Get the most out of your wine
For the 25th anniversary edition of his “Windows on the World Complete Wine Course” book, wine expert Kevin Zraly traveled to 20 countries and tasted 4,000 wines. We asked him for wine tasting and buying advice even a novice can decipher.
Zraly suggests placing your hand over your glass before smelling and tasting it. “It locks in the aroma, enhancing it about 10 times,” he said.
“Smell is the most important thing when it comes to wine,” he said.
“It all goes back to the limbic system, the oldest part of our brain, where the pleasure comes from,” he said. “That’s a memory bank and a pleasure bank. Smell evokes memory and it also helps people remember the wines.”
To decant or not to decant?
When wine is decanted it’s given time to breathe before consumed. But it doesn’t necessarily taste better. In a decanting experiment Zraly did for New York Magazine in the 1970s, all the taste-testers said the best wine was the one that was opened and served immediately.
“I think it’s OK to decant — it’s not going to hurt the wine, unless it’s an older one. You have to be very careful about decanting an older bottle of wine,” he said. “But most of the time people don’t drink old wines, and the decanter looks nice — it’s more for the show,” he said.
Suggested serving temperatures
White wines are often served too cold, and red wines too warm, Zraly said.
“I prefer my reds at 63 to 65 degrees,” he said.
Lighter reds should be served cooler, and heavier white wines should be served a bit warmer.
“Say you have a really big, oaky, California Chardonnnay. That’s almost a red masquerading as a white, so it should be served at the same temperature as a red,” he said. “You’d want a Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc to be colder.”
But even cold white wines shouldn’t be served right out of the fridge.
“A refrigerator is a bit too cold,” Zraly said. “Your fridge is probably about 40 degrees, and you want the whites to be about 45 degrees. So keep it out to warm it up a little bit.”
Ordering at a restaurant
Zraly’s No. 1 rule for wines at a restaurant: “Don’t spend a lot of money.”
“A restaurant is not the place to experiment,” he said. “The mark-up can be outrageous.”
Zraly doesn’t spend more than $75 for a bottle, even at formal restaurants.
For wines sure to please a table full of diverse palates, Zraly suggested Pinot Noir, which pairs nicely with food. “If I was blindfolded and tasted it, I’d think it was a white. It’s very versatile and goes with chicken, fish, vegetables, steak — everything.”
For those who prefer white wines, Zraly recommended Sauvignon Blanc. “It’s much less expensive than Chardonnay and people really like it,” he said.
But don’t be afraid to ask your server for suggestions, he said.
Best values at the wine store
“The best values in the world are in the $10-$20 range,” Zraly said. “People always ask for under-$10 deals, but if you’re willing to spend $5 more you’ll get something great.”
His top-two recommendations: Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile and Malbec from Argentina, both under $20. “A lot of it has to do with the value of the land,” he said. “It’s about what you pay for an acre in Argentina vs. an acre in Napa.”