5 More Frequently Asked Wine Questions

You asked, we answer


After my earlier article reviewing 10 common wine questions, I received a ton of e-mails asking several follow-up questions. Some were a little too silly to spend time pondering, but many of you came up with some questions worth asking, and answering.

Many of my answers here are necessarily brief; either because the subject matter has been covered before in greater depth, or because the subject deserves more attention, in which case expect to see a more detailed article on it soon. But, for now, I leave you with 5 more frequently asked wine questions, asked and answered.

Why do some wines get better with age while others turn to vinegar?

Well, wines only turn to vinegar when they are fermented by acetic acid bacteria known as mycoderma aceti. Many wines have a bit of acetic acid in them, usually below the threshold of detection but not always.

What usually happens to wines as they age poorly is that they cook. This is not the fault of the wine, but rather the results of poor storage, say in a cupboard somewhere or a fancy rack in your kitchen. Sound familiar? OK, it may not be your fault, since a lot of wine retailers have equally crappy, if not crappier, storage but you get the idea.

That doesn’t explain why some wines get better with age. In general, that’s due to the wine’s structure: acid, tannins, and sugar, as well as the quality of fruit in the wine. 

It’s a result of many factors, such as the grape variety (some age well, others not so much), the terroir (some regions make more structured, and therefore more ageworthy, wines) and, of course, the winemaker. Some winemakers aim for an easy-to-drink, lush style of wine that may not improve in the bottle, while others may want a brutally tannic young wine that can last, and evolve for ages.

How long does wine last?

This is a very interesting question and one that deserves a more in-depth answer. The question is interesting not because of what it asks, but rather what it implies. Wine will last until the seal is broken and the wine is consumed or evaporates, but I assume that the question really is: How long does wine improve and then remain at that "plateau or maturity," as it can be called?

The answer is tricky, since virtually each wine has its own maturation curve, but the short answer is that most wine is ready to drink when it’s released, and may improve for a year or three.

The famous wines of collectors -- Grand Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo and the like -- tend to need time in the cellar, say 10 to 20 years, before hitting their plateaus. They then remain there, at or close to peak, for another 10 to 20 years. There are so many variables that it’s tough to supply a satisfactory answer, though when in doubt opt for drinking a wine younger, rather than older. If the wine seems too young, there is always the decanter.

What about the rights and wrongs about decanting wines?

Speaking about breathing, I received several questions that referred to the rights and wrongs of letting wine breathe, as well as the rights and wrongs of decanting, which are close to the same thing.

There are two reasons to decant a wine: removing off from its sediment, and allowing it to breathe by increasing the surface area of the wine exposed to air; not to mention adding air to the wine from the pouring process (the theory behind aerating funnels).

I decant older wines off their sediment since I don’t like my wines muddy and frequently have to bring them to a restaurant or friend’s house for dinner. As far as decanting for breathing, that is a tricky subject. There are several ways to decant a wine, each involving exposing the wine to more, or less, oxygen.

What are the benefits of allowing wine to breathe?

Fantastic things happen when a wine breathes, or is exposed to oxygen. Tannins can soften, aromatic volatize, and in general a wine can seem to blossom.

For reasons not exactly known to me, each grape variety seems to have its own ideal system of oxygenation. For example, the old Barolos I drink seem to benefit from what is known as slow oxygenation, or Slow O.

Slow O simply means pulling the cork, and perhaps pouring off a bit of wine to increase the surface area and then letting the wine oxygenate very slowly. If the wine is middle-aged, a decant off the sediment can frequently wake the wine up and reveal the benefits of the Slow O process. I’m going to follow this up with a broader article on allowing your wines to breathe, but as a general rule, young wines can only benefit from it, and it seems to help many older wines, though the window during which they drink well might be significantly compressed by decanting.

What wine will get me the most screwed-up the fastest?

I have gotten this question more often than you might think and the answer might be surprising. One’s first reaction is to answer "the wine with the highest alcohol content", right? After all, it’s the alcohol that gets you drunk, so more would be better.

Well, actually it’s the rate at which your consumption of alcohol exceeds your body’s ability to metabolize it that makes you drunk. So, it stands to reason then that the combination of alcohol plus drinkability yields the answer. No matter what the alcohol, if a wine is tough to drink, you’re not going to get drunk quickly.

Of course, Champagne, or sparkling wine, is the best answer here. Not because it’s particularly high in alcohol (most average around 12.5%), nor because of its drinkability (I find the bubbles slow me down), but rather because of those bubbles! Studies have shown that the CO2 in sparkling wine speeds up the absorption of alcohol into one's blood stream. Maybe it’s the pressure created in the stomach and intestines. I’m not sure, but repeated studies have verified this.

Answers to Your Wine Questions

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  • Snooth User: Sase
    644313 3

    Thanks for you info on the breathing of wine. I also would like to know if their is anything to it that when you swirl your wine and see the legs on the glass - what does this mean. I have heard diffferent stories.

    Jan 05, 2011 at 1:17 PM

  • for the moron who wants to find the wine that gets him messed up fastest, just mix the win with vodka.

    Jan 05, 2011 at 2:58 PM

  • Snooth User: adshijw
    502960 12

    so what exactly is "dry" What causes "dry" and what is the opposite of dry..in wine of course. One of my guests regularly asks for a wine that is not dry and to them at least this seems to mean painfully sweet.

    Jan 05, 2011 at 5:11 PM

  • Snooth User: ChateauBC
    362588 2

    Sase and adshijw -- Good questions!

    The "legs" you see when you swirl a glass of wine help to give some hints about what you're likely to taste when you sip it. How pronounced the legs are when you swirl depends upon the viscosity of the wine which, in turn, depends upon the sugar and alcohol content. So a wine with very pronounced legs will have either a higher alcohol content, a higher sugar content, or both - at least when compared with a wine that has less pronounced legs.

    Dryness refers to the sugar that remains in a wine after fermentation is complete and is a relative term. One person's "too dry" is another person's "too sweet". As a very general rule of thumb, wines with less than 1% residual sugar are usually considered dry, 1% to 3% are off-dry, and over 3% are considered sweet. But Sauternes, Ports, etc. can be much, much sweeter than that even. Unfortunately the wineries generally don't include this info on the label - so you're stuck just going by taste. It's also very easy to confuse sweetness and fruitiness. A wine that is technically dry can present itself as being much sweeter if it's very fruit-forward. When I pour at festivals I often encounter people who say they don't want a dry wine - meaning Chardonnay for example - but are perfectly happy with a Riesling that's just as dry as the Chard. Just much fruitier...

    Me, though? I like 'em all... :-)

    Jan 05, 2011 at 6:15 PM

  • As usual Greg, I really enjoyed the article. I also have often experienced friends that seem to confuse dryness with fruitiness. I got a good laugh about the sparkling wine part, and look forward to more about breathing and decanting. Sadly for me, I have to return this Friday for some blood work, and was instructed to stay off all alcohol and statins for a full week. New Year's Eve pushed that window a bit, but this is torture. I'm looking forward to Friday night with a whole new vigor. Thanks for all the great wine writing! Cheers

    Jan 05, 2011 at 6:44 PM

  • The CO2 in the "sparklings"
    1. increases the emptying time of the stomach to small intestine
    2. increases the permeability of the stomach by "widening" the gap between cells.
    Wider the gap and more frequent emptying results in more alcohol in the blood in shorter time. Think alka seltzer, plop plop fizz fizz = faster relief. Same principle.

    Jan 06, 2011 at 3:46 AM

  • dry vs. non dry: -2gm/L is dry wine (red or white) anything else is a sweet. This doesn't mean dry or non-dry is more or less "fruit-forward".
    Like giving candy to a baby it is easy to dominate the tongue flavor and create an immediate impression with sweetness, since it is the first zone on the tongue at the tip, along with salty. However, it doesnt mean it is palitable or enjoyable.
    Choosing a pleasing "dry" can be easy if starting begins in the "classics selection", those regarded widely for their ability to please. For example a Bordeaux blend white; 60% semillon with 30% sauvignon blanc with or without a little muscadelle (10%), or a bordeaux blend red; cabernet sauvignon 40%, Merlot 30%, cabernet franc and some petit verdot at 15% each, have grape varieties that have a complementary style that has been renouned for its pleasurable and drinkability. Dry or non-dry it should be a pleasure to drink. Choosing within the "classics", because of their wide appeal over a long time, gives real help to those who want to increase their potential for a satisfactory wine purchase.

    Jan 06, 2011 at 5:08 AM

  • "Some were a little too silly to spend time pondering..."

    Oh go on, tell us what they were...?

    Jan 06, 2011 at 5:53 AM

  • Some wines benefit HUGELY from decanting or some other more "natural" types of oxygenation -- BV Tapestry comes to mind. But BV Tapestry is positively DESTROYED by oxygenating through a Vinturi-type device -- DON'T DO IT! It turns it into something that tastes like Carlo Rossi!

    On the other hand, some pretty good Cabernet Sauvignons, like Dominican Oaks, are turned into absolutely wonderful wines by pouring it through a Vinturi. Go figure!

    Jan 10, 2011 at 1:57 PM

  • Snooth User: TomG
    40947 44

    When you posed the question "How long does wine last?" I thought you were going to talk about "...after you open the bottle". This is an interesting topic as well, because different wines certainly oxidize at different rates (or at least with different results over the same time). But it would be useful to have a rule (or some rules) of thumb about how long you can expect to have the wine be drinkable, and how to extend that, e.g., with refrigeration or, now, the various wine preserver devices.

    Jan 14, 2011 at 5:06 PM

  • CO2 readily diffuses across membranes and therefore gets absorbed faster. There is a " drag" effect going on as well. As the CO2 gets absorbed it is also bringing along some alcohol content.

    Jan 15, 2011 at 1:32 PM

  • What's the best temp to store your wine? I know it depends on the wine but is there an overall answer? I have a verity of wines but only one wine cooler that holds around 235 bottle. I've got all my cab's, pinots, sharze, Merlots, will you get the picture..FH

    Jan 18, 2011 at 4:05 PM

  • Snooth User: homestar
    512161 83

    flatworm: wish I had read your post before aerating my BV Tapestry. it was so flat, I wondered how it could resemble the wine as advertised and recommended. Fortunately I have another bottle to not do that with....

    Jan 18, 2011 at 11:00 PM

  • Snooth User: Elzabi
    634535 7

    Great article with some interesting questions. I have also found that wines with a higher concentration of sulphur increases side effects such as the famous headache - whilst higher quality, more naturally produced wines won't have you reaching for the aspirins...

    Jan 19, 2011 at 3:53 AM

  • What are tanins, and what's a tanic wine like?

    Jan 25, 2011 at 4:33 PM

  • Thanks for the enlightenment with the 8 + 5 questions. I found this quote on a blog and thought it was so appropriate.

    "The subtle euphoria (colloquially known as a 'buzz'), experienced as the result of the consumption of fine wine and spirits is one of life's greatest pleasures. It clears the mind of all unnecessary thoughts and opens it up to transcendental possibilities, otherwise clouded by the pressing issues of the day. It transforms our world outlook to one of affirmation and acceptance, pushing the cobwebs of cynicism and doubt to the outer edges of awareness. It is capable of bringing food, friends and conversation into a harmonious balance, blurring the lines of difference and polarity. A well stocked wine cellar and liquor cabinet promotes civility in a way that sober diplomacy never can." - Ishmael Paprikash

    Feb 24, 2011 at 8:59 AM

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