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Deep Cork Answers Your Wine Questions 

Our wine informant responds to the question you've always been afraid to ask.

The cuisine might be fusion, but when the wine list comes your way, it's nothing but confusion. Humidity is approaching 99 percent, and you desperately want to ice down your Robert Parker-rated 100-point Rhone ... but do you dare? And what gives these guys in Bordeaux the nerve to price wines like they're selling engagement rings?

We all have questions about wine, but we don't always want to bring them up at the dinner table. As a public service, Gambit Weekly asked readers to submit their secret wine questions and then turned these queries over to our source, Deep Cork, for the answers. After consulting some local wine experts and holding a refresher course with a few bottles of rosé, the results are presented here.

Dear Deep Cork,

Why do some wines cost so much more than others? Are they really that much "better?"

Congratulations for striking on one of the most subjective questions in the world of wine, right up there with "which wine tastes best?" There are a few concrete factors at work, however. One of them can be answered with the real estate agent's mantra of "location, location, location," which applies to wine as surely as it does to renovated Uptown shotguns. "You're paying for real estate, in this case the wine- producing real estate," says Jon Smith, proprietor of Cork & Bottle Fine Wines. In France, that could mean paying for the pedigree attached to a plot of land that has been producing prized wines for generations and where owners charge $75 a bottle because they can. But then you could have a California dentist who just bought three acres in Napa Valley for $4 million and needs to sell expensive wine to pay down the mortgage. Like any other commodity, rarity also drives prices up. So a wine might not necessarily be superior by a measure of taste, but it is more difficult to find and therefore more highly sought after by collectors. "Objectively, a bottle of wine is only as good as the person who's drinking it thinks it is," says Shannon Fristoe, general manager and sommelier at Bayona. Keep that in mind next time your fiancé's dad hands you the wine list and asks you to choose.

Dear Deep Cork,

What's the difference between blush and rosé?

Blush is what you do when your mother-in-law orders white zinfandel at a restaurant, but to answer the question, the difference is marketing. Blush is the American name for rosé, a fresh, crisp wine that originated in the Provence region of France. It is made with less exposure to grape skins than reds, which accounts for typically lighter hues. The term blush was applied to a rogue's gallery of sugary American rosés in the 1970s and is rarely seen on labels today. But rosé is getting more of the respect it deserves in the U.S., and especially in hot climates like ours. Rosés made from Pinot Noir, Malbec, Cabernet, Syrah or Sangiovese are turning up at more wine shops and offer light, dry, refreshing alternatives to their more full-bodied relations.

Dear Deep Cork,

How does one politely turn down wine after the waiter opens the bottle, pours a taste and it's just not up to snuff for whatever reason?

While the odds are not quite as grim as Russian roulette, at some point wine drinkers will likely come across a bottle that has been "corked" — that is, contaminated with a naturally occurring chemical called trichloronanisole that can come from the cork and make the wine taste the way a wet newspaper smells. This and other flaws can constitute a damaged product, and in a restaurant, the diner has every right to expect that management will take the wine back and remove it from the bill. Naturally, there is some etiquette involved. The corkage problem is less common today with the growing use of screw caps and artificial cork closures. But the lingering risk of such flaws is the rationale behind tableside wine evaluation: the time-honored tradition of a server pouring a small amount from the chosen bottle for the patron to sniff, swirl and taste. If you detect an off smell or taste — something like mustiness, wet dog, burnt matches — let the server know then and there. If you are unsure, ask the server, the sommelier or even another person at your table for a second opinion. The important thing is to point it out early. At restaurants that are actually trying to cultivate a clientele rather than just turning the tables night after night, managers genuinely want diners to send back flawed bottles. "You'd be amazed how often people drink half a bottle of wine before they let us know it's corked," says Joe Briand, general manager and wine director at Herbsaint. "We really don't want anyone sitting there with a bad wine."

Remember, however, that there is a big difference between a damaged bottle of wine and a wine you decide you just don't like. Some restaurants will be more accommodating than others when it comes to taking back intact wine, but strictly speaking, if you select a wine, it is opened and it is in proper condition then the restaurant has sold you that bottle of wine.

Dear Deep Cork,

I know there are different types of glasses for different types of wine, but why do people make a big deal about the quality of glassware? Does it really make a difference?

If you're drinking for effect, you can use a plastic Mardi Gras cup for all I care. If you're drinking to savor every aspect of a fine wine, you ideally want thin crystal. A thick lip on a glass is a flavor speed bump and can mute the flavor on the palate. A thin lip offers much less interference. And while glass is filled with tiny pores where residual flavors and even traces of soap can lurk, lead crystal provides a flawless vehicle to deliver the goods. "Quality matters," says Beth Ribblett, proprietor of Swirl Wines in Faubourg St. John. "The shape doesn't matter nearly as much. It can be an all-purpose glass for whites or reds, as long as it's of good quality."

Dear Deep Cork,

Let's say you have a bottle of wine that you opened but somehow failed to drink with dinner that night — not a problem we have often, mind you! — and you managed to stuff the cork back in, but you haven't used one of those fancy gas devices and a special seal for the bottle. How long will it last? One day, two days?

When you open a wine, the clock begins ticking. Just how long that clock has, however, can vary a great deal depending on the type, age and quality of the wine. The main culprit working against its longevity is oxidation, a natural process that essentially converts the alcohol in a wine into vinegar. Some younger, better-made wines can keep it together for up to two days, while others will have given up the ghost by morning. Stowing the unfinished portion in the fridge will slow this process considerably, keeping a wine drinkable for perhaps up to a week. But that is merely first aid for the injury you inflicted by not finishing it off, the fate any wine hopes for in the end.

Dear Deep Cork,

Why does red wine give me such a rockin' hangover? And why does this not matter to me?

Two questions, one answer: You drink too much. The reason red consumption affects you more harshly than white, however, comes down to the very thing that makes the wine red to begin with. The grape seeds and skins that give them tannins also inject a large amount of histamines. That may trigger an allergic reaction and effectively glue your head to the pillow the next morning. On the plus side, however, those skins and seeds also contribute to the celebrated antioxidant properties of red wine. One solution may be to toss back a few anti-histamine tablets before your next Cabernet tasting.

Dear Deep Cork,

Is it ever acceptable to chill red wine? My husband thinks this is terribly gauche, but I'm not a white wine fan and as we enter the long hot New Orleans summer I need to know.

It is more than acceptable. It's often preferred and in many cases it's downright necessary. An overheated red can taste disjointed, with the alcohol too prevalent and sharp. Conventional wisdom has it that red wine should be consumed at room temperature. Keep in mind that a lot of conventional wisdom around wine came together in caves in France, not in southern Louisiana. "A rule of thumb I use in New Orleans is to chill a red wine for 15 to 20 minutes," says Ribblett of Swirl Wines. At home, this means sticking the bottle in the fridge for a spell. Restaurants with better wine service will usually keep their reds gently chilled until service, but otherwise you can request that the wine take a plunge in an ice bucket to knock the heat off. In general, the lighter the red wine, the more chill it should take.

Dear Deep Cork,

What's the difference between Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris? I think it's the same grape but different countries but I am not sure.

Pinot Grigo originated in Italy and Pinot Gris originated in Alsace. Both use the same grape wherever they are made today. But in the old countries, as in the new world, the two developed distinct styles through the winemaking process, giving them somewhat different profiles. Pinot Grigio tends to be lighter, crisper and leaner while a Pinot Gris is a bit weightier and more full bodied.

Dear Deep Cork,

I know you're supposed to tip more if you BYOB, but based on what? Is it supposed to be 15% of the price of the bottle?

This is where the honor system comes in, a test of your respect for the whole air of culinary civility that empowered you to bring your own bottle to the restaurant to begin with. The corkage fee that the restaurant likely adds to your bill for that privilege goes to the house, not to the server, so it's incumbent on you to acknowledge that he or she still had to do the work of wine service. Cash is the best acknowledgement. When the check comes, keep it simple by adding $10 to $15 to the tip or, alternately, if you normally tip 20 percent bump it up to 25 percent. "Hopefully, you're bringing in something really special if you BYOB to a restaurant with its own wine list," says Brad Hollingsworth, proprietor of Clancy's Restaurant. "So it's always polite to offer a taste to the sommelier or manager or whoever is the significant wine person in the house."

Dear Deep Cork,

What's to explain the sudden interest in Malbec wines from Argentina and Chile? They've been around for a while, but are just now starting to hit the mainstream in the U.S.

Sudden is a relative term. Wines made with the Malbec grape have been regulars on the shelves of the better, more eclectic wine shops for many years, but now a convergence of factors have raised its profile in the U.S. dramatically. As the euro pulls ahead of the dollar, European wines become more expensive. Wines from South America, where currency compares more favorably to the beleaguered dollar, have emerged as a shining value. In Argentina especially, the higher demand from U.S. consumers has sparked greater investment in both production and marketing, setting up the classic self-fulfilling prophecy. "The $7 or $8 Malbec is replacing the Cotes du Rhone or Chianti you were drinking five years ago," says Smith at Cork & Bottle. Of course, all this would amount to little more than a warehouse of Boone's Farm if it weren't for the fact that Malbecs can be excellent, versatile wines.

Dear Deep Cork,

Lots of restaurants keep their red wines right at the bar in plain sight. By the middle of summer, is room temperature too warm to store or serve them?

A restaurant that lines its bar with bottles of wine usually isn't just showing off the inventory. These bottles are generally the ones sold by the glass, and they are kept in easy reach for the bartender because the restaurant goes through a good deal of it. Even in sultry New Orleans, an air-conditioned restaurant bar should not get hot enough to damage a wine subject to that kind of turn over. That said, there are some appalling examples out there of perfectly good bottles of wine treated like decorative art glass in the hands of bar managers. "You go to some places and the bottles stand right next to the window, and sunlight is the last thing you want hitting your wine," says Briand, from Herbsaint. If it looks like a wine has been sunbathing over by the Tuaca, pick something else or at least ask that the bartender plunge the bottle in an ice bucket for a few minutes.

Dear Deep Cork,

If a sommelier suggests decanting a bottle of wine, is that just to get rid of sediment? Or should I wait to drink it while it breathes?

Wine is decanted for one or the other of those reasons. Older wines may be decanted to get rid of sediment, a natural byproduct of the aging process. Meanwhile, "splash decanting" — or pouring the wine from the bottle to a decanter, and sometimes back into the bottle again — is used as an alternative to the potentially lengthy ritual of allowing a young wine to open up on its own in the glass. Wine is bottled and then sealed with a cork or another stopper to shield it from air, which causes it to change. At first, the exposure opens up a wine's flavors and aromas (but eventually that changes to a process of deterioration). The motion created by decanting helps activate the wine and allows it to show its full characteristics at a faster clip. "It can take an hour or more for that to happen with a young wine on its own, and most diners don't have that kind of time so that's why we use splash decanting," says Fristoe at Bayona.

Dear Deep Cork,

I try to read wine labels to learn more about wine. I see on certain labels "Reserve" or "Old Vine," among other expressions. What do these mean?

On American wine labels, those terms don't necessarily mean anything. In Europe, those terms are strictly defined by law. Each region has its own laws telling winemakers what grapes can be grown, for how long, how much can be produced and what must go on the label. These regulations and definitions assure overall quality, protect the name of the region and tell consumers what to expect.

The United States has some regulations, but not many. Terms like "estate," "special select," "aged quality" and a whole host of other phrases are not legally defined. So different wineries each have their own definition, and in some cases it's just a marketing term. One winery might place "Reserve" on a bottle containing its best juice. At another winery, it may mean something completely different. One vintner may decide to use the term "old vines" to denote grapevines that are more than 60 years old. Another winery may use the same term for 40- or 20-year-old vines.

When buying American wine, price is often a good indicator of the quality of the wine, and labels are guides, not definitions.


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