5@5 - Frequently asked wine questions
December 15th, 2011
05:00 PM ET
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5@5 is a daily, food-related list from chefs, writers, political pundits, musicians, actors, and all manner of opinionated people from around the globe.

A wine is a terrible thing to waste.

And with a little know-how from Jordan Salcito, the wine director of Crown Restaurant in New York City and creator of Bellus Wines, you too can learn to read between the lines - and vines - to get the most out of every pop of the cork.

Five Questions to Demystify Wine: Jordan Salcito

1. One often hears that when it comes to selecting a wine "there's no right or wrong" wine is all about personal preference. Is this really true?
"In short, yes. Cuisine is a good analogy: some people love sardines; other people can’t stand them. Each grape has its own flavor profile. Some wines, like Pigato, from Italy’s Ligurian coast, has a slight anise note, a lovely citrusy freshness and slight herbal undertone. Someone who tends to like more aromatic wines, like the lychee and ginger-tinged Gewürztraminer, may not enjoy that.

Some people tend to like acidity in wines, and food, more than others. For those people, Riesling is a staple. For others, who prefer a luxurious richness and viscosity, a grape from the Rhône Valley, such as Viognier (if you want something floral and aromatic) or Grenache Blanc (if you want something more neutral, like red apple and Meyer lemon), will likely be more pleasing."

2. Different wines tend to be given different quality rankings. How does one assess this? Can a novice discern this?
"While it takes a bit of experience, anyone can become good at discerning a wine of high quality. Though it’s tricky to distill all quality indicators into generalizations, higher-quality wines tend to be made from grapes that have been grown on lower-yielding vines. The fewer berries a vine produces, the more flavor is packed into each grape. This intensity of flavor is one indicator of quality.

Another hallmark of a great wine is balance. When you taste a wine, it should be harmonious - that is, no one element should stick out. For example, a wine should not taste like booze! (If it does, the alcohol is probably too high, and the wine isn’t balanced).

Another indicator of quality is complexity. When you stick your nose into a glass, how many aromas can you smell? If all you smell is fruit, and alcohol, the wine is probably not very dimensional.

Finally, pay attention to the length of the wine. That is, after you’ve take a sip, how long do the flavors linger on your palate? An inexpensive wine will disappear quickly, whereas one of higher quality will stick around and continue to develop long after that sip has disappeared."

3. What is the point of blind tasting? How does someone get good at it?
"For a sommelier, blind tastings are the ultimate way to prove to oneself that one understands general behavior of grapes in various parts of the world. Becoming an excellent blind taster has a lot to do with time and preparation. I’ve been fortunate to have been mentored by some extraordinary blind tasters (Richard Betts, Rajat Parr, my husband, Robert Bohr). All of them cite experience as the most important factor.

If you want to become a great blind taster, I highly recommend joining a tasting group (in which those involved possess abilities and experience greater than yours)."

4. What are good rules of thumb when creating wine pairings?
"In general, foods that are high in acidity (salads dressed in vinaigrette, fish served with a citrus sauce) are best paired with wines that are also high in acidity. Rieslings, crisp Sauvignon Blancs, and Grüner Veltliners are all excellent go-to pairings for me for any citrusy salad.

Another rule of thumb: match textures. If you are eating a grilled ribeye, you’ll likely want something as dense and chewy to drink along with it. Cabernet-Sauvignon, Merlot, and even some Syrahs are perfect with beef, because they have a great backbone of tannins."

5. What is the most misunderstood grape?
"If I had to pick one, I’d say Chardonnay. While many people have a strong opinion about Chardonnay, either loving or loathing it, the grape is in fact a very neutral variety. It tends to take on the flavor of where it is grown, and by whom it has been made.

Chardonnay from Chablis tastes, to me, of lemon, green apples, chalk, salt water and occasionally Parmesan cheese rind. It has a higher acidity and more freshness than wines made from Chardonnay even just south, in famous villages of the Côte d’Or.

These wines are especially different from most California Chardonnays, which are made from ripe fruit and often aged in a lot of new oak, lending vanilla, pineapple upside-down cake and baking spice overtones to the wine."

Is there someone you'd like to see in the hot seat? Let us know in the comments below and if we agree, we'll do our best to chase 'em down.

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Filed under: 5@5 • Sip • Think • Wine


soundoff (28 Responses)
  1. mattymays

    hi eatocracy.cnn.com-ers merry xmas to you all – matt

    December 21, 2011 at 5:54 pm | Reply
  2. Observer

    Anyone who even thinks this much about wine is definitely an alcoholic. Just sayin.

    December 20, 2011 at 8:24 am | Reply
  3. @WINE EXPERT

    im no wine expert and thank you for the wine advice try till you find one you like

    December 18, 2011 at 12:08 pm | Reply
  4. Wastrel

    Why is vomiting up wine worse than beer or liquor?

    December 16, 2011 at 12:28 pm | Reply
  5. Wine Expert

    This is the only real wine advise you should know:

    You like what you like. Don't let some nerd tell you what's "good". If it brings you pleasure, who cares what some tart sneering down her nose at you thinks.

    December 16, 2011 at 12:28 pm | Reply
    • SherwoodOR

      It depends on what she looks like...

      December 16, 2011 at 1:00 pm | Reply
  6. Vino Suave

    Is a high price on a bottle a guarantee that the wine is of exceptional quality?
    Not necessarily. Marketing manipulation, media hype, pompous ratings and catchy labels are to blame for inflated costs. Instead, set an acceptable range between $8-15 dollars per bottle and give them a whirl. It helps to do a bit of research about the vineyard prior to purchase. Education goes a long way and helps the consumer develop knowledge about particular brands and their product. Expand it by trying different varietals, it's fun and enjoyable to know something about that particular wine before you pop the cork, but don't let it entirely influence your palate, which at the end, is the ultimate judge.

    December 16, 2011 at 11:51 am | Reply
    • Jamie

      I have found that many wines can be very good, even at $6-10 dollars. One would definitely hope that by paying a higher price the wine will at least not be spoiled or of a cheap variety grape. Still no guarantee the taste will appeal to everyone.

      December 16, 2011 at 12:22 pm | Reply
  7. Gary

    I recently returned from a visit to Chile where I discovered a wine I had never heard of before: Carmenere. I was told the story of it's origination in France and Spain, and it's introduction to Chile and then, following a vine disease issue in Europe it's apparent disappearance worldwide. Later it was rediscovered by a sommelier in the south of Chile who was told the grapes in question were 'merlot'. For all the excitement that this caused there, I'm surprised not to have heard, not to mention tasted, more of this wine in the United States. It is, by my estimation, an excellent wine which, if I can find it here, may overtake Merlot and Pinot Noir as my favorite.

    December 16, 2011 at 9:48 am | Reply
    • BJG

      I don't think I've seen it as a varietal in the US, but you will find it in many cab and merlot blends from chile. It sounds interesting.

      December 16, 2011 at 10:33 am | Reply
    • Jamie

      Yes, having lived in Peru the Concha y Toro Carmeniere was very popular from Chile. It was priced at about $9 USD there and it is also available here in the US at most major grocery stores in addition to wine shops. I do enjoy the taste of this wine.

      December 16, 2011 at 12:20 pm | Reply
    • Lisa

      I've seen Carmanere in the US and I've had it several times so you should be able to find it fairly easily if you know where to look. Never been to Chile though I hope to get there relatively soon, so I definitely learned about it in the US. It is very nice.

      December 20, 2011 at 8:04 am | Reply
  8. The Sediment Blog

    Are you allowed to drink openly on public transportation in the US (as in the picture)?

    December 16, 2011 at 9:41 am | Reply
    • him or her

      You can in Vegas.

      December 16, 2011 at 9:59 am | Reply
    • SherwoodOR

      It depends on the state. In Oregon, having a glass while waiting for a subway is... well, impossible since we have no subways. Trimet, public transit in Portland, prohibits alcohol on its facilities, but that is a Trimet rule, not a state law.

      December 16, 2011 at 12:58 pm | Reply
    • Jarod

      lol, the pic is the best part of the article. any time i pony up a glass of adult beverage while waiting for the local transport i raise the interest of any similarly dressed civic employees who think i need serving and protecting. i don't want to paint the corner of morals where a drink and its location is good or bad. i just want to note that there doesn't seem to be anyone objecting to a person having a sip while passing the time.

      December 16, 2011 at 1:19 pm | Reply
    • Annom

      Looks to me the pic was taken in London... look at the shape of the train / tunnel and the single track platform

      December 16, 2011 at 2:20 pm | Reply
    • Liefert

      Laughing.....sharp eyes! That's very funny. Maybe she'd best not drink too deeply or she might fall in front of the train!

      December 19, 2011 at 9:53 am | Reply
  9. Schmedley

    When is it proper to sniff the cork?

    December 16, 2011 at 7:07 am | Reply
    • tri21

      Never, unless you are a cork grower from Spain or Portugal.
      What you want to do is inspect the cork for:
      1) Make sure the logo on the cork matches the bottle you have requested.
      2) Look for signs that the wine has spoiled "corked". Corks that are cracked or have signs of mold may indicate a corked wine. Smelling the wine will often tell you this for sure. Corked wines smell like wet newspaper or dirty socks.

      December 16, 2011 at 8:54 am | Reply
    • Wacky Whino

      When I buy the Good stuff, $ 2.98 plus tax....I always schniff the twist on cap.

      December 16, 2011 at 11:54 am | Reply
    • SherwoodOR

      Before taking that first sip, sniff the cork. If it smells like wet cardboard, you've probably got a bad bottle on your hands.

      But, before you sniff, feel. The cork should be pliable and moist. If it's dry or stiff, you may have a bad bottle.

      But, before you feel, listen. If the cork makes a dry scretch as it's removed from the bottle, they you may have a bad bottle.

      December 16, 2011 at 12:56 pm | Reply
    • SherwoodOR

      Keep in mind that the purpose of smelling the cork is just as a first-check for a bad bottle. In a restaurant, the server should smell the cork for you and if he thinks there's a chance of a bad bottle, he should take the first small sip himself to avoid possibly presenting you with bad wine. You really can't tell that much about the wine from smelling the cork, just get that first-warning of a possible bad bottle.

      December 16, 2011 at 1:09 pm | Reply
  10. SherwoodOR

    As for general preferences, there certainly can be some. While my experience of them is limited, I have yet to have a Cabernet Franc that I've liked; they all seem to have a raw, green bell peper note that I really dislike.

    But, many general perferences come just from not having had the wine paired properly. I've had many people tell me, "I don't like sweet wines." But, then when the desert is served with a late-harvest Riesling, they rave about much better the chocolate torte is with the wine and how much they love the wine.

    I have learned to be very careful about making blanket, "I don't like (insert type of wine here)" declarations. I even still try the odd Cab Franc now and then just in case.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:16 pm | Reply
  11. SherwoodOR

    Are there any categorically-wrong pairings? Yes. A late-havest Riesling served with a Ceasar salad would be just wrong, for example. But that's an extreme case and anyone who is acquainted at all with that wine and that food will intuitive know that they're wrong for each other.

    December 15, 2011 at 7:11 pm | Reply

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