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Faqs About Wines


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In this section we will attempt to answer frequently asked questions regarding wines. If the question does not appear, please feel free to email Ken Brown regarding wine questions.

Q. At what temperature should I serve this wine?

White wines, sparkling wines, and rosés all taste better at
temperatures somewhat warmer than the average refrigerator (38°) or ice
bucket (32°). For lighter-bodied wines such as Rieslings, Loire whites,
most Sauvignon Blancs, Chenin Blancs, and real Chablis, 45° is close to
ideal. Fuller-bodied whites taste better at slightly warmer
temperatures with the richest white Burgundies, Chardonnays, and dessert-styles (Sauternes) showing best near 55°. Red wines show their best between 55° and 60° with lighter-weight reds (Beaujolais) capable of handling a chill down to as cool as 48°-50°. Fuller-bodied reds such (Bordeaux, Rhone red, California Cab, Zinfandel, and Australian Shiraz) are at their best around 60°. Nothing tastes as good at 70° as at 60° and Marylandˆs typical summer room temperature (75°-80°) is way too warm. The mechanics of this are not that difficult to manage. Forty-five minutes in the refrigerator or 2-3 minutes in a bucket of ice water will cool most reds to a good serving temperature. Remove white wines from the refrigerator a bit before serving and don't keep them immersed in ice water at the table. Instead let them sit on top of a bucket of ice (as opposed to in ice water). A good solution for everyday reds is the plastic "ice cube" balls that can be kept in the freezer and used to "ice" a drink without diluting it. They look a little funny but the wine tastes the same. One or two will quickly cool a glass of red to a good serving temperature.

Q. How long will this bottle of wine keep after I've opened it? What can I do to help it last?

A. A few wines such as Tawny Ports, Sherry, and Madeira will keep almost indefinitely after the bottle is opened. This is because they become oxidized in casks (called oxidative aging) as part of the maturation process before they are bottled and sold. Because they're intentionally oxidized, exposure to a little more air won't damage them or cause any deterioration. Most wines are matured in bottles outside of contact with air (called reductive aging) so the chemical development that takes place is reductive in nature. When these bottles are opened, the wine is exposed to air and begins to oxidize. The oxidization that initially takes place is actually helpful in that it helps the wine release its aromas and flavors. At some point, the wine begins to deteriorate. Most young red wines will hold up for a day or two after the bottle is opened, even if all you do is put the cork back in. If you want the wine to last longer, put it in the refrigerator; cold slows the oxidative process. This can add a day or two to the wineˆs keeping ability. The best solution is to reduce the amount of air in the bottle. Collectors of sweet German Rieslings sometimes use marbles or river pebbles to displace the wine to raise the level back into the neck and then re-cork the wine. A better solution is to use a product called Private Preserve. Private Preserve is a can of nitrogen blended with carbon dioxide and argon. Because this mixture is heavier than air, you can spray it into an open wine bottle where it not only displaces most of the oxygen-laden air in the bottle but further forms an inert blanket over the wine that protects it from any air left in the bottle. Using Private Preserve along with the refrigerator, I've kept partial bottles for as long as three weeks with little or no deterioration.

Q. Can you tell by looking if a bottle of wine is bad?

A. Not with 100% accuracy but there are some telltale signs to check. The main culprit in damaged wine is heat. A bottle that’s been hot may show marks on the bottle in the form of a sticky residue around the capsule, a cork that looks like itˆs trying to push out of the bottle, or a streak of wine running from the capsule. Sometimes this seepage causes corrosion around the edges of the capsule. Any of these signs are a likely indication that a wine has gotten hot. A bottle that has been frozen can show some of the same effects. Itˆs usually best to avoid these wines but there is one very big "however." Some very high quality producers (such as Guigal, Leroy, and J.J. Prum) believe that for their wines to age and develop to their full potential, the bottles must be filled to the cork and that bottling should take place under cold conditions so as to reduce any possibility of oxidation. The problem comes when the wines warm up a bit during shipping and subsequent storage. Great care is taken with these wines in transit to insure that they are not cooked. Unfortunately, as the wine warms from a bottling temperature in the mid 30s to a shipping temperature in the upper 50s, it expands. This can cause some seepage and the appearance of a wine that has been cooked. One thing to note on these wines is the high quality reputation the producers have and the fact that, even with some seepage, fill levels tend to remain very high. These wines are safe to purchase. If you have any question about a particular bottle, ask. You can cause these symptoms by allowing the wine to get hot after you leave the store.

Q. What about wines that are "corked?"

A. "Corked" wines are not heat damaged wines or wines with obviously defective or leaking corks. Instead, corked denotes a wine that displays a chlorine (like chlorine bleach or a stinky pool) or wet-cardboard smell and lacks fruit in the mouth. These wines are affected by a chlorine compound called 2,4,6 TCA or Trichloroanisole that is an inadvertent by-product of cork production and cleaning. In even tiny amounts, trichloroanisole is detectable by people as that distinctive "corked" smell. Some amount of "cork taint" may affect as many as 1 in every 12 bottles of cork-finished wine. Some corked wines exhibit a much stronger cork taint than others and many are so lightly affected they pass unnoticed. Some producers (St. Francis and Bonny Doon come to mind) are using mostly extruded plastic "corks" now to avoid the problem all together. These plastic stoppers are removed with a corkscrew just as a natural cork would be.

Q. How long should I keep this wine before I drink it?

A. The amazing but true answer for ninety-nine percent of all wine sold is "at least until you get it home and have it cool enough to drink."  For the other one percent, the answer is "it depends." What it depends on is whether you have a suitable place to keep wine. For long term storage, wine wants a cool (Below 50° is too cold, 55° is ideal, over 70° is just too warm), dark, vibration-free place. If you don't have such a place, think about buying and keeping only wines you intend to drink within a year or two at most. Some wines are less finicky than others. Lighter-weight wines often fade quickly in less than ideal conditions. Some robust reds and vintage Ports can shrug off a bit of abuse but even they will succumb to temperatures in excess of 80°.

Q. We're having _(fill in the blank)___ for dinner tonight. Which wine should I serve with it?

A. In any of its many forms, this may be the question our wine department hears most often. And it's among the hardest to answer correctly every time because there are so many variables. How much do you want to spend? Is that chicken grilled, pan-fried, roasted, smoked, or cooked in a casserole. Is there a sauce? What are the side dishes? Is this a simple meal or an occasion? All these factors bear consideration. At the extreme risk of over-simplification, I'll make a couple of specific recommendations here.

Pinot Noir makes as versatile a match to any food you conceivably could serve with red wine as any other grape on the planet. It works well with everything from grilled salmon to roast beef.  While Pinot Noir isn't my first choice with Pizza, it even works with that most robust-red-friendly dish. And Pinot Noir can handle smoky, spicy, and salty flavors that give most other red wines fits. Remember two things: 1) Red Burgundy is Pinot Noir. and 2) Pinot Noir is at its best between 55 and 60°.

May I recommend:
Under $20
Ramsay Pinot Noir - North Coast
Saintsbur  - Garnet Carneros Pinot Noir - Napa, CA
Under $15
Chalone Vineyard - Pinor Noir - Montery County
Castle Rock - Pinot Noir - Sonoma County
Fleur Pinot Noir - Carneros - Geyserville, CA

For the safest bet on white wines to go with a broad range of foods, look to Sauvignon Blanc. With its crisp, refreshing fruit and range of flavors, Sauvignon Blanc pairs well with everything from shellfish or pasta with clam sauce to cold fried chicken or Chinese takeout.  Sauvignon Blanc may come disguised as Bordeaux Blanc (Graves, Entre deux Mers), Sancerre, or Pouilly Fume from France, or as Fume Blancfrom the US.

As all these selections offer at least a good match to a wide variety of dishes, theyˆre good choices when you're looking for a few bottles to keep around the house.

Q. Why is this wine so expensive?  Ken, donˆt you have something that tastes like it for less money?

A. Wine prices are driven by two main forces: production costs and market demand. Production costs are determined by land cost, farming expenses, yield levels, wine making expense, and packaging. Super-premium quality wines cost more to produce than everyday quality wines. They tend to come from the best, most prestigious vineyard sites so the land costs more. To achieve intensity and concentration, yields are lower. To insure that high quality fruit reaches the winery, labor costs stay high and few shortcuts can be taken. In the winery, labor-intensive small-batch techniques yield the best results.  Expensive new-oak barrels are necessary to season and fill out the wine.

All these factors drive up production costs but once a wine has made it and is a success with consumers, another force kicks in. That force is the "pull" through the market. Many wineries gradually raise prices to reflect the value the market places on their wines. This price creep effects the best known high-quality wines from all the best producing areas. In this day of rating system-based purchasing, wines highly-rated by the Wine Spectator or the Wine Advocate see a much more accelerated version of this trend; prices continue to rise until supply comes closer to meeting demand at the new price.

The net effect of all this is that higher-quality wines cost more and the most popular, limited-production wines cost more. If you want "something that tastes like it for less money," itˆs best to look to new properties and emerging areas. Our wine department employees are invaluable sources of information about what's new, delicious, and cheap.

Additionally, the quality wines under $10 and ¯New &
Noteworthy" sections of this website are good sources for information on high-quality value-oriented wines.

Q. How do you decide who gets the allocated wines?

A. The problem of allocated wines and the unfair practice by many wineries insisting that a large proportion of their production go to restaurants instead of retail stores has become our most visited battlefield.  These wines are sold on a first come basis as we receive them.

Q. I tasted this great wine when I was in France (or
Germany, or England, or Italy, or . . .). I talked to the producer and he said their wines are not imported into the US. Can you (CLIFF’S) get it for me?

A. In order for us to order wines from Europe, the producer has to have a US importer and a Maryland wholesaler. Each individual wine has to have or get US and Maryland approvals, and the producer has to register to sell his wines in the state of Maryland. If you'll give us the chance, we can probably recommend something we carry that is a lot like what you tasted in Europe.

Q. I bought this great wine when I was in France (or Germany, or England, or Italy, or . . .). They said they could ship it to me but I got a call from US Customs saying a licensed importer had to come and clear it. Can you (CLIFF’S) get it for me?

A. In a word, no. It is illegal for a foreign producer or merchant to ship alcohol directly from their country directly to any consumer's address in the US. The only places they can legally ship to are licensed importers. Those shipping arrangements must be made in advance and must comply with all state and federal import regulations (including label approvals, taxes, and customs documents).