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Wine 101

Martha Stewart Living, May 1996

Though understanding all the nuances of wine may seem like a daunting task, it actually isn't difficult at all. On the most basic level, wine tasting is highly subjective -- you drink what you like. Almost everyone is endowed with the necessary tools for appreciating wine: sight, smell, and taste. But to help you understand wine's true character, these are some things you should know:

General Rules
The variety of grapes used in a wine -- Chardonnay, Merlot, or Zinfandel, to name a few -- determines the wine's color, aroma, and taste. Experiment with different varietals to determine your own tastes.

The deeper the color and aroma, the more full-bodied the wine. For example, a full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon is more saturated in color and has a richer, fruitier aroma than a lighter-bodied Chianti (made from Sangiovese grapes), which has a lighter color and a brighter and sharper aroma.

Wines should appear clear and have a brilliant color without cloudiness or haziness. Lack of clarity indicates a flaw in the wine-making process.

Choosing Wines
Our Wine Glossary will help you choose just the right bottles.

Wine Glasses
Clear crystal wineglasses are best for tasting wines; cut or colored glasses prevent you from enjoying the wine's color and clarity. Wineglasses should be round with a rim that curves in slightly. This shape allows you to swirl the wine to release the fragrance while capturing the aroma within the rim. Traditionally, white wine is served in glasses that are smaller than those for red. Smaller glasses allow white wine to stay chilled longer, while the larger bowls of red-wine glasses give the fuller-bodied reds more room to breathe.

Wine Temperatures
Before serving, chill white wines for 30 minutes to an hour, to a temperature of 45 degrees to 50 degrees; if the wine is too cold, its taste will be dulled. Serving it much warmer than recommended can also dull its flavor while emphasizing the taste of the alcohol.

Red wines should be served at room temperature, though if a home is particularly warm the wine may need to be chilled slightly; ideally, red wine should be served at a temperature of 50 degrees to 65 degrees (serve lighter reds at the lower end of that range, full-bodied wines at the higher end).

Decanting
This serving technique is preferred for two types of wine: For young red wines that haven't had a chance to fully mature in the bottle, decanting allows the wine to release its flavors by exposing it to air. Allow the wine to sit for up to one hour in the decanter before serving, depending on the age of the wine (i.e., longer for younger wines). Red wines that are 8 years or older contain a bit of sediment in the bottom of the bottle; decanting allows you to pour off just the wine into the decanter, leaving the sediment behind (let the bottle sit upright for at least a day beforehand to allow all the sediment to collect at the bottom). Since older wines are more fragile, and their flavors dissipate more quickly when exposed to air, it is a good idea to serve these wines soon after decanting.

Serving and Drinking
It is good practice to fill wine glasses slightly less than half full. This gives the wine room enough to breathe, and makes swirling the wine in the glass less hazardous to your clean tablecloth.

When taking a sip of wine, let a little bit of air into your mouth; this allows the flavors of the wine to fully develop on your palate.

Wine and Entertaining
When determining how much wine to buy for a party, the standard estimate of half a bottle per guest is a good place to start. If you're having a dinner party with many courses, or a cocktail party that will run longer than three hours, however, you may need to plan for more -- besides, it never hurts to have more bottles than you need.

Storing
The perfect conditions for storing wine are a cool temperature, dampness, and darkness. Basements are ideal. The temperature should be between 55 degrees and 58 degrees. If the wine is stored at warmer than 70 degrees, it will age too quickly and may not develop the complexity it would in the proper atmosphere, while temperatures below 50 degrees will prevent the wine from maturing at all. Humidity levels of 60 percent to 70 percent will keep the corks from contracting and drying out; if this happens, unwanted oxygen can seep into the bottle, altering its flavor. To further prevent the corks from drying out, store the wine bottles on their sides; the wine will keep the corks moist. Because ultraviolet rays can damage wine, it is imperative that the bottles are kept away from sunlight. For the best results, use incandescent light bulbs, rather than fluorescent, where wine is stored.