Wine Wisdom: 5 Must Haves Deborah Parker Wong

Deborah Parker Wong with Lehmann Glass

An open mind – Buying a wine based solely on points amounts to a shortcut that will eventually backfire. Knowing what you enjoy, however, limited, is a starting point to a world of discovery. Points can help guide that journey by calling attention to an unknown variety or producer but, like following a well-meaning GPS that leads you down a dead end street, if you always rely on points which are someone else’s opinion about the wine, you’re not learning to trust your own palate.  Broaden your horizons and explore mid-priced wines that are somewhat similar in style to those you

Waiter’s corkscrew – By the time you’re a wine enthusiast, you most likely have a kitchen drawer cluttered with wine accessories.  Forgot the gimmicky wine openers once you learn how to confidently pull a cork using a waiter’s corkscrew, in most cases, it will be the only tool you’ll ever need.  There are exceptions, a rabbit ear pull is useful if you’re opening wines with very old, fragile corks and a press pull is handy if you’re opening 50 bottles at a time. Otherwise, practice makes perfect.

Quality glassware – Sensory science has proven that quality glassware actually enhances your enjoyment of wine but that doesn’t mean you have to buy the most expensive glasses available. For everyday use, select thin-lipped, unleaded crystal stems in one size that works for both white and red wines. Larger glasses are always a bonus if you’re drinking blockbuster reds that need to breathe but then a decanter works equally as well.

Temperature-controlled wine storage –  Heat is the enemy of any wine that hasn’t been fortified or intentionally oxidized and to be well rested, wine needs to be kept in a cool, dark, still place.  The refrigerator works in the short term but it’s far too cold for long-term-storage and the development of wines bottled under cork.  Invest in a small wine refrigerator or, if your climate is favorable, create a cellar that takes advantage of natural conditions.

Like-minded enthusiasts – Wine is best enjoyed with food and friends. If you don’t enjoy cooking, spend time with people who do and bring wines to the table that will delight and challenge them.  It’s time to move past the old maxim “white wine with fish and red wine with meat” and apply the basic chemistry of food and wine pairing to get the most enjoyment from every sip and bite.

Lacie, 24 – A lot of people say a wine glass plays an immense role when drinking wine. Is this true? What are your best recommended
glasses for both white and red wines?

DEBORAH: Sensory scientists have proven that wine glasses enhance our enjoyment of wine and the reason they do is based on their shape rather than their quality. That said, nothing beats a thin-lipped, unleaded crystal glass with enough room to move your wine around without sloshing for maximum enjoyment. For everyday use, look for an unleaded crystal glass in a
generous size that will work for both white and red wines, I happen to like the Crate & Barrel Viv Big Red Wine Glass ($4.95) which is unleaded crystal made in Slovakia and comparable to the Riedel Vinum Bordeaux ($55). If you’re not concerned about breakage or want a signature shape, Riedel offers a different glass for every variety and style of wine. I do own Riedels and Andrea Immer’s The One glass in two sizes but forgo the taller Zalto Universal Glass ($60) which is a favorite with sommeliers. When it comes to Champagne and bubbles, avoid straight-sided flutes and opt for a tulip shape or regular wine glass. I prefer the Lehmann Grand Champagne glass (set of six $90) as it improves the enjoyment of any sparkling wine.

Pamela, 26 – I don’t drink wine but I would love to learn about food and wine pairings. Where and how do I start?

DEBORAH: The familiar maxim “White wine with fish and red wine with meat,” is a serviceable guideline but inspired food and wine pairing relies more on understanding the basic chemistry between wine and food. Ideally, we want them to enhance one another and one way to achieve that is through mirrored pairings in which the flavors and the weight of the food are mirrored by the wine. Try a savory, umami and black pepper-driven pinot noir served with pepper-seasoned charcuterie.  Acidity in wine is essential as it elevates the flavors in food and creates magic when paired with salt. Salt dials up the fruit in lean red wines with moderate tannins and makes them seems richer and rounder while it takes the edge of any wine that might otherwise seem too acidic. A personal favorite indulgence is pairing Champagne and truffled pomme frites. This pairing works on many levels by mirroring the yeasty, earthy mineral notes of the Champagne with the earthy truffles and potato and by contrasting acidity, salt and texture as the rich heat of the frites meets cool palate-cleansing bubbles. The bottom line: Most wines work with most foods so pursue mirrored and contrasting pairings and then let your guests decide which produce the most pleasure.

Jana, 30 What is the difference between a Burgundy and Bordeaux blend? And at the end of the day, does it really even matter?

DEBORAH: Both regions produce red and white wines but they’re as different as night and day.  At its most basic, red Bordeaux is a blend of grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc and red Burgundy is a monovarietal wine made from Pinot Noir.  As a rule, Burgundy is typically a lighter wine style with high acid, moderate tannins and oak flavors while Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot-dominant Bordeaux has considerably more tannin and oak influence.  What matters most is navigating the various levels of quality produced in each region so you get the most enjoyment from the wine and the food you’re pairing it with. If you’re a lover of California Cabernet Sauvignon then you’ll find modern, high-end Bordeaux wines to your liking as they’re growing increasingly similar in style. If you enjoy medium-bodied Cabernet or Merlot-dominant wines with less extraction and oak influence look for Cru Bourgeois or Bordeaux Superior.  In Burgundy, Premier Cru level wines offer some of the best quality for value enjoyment and, in warmer vintages, entry-level Bourgogne will please enthusiasts of more delicate, food-friendly Pinot Noir.

Lakeesha, 21 – Does cheap wine always taste bad?  Cheap is a relative term but let’s say we’re talking about wines that sell for under $7 retail. 

DEBORAH: Simply put, there’s quality for value to be found at every wine price point.  My threshold for quality usually starts at about $10 which is where I find wines that meet and often even exceed my expectations for quality and value.  Finding your “sweet spot” where quality and value meet is a
personal journey that depends largely on your preferences and budget.  Your discovery can be helped along by reading reviews of wines under $20, one of my favorites is The Reverse Wine Snob, and by asking the staff at your local wine retailer for wines that over deliver in quality for their price.  One of the best ways to navigate the under $10 category is to look for wines that have consistently performed well in wine competitions where they have been blind tasted by judges against similar or even more expensive wines and prevailed. Keep your expectations in check and happy hunting.

 

Ricardo, 28 I bought a pricey Napa Valley Cabernet last year, when should I open it?

DEBORAH: Assuming that your wine was released the same year that you purchased it, it’s most likely from the 2012 or 2013 vintage both of which are delicious. 2012 was a rebound vintage from a string of cool vintages that ended in 2011 and the wines are both accessible and age-worthy. I’ve tasted a good many of the 2013 releases from Napa and the majority were even more accessible than the ‘12s and quite ready for drinking.  Your drinking window depends entirely upon the flavor profile that you most enjoy.  Like your Cabernet Sauvignon fruit forward with mostly primary and secondary flavors? Drink any time within the next five years. Prefer your wine with less pronounced fruit and the addition of tertiary flavors like tobacco, leather, earth or mushroom? Then cellar it properly and enjoy after five years and, depending upon the maker and structure of the wine, up to 30.

 

Johara, 22 – What is a library wine?

DEBORAH: A library wine is simply one that the winery is holding in its cellar as part of its archive or library of former vintages. In addition to being a historical inventory of the winery’s production, this archive has many functions. Winemakers draw from their library to compare vintages and see how their wines are developing in a bottle. Library wines form what is known as a vertical tasting composed of consecutive or chronological vintages that may include a handful of wines or span 20 to 30 years or even decades. Well-cellared older vintages can be pricey so look for opportunities to taste a library wine or flight of library wines when you’re visiting a winery tasting room. This is a good way to gauge how the current release wines will develop and to decide if you’ll be drinking or cellaring what you buy. Wineries often donate large-format, older vintages from their libraries to charity auctions and events and host vertical tastings of library wines to commemorate an anniversary or important milestone.

 

Brian, 30 – I once bought a bottle that was rated 98 points by Robert Parker. I did not like it at all and thought it was offensive. Is there something wrong with my palate?

DEBORAH: Absolutely not! Assuming that the wine wasn’t out of condition meaning flawed or faulted, your preferences and those of Mr. Parker simply aren’t aligned. Parker’s palate is notoriously responsible for the trend of ripe, powerful, extracted wines that often taste wonderful on their own but can be challenging for tasters who prefer more delicate wine styles and tricky when pairing at the table. Buying a wine based solely on points amounts to a shortcut that will eventually backfire. Knowing what you enjoy, however, limited, is a starting point to a world of discovery. Points can help guide that journey by calling attention to an unknown variety or producer but, like following a well-meaning GPS that leads you down a dead end street, if you always rely on points you’re not learning to trust your own palate. Broaden your horizons and explore mid-priced wines that are somewhat similar in style to those you already enjoy. They’ll bridge you to new varieties and styles in an organic way that’s not entirely dependent on a number.

Devon, 25 – Should I serve my wine at room temperature or chilled?

DEBORAH: There are guidelines for the range of service temperatures recommended for different wine styles and I’m a firm believer in serving and drinking wines at the proper temperature. Wine is hugely temperature dependent and it will smell and taste very different at different temperatures. I don’t enjoy any wine that’s too warm, it’s simply not refreshing. At the same time, wine straight from the refrigerator will be too cold with the aromas and flavors suppressed. If you have a wine that’s imbalanced to alcohol, then the colder the better. I enjoy lighter red wines slightly chilled, they seem to come alive, and I always let my whites and bubbles come up a few degrees so I can fully appreciate the aromas. When you’re ordering wine in a restaurant, never hesitate to ask for an ice bucket if a red wine comes to the table too warm. Any well-trained sommelier or waiter will gladly oblige.

 

Tori, 28 – Why should we decant wine? Does it seriously improve the quality of the wines?

DEBORAH: My decanters get plenty of use and I also use a small aerator called the “Soiree” when I’m pressed for time or simply want to give a wine – red or white – a breath of air as it goes in to the glass. Decanting isn’t going to improve the quality of a wine per se, it’s going to improve the way you experience it. The reason we swirl wine in our glasses is to get some oxygen in so the wine can open up and release volatile aroma compounds and breathe. Decanters serve the same purpose for the whole bottle. In the short term, oxygen is your friend so keep swirling and decanting but leave a wine exposed to air for too long and it will oxidize, the flavors will flatten and go stale.

 

Jacob, 27 – My friends are not wine savvy but I’d like to throw a nice dinner with food-friendly wines, what should I serve?

DEBORAH: They may not be wine savvy but I’ll bet they have some idea of what they enjoy. Enjoyment being the priority, my formula for serving wine is to have a little something for everyone. Taking your meal in to consideration, don’t be afraid to offer several different wine styles and let guests gravitate to those they’re comfortable with or experiment. Dry sparkling wines are universal and I like to include one in the offering. A crisp, mineral-driven white that’s not too acidic, a rosé that can bridge vegetarian dishes and lighter meats, a low-tannin red like a cool climate Pinot Noir or a Beaujolias Cru work well with all but the heaviest meats, and a smooth, fuller bodied red like a Malbec or Zinfandel means you’ll steer clear of the astringent tannins and bitterness that marks many young, oaky Cabernet Sauvignons.

 

Chris, 23 – Are there any apps or techie gadgets out there that can help get my head in the game of wine appreciation?

DEBORAH: Wine appreciation is benefiting greatly from technology and it’s never been easier to archive what you’re drinking. Unless you’re confronted with a defining wine moment, an unforgettable, earthshaking sensory experience, it’s very likely that you won’t remember the name of that tasty Bordeaux you had by the glass with dinner last night. This is where apps like Vivino, Delectable and a host of others come to the rescue making it easy to record, rate and share that mystery wine. I use Delectable which is frequented by the wine trade but sometimes it’s simply a matter of logistics and I write tasting notes in a small notebook because it only requires one hand and frees up the other for my glass. Test drive a few apps to find the one that suits you and encourage your friends to join the suit. Wine’s a lot more fun when there’s good food and like-minded friends involved.

ABOUT DEBORAH PARKER WONG

Deborah Parker Wong, DWSET is an opinion-leading communicator, journalist, and author who specializes in the wine and spirits industries. As Northern California editor for m-dash Publishing and The Tasting Panel, SOMM Journal and Clever Root magazines, she writes monthly industry columns and reports on the global wine and spirits industries with an emphasis on technology and trends. She is the co-author of “1000 Great Everyday Wines” and contributes thought-provoking content to industry trade publications including Vineyard and Winery Management Magazine and Drinks Business in addition to lively consumer drinks content for Examiner.com and her archive site www.deborahparkerwong.com.