The Boston Phoenix September 28 - October 5, 2000


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Your turn

Letters . . . we get letters. Here are some answers.

by Thor Iverson

"Uncorked" is an interactive column. Yes, we tend to spout off about whatever's on our minds. But we also get a lot of feedback from you, our readers, and we try to work these comments, concerns, and questions into our columns (drop us a line at wine[a] to join in). This week, it's time for you to take over.

So what's on your minds? Well, to judge by the mail I get, a lot of you are worried about storage conditions, and whether yours are too hot, too dry, or otherwise unsuitable. We've helped exacerbate that angst with recitations of the party line on ideal storage: 55 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, high humidity, dark, no vibrations. And although there's always some controversy about these standards, the fact remains that wine stored under these conditions lasts longer (and ages better).

But it's important to keep in mind that these standards are for long-term cellaring. With bottles that are going to be consumed within the next few days, weeks, or even months, it's rarely necessary to be so exacting. Certainly, temperatures that never get above 70 degrees Fahrenheit are still desirable, but as long as there's no leakage, most wines earmarked for early drinking can take a small amount of abuse. (Leakage is caused by heat: it happens when the wine expands up to, and then past, the cork, which often allows oxygen in as the wine cools and contracts.) And big, sturdy wines like red zinfandel or Aussie shiraz are pretty hard to damage except by extended cooking.

For those few bottles that do need prolonged aging to taste their best, or for those that are particularly delicate, it's always worth looking into a portable storage unit. Some local wine shops carry them, and when they don't they can point you to a catalogue or a Web site (like where you can locate them. But that topic's worth an entire column in itself.

To the many of you who read the article on Boston's best restaurant wine lists, and asked if we're going to do a similar article on stores: yes, we are.

Another common question has to do with "found" wine -- bottles rescued from Grandma's attic or from a long-ignored storage closet. "Is it any good? Is it worth anything?" you usually ask. And the answer, 99 times out of 100, is no. The storage was probably not good enough, and these wines are almost invariably the kind of inexpensive, buy-now-drink-tonight stuff that doesn't improve with aging anyway.

Open them if you want -- they're not toxic, just over the hill -- but have something else on hand that you can actually drink. Of course, there's always that one-in-a-hundred bottle that's actually drinkable and worth something, and in that case we expect you to invite us over.

Many of you are overcome with anxiety over the issue of decanting a wine, or "letting it breathe." Obviously, when there's sediment at the bottom of a bottle, carefully decanting it into another container is standard practice. But what about young wines, or wines with no sediment?

Well, it's a fact that many wines respond well to some exposure to air, and that they open and fill out as they breathe. And some wines don't, quickly reverting to pure structure (tannin, acid, alcohol, etc.) or just falling apart. Unfortunately, there is absolutely no ironclad rule about when to open a bottle of wine to let it breathe. That's why the only way to handle it is to be flexible.

If you think a wine might need some air, open it a day or two before you're ready to drink it. Quickly pour a small sip, and then recork the rest. Taste it. Is it full and rich, or does there seem to be a lot less to the wine than you expected? If the former, leave it corked until just before you serve it. If the latter, simply leaving it uncorked isn't going to do much; there's not enough surface area in that dime-size neck for much air to reach the wine. So pour it out -- slowly -- into a decanter, pitcher, or other container. Then, from time to time, go back to that container and see how it's doing. When you start to detect that the wine is coming out of its shell, pour it back into the bottle and recork it. If it's getting close to serving time, and the wine still isn't budging, try "double-decanting" by pouring it back and forth between multiple containers. This sort of ultra-fast oxygenation is a little hard on the wine, but it can help in extreme cases.

We'll answer more questions in a later column, but here are a few answers to the most common question: taste any good wines lately?

Etchart 1999 Torrontés Cafayate ($9).The torrontés grape has something in common with muscat, in that it can be outrageously floral. This wonderfully unique Argentinean white is no exception; it offers a high-acid, fruity, and quite flowery expression of all that we'll miss when summer's over. Serve it chilled.

Mumm Champagne Extra Dry "Carte Classique" ($42). It's unfortunate that Champagne is so expensive, because there really is no challenger to its exquisite purity of flavor. This is a particularly good, if austere, version with delicate red-apple nuances. It's not a party wine, but it's perfect for a private anniversary celebration.

Sterling "Vintner's Collection" 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon Central Coast ($13). Sterling has been a perennial underachiever, turning out one sterile wine after. But things are finally turning around, and this bargain-priced cabernet is a good harbinger of things to come. With classic blackberry and tobacco flavors, this wine is not complex, but is exactly the sort of simple, fruity, enjoyable wine a lot of California vintners should be producing, but rarely do.

Fritz Winery 1997 Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley "Old Vine" ($21.99). A basket of dark fruit (plum, crabapple, prune, blackberry) with a gritty chocolate feel and fireworks on the finish. As delicious as this wine is right now, ripe tannins and a great balance indicate a promising future. Drink with grilled steak, of course.

Thor Iverson can be reached at wine[a]

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