastes, the temptation to buy is much less. Even if you do, you might not like it as much as others in the same price range. Or maybe you like it a lot but you can’t afford a bottle at the price quoted.
There is a subtle pressure to buy something. A nice person has been pouring you wines to taste and chatting pleasantly with you. It’s human nature to want to reciprocate. So when the server says, “Would you like to take some wine home with you?”, you may feel like you ought to say “yes”. (Note that the word “buy” was never came into the conversation.)
- You have no obligation to buy anything. That’s true in a jewelry store as well, but at least the jeweler doesn’t charge you for the privilege of trying on a ring. In the old days, when tastings were free, there might have been a bit (only a bit) of a moral imperative. Remember, you paid for your tasting so you don’t have to buy anything else.
- Wines at a winery are rarely bargains. In many cases, you’ll find that the same wine sold in the tasting room can be bought back home for substantially less. There’s nothing wrong with pointing that out to the server. However, there are some wines that are only available at the winery. In those cases, you have to decide if the quality difference compared with the wine in the store near you is worth the price. It might even be instructive to ask the server what differentiates the winery-only selection from their more easily found wine. If you don’t get good answers, don’t buy.
- You have to take it home with you. If you live near the winery, that’s not a problem. But if you’ve taken a plane to get to that part of Wine Country, you’re either going to have to put the bottle in your luggage or ship it. Even if you decide to do one of those things, there are limits. US Customs only allows you to bring back two bottles per person from overseas. Even domestic shipping cost can be a significant deterrent as well.
- Try to strengthen your sales resistance. Remember, you’ve been drinking. Maybe you’re on vacation too. Your ability to say “no” is not at its peak. So if you feel yourself about to say “yes”, turn to the person you came with and ask, “What do you think?” That can be a pre-arranged signal to turn thumbs-down. Or if you both are in favor, this may be the time to buy.
Often when we are in a winery’s tasting room, we ask the servers to show us the bottle. Of course, it’s not the bottle we want to see; they’re all pretty much the same. (Actually, that’s not true. There are Bordeaux bottles with round shoulders and Burgundy bottles with sloping ones.) What we really want to see is the label, or actually two labels: one on the front of the bottle and one on the back.
The servers usually look at us quizzically. “Why?” they seem to be asking, but they do anyway?
So here’s the answer to their question and some advice on how you can take advantage of the labels as well.
- The look of the label tells you something about the wine. Great wines don’t need silly labels. A classic label gives us an idea of the winery’s owners’ approach to making wine. A picture of the château or some great art are fine, but a lot of bright colors or unusual type scripts generally indicate that they’re more interested in catching your eye in a shop than letting the wine’s reputation speak for itself.
- You can ignore a lot that’s on the label. It contains some warnings that you’re not interested in, such as the fact that the wine contains nitrates (they all do) and that you shouldn’t drink and drive (you already know that). You’ll learn the winery’s address, amount of wine in the bottle and the URL of their web site. None of this is very important to you but the government insists on it.
- Look for the interesting information. The label should tell you the name of the winery. On top of telling you the kind of wine (Pinot, Cabernet, etc.), it might tell you the name of the wine, such as the “Private Reserve” or “My Zin”. If they care enough to name their wines, it might indicate that this wine is intended to be rather special. Even more so, some better wines come from single vineyards and they name that location. By itself, all this data may not mean much, but put together these are all indicators that the contents of the bottle may be something special. And it it’s not there, that tells you something, too. (Maybe that’s not the winery’s best wine).
- Check one number in particular. Perhaps most important information on the label is the amount of alcohol in the wine. If you’re driving from winery to winery to taste their products, this will help you calibrate your consumption. For a long time, 12.5% or 13% was the norm. Now anything less than 14% is considered light. Moreover, the alcohol level tells you a lot about wine itself. While there are some exceptions, any wine that contains more than 14.5% is likely to be “hot”, tasting of alcohol rather than grapes.
- Some labels tell a story. It may or may not be an interesting story. Some tell the history of that particular wine. Those on the wines from Ridge winery, for example, give a detailed explanation of the growing condition, the soil, and everything but the name and address of the person who picked the grapes. And some just tell you whatever the Marketing department felt like saying.
So why do we ask to see the label when we’re wine tasting? Because it makes us more informed about what we’re sipping and what we might be buying.
One of Power Tasting’s founding principles is to help readers avoid being intimidated when they go wine tasting. Most servers in most wineries try to be friendly and conversational, so they shouldn’t intimidate anyone. Still many tasters, especially inexperienced ones, find it very difficult to express their opinions when they find a wine they are tasting to be not to their tastes.
Simply put, they don’t feel comfortable telling a server that they don’t care for a particular wine they have just been served. We’ve been raised to say, “please” and “thank you” and to avoid saying anything negative when someone is being kind to you. So in an effort to be kind, some people wind up unnecessarily swallowing beverages they don’t like.
Photo courtesy of Food and Wine.
Here are some tips for expressing yourselves firmly but politely.
- Say nothing. Another of the maxims we’ve been brought up with is, “If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing”. This is the easiest and least confrontational way of indicating you don’t like a wine. That’s what the pour bucket is there for, after all. That leaves you with an empty glass in front of you and lets the server know that you’re ready to move on.
- There are a lot of terms that aren’t “no” but are recognized as, at best, faint praise. “Oh, that’s an interesting wine” is one way to say it. “Unusual”, “different” and even “trendy” can serve the purpose. For the most part, servers won’t ask you why you feel that way, but if they do, you can always say, “Well, based on my experience…”. Nobody can argue with that, even if you have next to no experience.
- Be comparative, not absolute. You don’t need to be negative. You can simply say, “I liked the other one better”. And that may actually be the case. If a particular winery has several Pinot Noirs, for example, you can ask the server to line several of the tastes up side-by-side. That way you can talk about your favorite and avoid mentioning the one you couldn’t stand. (Of course, this doesn’t work if you didn’t like any of them.)
- Devise a code. Assuming you’re traveling with a companion, you can figure out some code words that express displeasure. For example, “That wine has a hint of cinnamon”, which isn’t a frequently encountered taste. You’ll both know that that word really means “Ugh”. Of course, if you do taste cinnamon, you’re stuck in discussing it.
- Think about why you don’t like it. Saying that a wine is more acid than you like, or too tannic, or too green isn’t saying the wine is bad. It can also help the server point you towards a wine that is more to your taste. Maybe there was a different blend of grapes in the 2018 than the 2019 and you’ll have the chance to compare and find you actually like one more than the other.
Or you can just ‘fess up and say, “Sorry, it’s not for me.”
As a rule, wherever you find great wine being made, you’ll find great restaurants. This just makes sense – the people who spend all year making a beverage to serve with food want to eat it in restaurants. And we wine tasting visitors get the benefit. Naturally, you’ll find great wine lists in these Wine Country restaurants; it is often made just around the corner.
We recommend that you take advantage of these wine lists to broaden your knowledge of wineries to visit while you’re in the region. But how do you choose?
As it says at Yountville’s Mustards restaurant, there’s way too many wines to choose from. Photo courtesy of napavalley.com
- Order the names you’re familiar with, but… Sure, you’ve heard of their Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, but did you know that they make a Pinot Noir? Very often, restauranteurs feature lesser-known wines from top producers, specifically because they know that people aren’t familiar with them. It builds a nice relationship with the wineries and gives the wine lists a bit of distinction. If you try one and like it, you can drive over the next day and buy some. Often these wines aren’t widely shipped, so this may be your only chance.
- Order the names you’re unfamiliar with. Sometimes this means placing your trust in the restauranteur or sommelier, if there is one. In big, well-known restaurants this may make the choice easy. In a region you’re familiar with, you may know a lot of the names on the list. But if you’re traveling to an area where you haven’t tasted very much, everything on the list may be unknown to you.
Photo courtesy of Chateau Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.
- So ask. Invariably, the server or sommelier will in return ask you two questions: What are you ordering to eat? What kind of wine do you like? The wines on the list should be compatible with the menu, so just finding out which wines on the list match up with your tastes will help you plan for where you might want to visit the next day.
- Order by price. There are occasions in which you don’t want to ask your server to help you choose. Or if you’re overseas, you may not want to try your luck with the local language. We’ve found it useful to determine how much we want to pay for a bottle that evening and then choose from the list accordingly. Sure, there’s an element of luck involved, but if the restaurant has a well-chosen list, your chances are pretty good.
- Order by the glass. If nothing else, this will minimize your financial risk. If you don’t like a wine you’ve chosen, you won’t have spent a lot on it. The choice of these wines is generally limited and the quality less than wines by the bottle. But it’s also a way to take a quick wine-tasting trip around the region, without getting out of your chair.
- Be prepared for success…and disappointment. Over the years, we have had some great finds in Wine Country restaurants. There are instances in which we subsequently visited the wineries, bought the wines and continue to do so. But there have been some occasional duds. But at least we learned what to avoid in our wine tasting adventures.
Several years ago, we wrote about winery tours from the perspective of those who had never taken one before. For anyone with even the least interest in wine, a tour can be very educational. There’s really nothing like seeing the process, especially if you can visit Wine Country during the crush. It really does show you how difficult the winemaking really is. And in many cases, a tour is a prerequisite for tasting the wines.
Seeing the grapes for Amarone drying at Quintarelli in Valpolicella, Italy.
But what if you have some experience in wine tasting? Maybe you have taken numerous tours in the past, so why take another one? There are a number of good reasons, even if you think you’ve seen it all.
- You haven’t seen it all. We don’t want to get into the argument about the winemaker’s skill vs. terroir, but surely the way a wine is made has some impact on how it tastes. Otherwise, they’d all taste pretty much the same. At any winery, they have a particular way that they harvest (or instruct vineyard owners to harvest), clean the grapes, press them, vinify the juice, blend different varietals, age the wine and bottle it. If you have been on tours before, you’ll recognize the differences at one winery versus the others you’ve seen.
- You may be with a less experienced taster. Taking a tour with a friend gives you the opportunity to add your own point of view that the tour guide may not have. Careful not to be a wine snob, though.
The barrel room at Groth in Napa Valley.
- Refreshers aren’t a bad idea. Yes, you’ve taken tours, but when was the last one? It’s not that things have changed all that much (although there have been technical advances) but it’s a good idea to keep yourself up to date.
- A tour can give you an idea of the quality of the wines. For example, some wineries are sparklingly clean, others less so. A winery that cares enough to hire and train knowledgeable tour guides is probably more concerned about the tiny details of making wine. If your guide can’t answer your questions, this will tell you something about management’s perspectives on their customers. So pay attention to the details.
- Tours can be fun. Some wineries’ tours are little more than exercises in industrial engineering and about as accessible to the general public. But we’ve been on others that take you into the vineyards to show you where the grapes you’ve tasted came from. Quite a few these days combine the tour with the tasting and have bottles stashed in the vineyards or in the barrel room, so you’re tasting as you’re learning. Quite a deal!
The underlying answer is that there’s always something new to learn. You don’t have to tour every winery you visit. For one thing, that can be expensive and repetitive. But taking a tour every now and again is good for brain as well as your palate.
In our earliest years of wine tasting, we thought that only wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon were worth drinking. Oh, well, we were young and foolish. Of course, we’ve broadened our tastes significantly in the intervening time. Each time we realized we really liked a wine we hadn’t cared for before, we had to change our mind.
The same applies in reverse. There were some awfully sweet wines like Mateus and Lancers that we wouldn’t be interested in anymore. Perhaps if we tried them again we might like them, but we doubt it.
Changing your mind about anything isn’t easy, wine included. So here are some tips for revising your opinions specifically about wine, but maybe broader than that. Many of these lessons we learned in Sonoma County, the theme of this issue.
Photos courtesy of Kazzit and the dailymeal.com
- Keep your mind open. You’ll never improve your taste if you aren’t able to accept the possibility that you might learn to like wines you hadn’t liked before. For the longest time, we weren’t particularly fond of Pinot Noir. We found them too thin, too acid. But we have learned to appreciate some Pinot Noirs, especially those from Carneros and Santa Lucia Highlands.
- Keep trying. Maybe your ability to appreciate certain tastes and aromas has expanded. Or maybe you’ll find a winemaker who does a better job than those you have tried before. One of the advantages of wine tasting in Sonoma County is the vast range of varietals that are available there. Often one winery will have a dozen different ones. So if you try wine made from grapes you haven’t cared for in the past, you’ll still be able to sip others you know you like. Maybe you’ll be surprised.
- Differentiate the same types of wine from different areas. There are still some Pinot Noirs that don’t appeal to us. We just can’t get our tongues around this varietal the way they make it in Sonoma County’s Green Valley. But there are some just a bit south in Petaluma that do please us. Is it terroir? Specific winemakers? Sheer luck? Whatever the case, we went from “We don’t like it” to “We don’t like some of it” which is one way to change your mind.
- Go back, you may love it. Sometimes a winery just has a bad year. Here’s an example. We have always loved the Zinfandels from Limerick Lane. But in 2011, the winery changed hands and the new owners, by their own admission, didn’t make wines that lived up to the potential of their vines that year. We dropped out of their club and didn’t visit again for several years. When we did we were delightedly surprised. Now we visit whenever we are in Healdsburg and buy some of their Zins every year.
- Recognize that your tastes change. It may not be the wine that changes, but you. Whether your tongue has become more sophisticated or you just have learned to like more wines, go with it. There’s no reason not to accept your tastes for what they are, as long as you are ready to change them when given the opportunity.
As mentioned elsewhere in this issue, we endlessly debate the relative qualities of French and California wines. The famous Judgement of Paris tasting in 1976 established the world-class status of California wines and created the false impression that California makes better wine than France across the board. Of course, the question of “better” is a foolish one; both make excellent wine (and some plonk, too).
If you’d like to play along with us in this game of comparing the two, it’s quite simple. Just go out and buy some Californian and French wines. Open them. Taste them. Reach your own conclusions. Here are some tips on how to make the most of it.
Photo courtesy of Salon.com
- Ignore the extremes. If you have the wherewithal to compare Château Petrus and Screaming Eagle, don’t let us stand in your way. But what will that tell you? And don’t bother comparing Two Buck Chuck with a French wine for under five dollars. (Actually, we don’t know any.) The best idea is to choose wines in the range that you would normally buy or maybe a little more expensive, to give you a better range for comparison.
- Avoid varietal mismatches. There’s no point to comparing a Zinfandel with anything made in France. The French don’t have that wonderful grape. Likewise, don’t look for a Savoyard Chasselas in California. You won’t find it.
- Recognize your preconceived notions. If you know up front that you prefer, say, a Chablis to a California Chardonnay, there’s not a lot of reason to try a side-by-side test for your favorite. Rather, you might use the opportunity to ask your wine merchant to suggest California whites that most closely approach a real Chablis and see if you can tell the difference.
- Consider price points. There’s no question that a $100 white Burgundy is going to be superior to a Castle Rock for eleven bucks. And you can say the same if the countries are reversed. For most people, the choices they make when they go into a wine store are based on what they’re willing to pay on that particular occasion. Interestingly, it might be better to try comparisons, over time, of wines at somewhat different prices. You may find that you prefer a $25 California Pinot Noir to a $40 red Burgundy.
- Use the same glasses. It’s important that you use the same type of glasses for both the California and French wines. Believe it or not, the way a glass is made does affect the way wines smell and taste. The good folks at Reidel insist that there is a perfect glass for each varietal, but we’re a bit skeptical. The point for the purposes of comparison is that they be the same, affecting the wines for better or worse but equally.
- Be honest with yourself. If you start out believing you prefer one country’s wines over the other, it’s hard to change your own mind. The best would be if someone else pours the two and doesn’t tell you (a blind tasting). Of course, the other person now knows which is which and may not be able to overcome his or her prejudices. Just try your best.
There is, of course, an elemental problem with this article. That is, if you don’t already know how to have fun, nothing we say is going to help. On the other hand, if you already think wine tasting is fun, then we are happy to provide some tips on how to add to your fun whenever you are in Wine Country.
- Have a fun attitude. That advice may seem obvious, but there are a number of reasons to go wine tasting – having fun is only one of them. Your objective may be educational, which may be satisfying but isn’t necessarily fun. Or you may be in a buying mood. If you are tasting wines for the purpose of buying a case or two, you ought to be paying attention, not being devil-may-care.
Good times at Domaine Chandon. Photo courtesy of Haute Living.
- Go where the fun is. Now this is a matter of taste. If you think it’s fun to be in a crowd, drinking more than tasting (not our idea of a good time) then go to a popular winery on a holiday weekend. This mostly applies to the major California destinations. We’ve never encountered a partying crowd in Europe, but we have in Australia and South Africa. In our experience, Domaine Chandon and Miner, both in Napa Valley, fit this bill.
- Book a sit-down tasting. This alternative is a bit more restrained, but you still get to meet some (usually) nice people while you taste. Best of all is a tasting where the winery also gives you some bites of food so you can truly experience what the wine might taste like at your dinner table. Jordan Vineyard & Winery in Alexander Valley is our favorite in this regard.
Reims Cathedral. Photo courtesy of Viator.
- Make time for a really nice lunch. In general, wherever fine wines are made there are excellent restaurants nearby. So instead of making the objective for the day to visit wineries, grabbing a quick meal in between, consider a day built around a lunch at a top restaurant, with a bottle of the local wine, of course. This describes wine tasting almost anywhere in Europe. We have particularly warm memories of meals on the square in Montalcino, in front of the cathedral in Reims and on Main Street in St. Helena. But, be careful how much alcohol you consume during the day.
- Do something else. Just because you’re on a wine tasting trip doesn’t mean you have to only taste wine. If you’re near the shore, declare a beach day. This works in Santa Barbara, Tuscany and Languedoc. In some places in California, France and Switzerland, you can taste wine one day and go skiing the next. And almost everywhere has some interesting landmarks, sights and cities. Leave yourself some time to take them in.
- Visit wineries for reasons other than wine. Some wineries are landmarks in themselves. Two examples are The Hess Collection in Napa Valley and the wine museum at Mouton Rothschild in Bordeaux. Winemaking is an art, so why not mix in some art with your wine tasting?