Developing Wine Smarts!

(written for the Los Altos Town Crier)

Much like a great friendship that perpetually evolves, wine continues to charm and surprise me. I hope never to feel that I know all there is to know about wine. The vastness of the subject keeps us wine devotees on our toes.
Following are a few tidbits I’ve picked up in my wine pursuits, including the topics I’m often asked about.
little drawing of common wine aromas

When should I decant a wine?
A wine’s age often determines whether it would benefit from being decanted. There is value, at times, in decanting both young and old wines.
Decanting, or pouring the wine from the bottle into a decanter, serves two purposes: It removes sediment and helps the wine breathe. Wines that need to have sediment removed generally do not need to breathe, and vice versa.
Why decant old wines?
Wines feed off oxygen. The small amount in the bottle helps a wine mature as it ages. For this reason, older wines don’t require decanting to help them breathe – they should have done all their breathing in the bottle. Old wines should be drunk soon after opening, as exposure to air is detrimental to their delicate nature and matured flavors. The reason to decant old wines, then, is to remove sediment.
As some wines age, they shed deposits, known as sediment: tannin and a protein complex in old red wines, and crystalline deposits in whites.
If you have an older wine, place it in an upright position for an hour or so prior to drinking. Then, remove a bit of the foil capsule. With a bit of the foil removed, you can see if there is any sediment in the neck of the bottle. If there is, you’ll know to decant.
Many old wines don’t have sediment. It’s also worth noting that sediment isn’t bad per se – the reason for getting rid of it has more to do with aesthetics.
Why decant young wines?
Young wines should not have sediment problems, but they will benefit from being aerated. Decanting a young wine creates a forced and accelerated maturation of sorts by giving the wine more expansive exposure to oxygen. You may have experienced this unintentionally. Ever notice how a wine will “open up” as it sits in your glass?
And decanting isn’t only for young red wines. There are times when both young reds and whites can benefit from being decanted.
Why does wine cause headaches?
A few friends have commented that they get terrible headaches from entire groups of wines – say, all white wines or all sparkling wines. As a result, they avoid the class of wines altogether. But they might be limiting themselves unnecessarily.
Pacing the glasses of wine drunk and staying well hydrated while drinking are two key ways to prevent a headache.
Staying hydrated is important because the body uses a lot of water to process the alcohol and sugar in wine. If we’re not providing the water for the wine to be metabolized, the body will find hydration by pulling it from various parts of the body, including the head. That loss of water causes the brain to ache. A sound practice is to drink one 8-ounce glass of water for every glass of wine.
Drinking good-quality wine, choosing wines with lower alcohol content, eating food with wine and avoiding very sweet wines are other ways to reduce the risk of a wine-induced headache.
Sulfites aren’t to blame
Hydration and moderation are important, but some wine drinkers insist that they get headaches only from red wine, regardless of how careful they are. These drinkers often claim that the sulfites in the wine are to blame. Researchers say this isn’t so. While sulfites may cause asthma symptoms, they do not cause headaches. Rather, it is likely that tannins are the culprit in wine-related headaches. Tannins occur naturally in wines – particularly in red wines, which are fermented with the skins of the grapes on (grape skins, seeds and stems hold tannins). Tannins are rich in antioxidants, but for some people, they cause headaches.
Why do people smell wine before drinking it?
Smelling the wine before you sip it is a surefire way to increase your enjoyment of the glass before you. When compared with our sense of smell, our sense of taste is a bit weaker. Our taste buds can only distinguish five flavors: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. Our sense of smell, on the other hand, can distinguish countless different odors.
The olfactory system is the powerhouse for tasting things. Putting that powerhouse into play when drinking wine will help you better appreciate what is going on in the glass. When we smell wine, the olfactory nerve picks up the airborne chemicals in the wine and sends the information to the brain. Then the brain draws on the enormous library of smell memories we have to help determine which aromas are in the wine. When we say there are attributes of rose petal, eucalyptus or pencil shavings in a wine, we are relying on a past experience with one of those fragrances. Picking up the aroma of gooseberry in a Sauvignon Blanc means that your nose has found the chemical compound that gooseberries and the grape used in the wine have in common.
I try to evaluate wine quietly at first, and I avoid reading any tasting notes on the back of the bottle. When I’m evaluating a wine, I smell it, wait 10 seconds for my olfactory nerve to reset and then smell again. If you’re trying to improve your ability to name the aromas in wine, consider keeping a journal.


  1. I really enjoyed this article. Some topics that I have often wondered about but never bother to investigate. Thanks!


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