Getting to Know Your Wine, Or the Wine You Might Give This Holiday Season


My husband Nino and I just returned from a quick hiatus to Portland, ME. We do several trips throughout the year there. The trip, regardless of where we go, always entails trying great restaurants and finding new wines that we haven’t had before. (It’s kind of a job requirement, I guess.) The trip always turns into a culinary and vinous exploration.

While there I thought about people who may receive wine this holiday.  I wondered what they might get – will they receive expensive wines; wines meant to be aged; older wines meant to be consumed now; etc. I also wondered if people would care about what they receive; had any idea about if it might be a collectible or simply would just want to drink the gift they are given.  Heck, I would care if I had something worth money or holding onto. But then again, I’m in the business and well like to collect things.

These questions about what people might receive flooded my mind and also compelled me to share some interesting, and what I think is, helpful information about wine. First let me start by saying that about 95% of wine today is meant to be consumed young, within a year or two of the vintage on the bottle.  (Vintage date on the bottle is when the grapes are picked.)

Most wine is not meant to be held onto in a cellar, basement, closet or whatever your storage conditions (hopefully good) for 10, 20+ years. (Please if you have a Pinot Grigio out there that is more than 3-4 years past the date on the bottle, chances are you want to just pour that right down your kitchen sink.) But it’s important to know what to do with your wine whether it falls into the 95% category or the 5% category, which usually is at a much higher price, regardless of whether that price is warranted. (Another article for later – wine prices.)

If you have any interest in wine, even if you are not a collector, you should understand what you have been given or even what you purchase.  Why you think? Well, what if you buy or are given wine that’s meant to age for 5 years and you drink it right away. Other than your mouth tightening and prickling up from the wine’s tannins (natural compounds in wine as well as oak barrels that can give you a dry mouth feel) that have not softened out, you might  think the wine is “bad,” “off” or “atrocious” when really it’s just not ready to drink for another 5 years. (You’re probably thinking well then why the heck are they even releasing the wine. Well, that’s another article too.)

Wines for putting away

Certain wines, like red wine from France’s Bordeaux area (cleverly referred to as Bordeaux);  Spain’s’ Rioja or Priorat area; Italy’s Barolo or Montalcino area;  and higher end Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon are often meant to age for some time before drinking. For example, if you go into a shop to purchase a $75 Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley with a vintage date on it of 2009, chances are you may want to wait another 4-5 years to drink it. Wines that fall in the 5% category are usually not meant for the “just getting into wine” consumer. However, often people don’t know this, rightfully so, and are drinking wine too early.

White wine from France’s Burgundy area (referring to Chardonnay here and also known as white Burgundy, which is totally different from California Chardonnay) is also another good storage candidate. White Burgundy can be consumed young, and doesn’t have, I think, as detrimental an effect on your mouth as drinking certain red wines too young. It also can last for years when stored properly, and provide great enjoyment.

If you have a nice dinner party to go to and want to buy an expensive bottle to drink that same night, then don’t get the expensive, high end, young wine (young being the operative word here) that should stay in the bottle for a while before opening. Instead get the bottle that’s a little older and ready for drinking now. How will you know, you wonder? Ask the people working where you buy wine. They should know.

If you are buying wine in this 5% level then understand what you are buying or if you don’t want to learn, simply have someone tell you. Know the grape involved and if it is one that has aging capabilities. Know what these aging capabilities are. For instance, you don’t want to hold onto a wine for 15 years if by year 7 it will be past the time to drink it. 

Again, most wine is made to drink now. (Remember the Pinot Grigio reference above.) But the most important thing to know about wine that’s meant to age (this 5% of wine) is don’t buy it unless you are going to age/store it. If you are planning on drinking it now, then, well, buy a different bottle that’s ready for drinking now. Again, how will you know, you wonder? Ask the people working where you buy wine. They should know.

Enjoy the journey! It should be fun!

Questions on wines for drinking now or cellaring? Email me at