On Wine

Posted: June 28, 2000

Time to put on airs

Even the best wines need it

I had the gang over for a tasting last week. The wine was some light summery white stuff that you'll read about here in a week or two. It was pretty easy to decode - simple fruit flavors and crisp acidity. Lots of fun but not very challenging. When we were done tasting, I felt I owed them something, some wine that was worthy of their efforts, that told them how much I care. So I pulled something from the cellar, a bottle that had gotten some very nice reviews in the wine press. It cost about 30 bucks, it was red and the winemaker is someone that everybody in the business admires.

Just to admit how perverse this wine tasting can be, I'll admit that I wrapped the bottle in a brown paper bag - one of those singletons they use in the state store. Hey, they may have worked for their wine, but why not keep 'em guessing?

As I poured, I was pretty excited. The wine had just been released and I was pretty sure nobody had tasted it before. Noses went down to glasses, I mentally gave myself the Host of the Week Award.

Then one of my friends looked up at me, her nose still in the glass. Her look was sharp, as if I had tried to pull a fast one. What's going on here? I quickly took a sniff. The famous wine had a short, sour smell. Another, deeper, snorting inhalation. Nothing. I took a taste, rolled it around on my tongue and drew a puff of air through my lips. All I got for my trouble was the same vaguely sour taste and a slightly puckery sensation. Bummer. At those prices, you ought to get a flavor, even if it's one you don't like. So I corked the bottle, whisked the glasses away and brought out something else.

The next day when the red-headed chef dropped by, I told him the story. He was properly sympathetic and to prove my point, I brought out the bottle. This time, it was delicious, deep berry flavors underneath a seductive bouquet that had hints of tobacco and cedar. The wine had made a liar out of me twice.

What happened?

Wine changes when it's exposed to oxygen in the air. Even a little bit of dissolved air makes wine taste better immediately. Over a few hours, the sharp tastes of acids and tannins that protected the wine in the bottle combine with oxygen and make way for the fruity tastes of the grape and for the other flavors that have developed. This process is what is meant by the silly-sounding phrase "letting the wine breathe."

My experience has been that many wines are improved by decanting them; that is, by pouring them from their original bottle into another container. The wine in this case had almost 24 hours to react with the air in the bottle. If you see wine lovers twirling their glasses, chances are good that, along with putting some wine in the air so they can smell it, they're hoping to dissolve a bit of air in the wine.

So what was the ugly duckling wine? I can recommend it to you highly, just be sure to add air:

Chaddsford Merican '7 ($33), an earthy but restrained Bordeaux nose with a medium body, deep fruit flavors and a long finish.

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