My ten most asked wine questions

I’ve been running wine courses for more than 20 years and am very close to shaking the hand of the 20,000th graduate. I’ve probably had at least as many questions about wine from my students or via my website or phone. Most questions relate to specific wines.

A phone call I received recently was typical of many. The elderly caller explained that she’d had a bottle of wine for 20 years and wanted to know whether it was worth anything or indeed if it was still drinkable. I asked what the wine was and waited patiently while she retrieved it from the back of a cupboard. She spelled out the name on the label. It was Mateus Rosé – a wine that the French would say should be “picked, pressed and pissed before Easter”. I broke it to her gently. First the good news, it’s very rare …

Sometimes the bottle is rare and expensive. In those cases I direct the lucky owner to a wine auction house or a retailer who might sell it on their behalf.

Questions from students are usually of a more general nature. They want to know about additives, organic wine, label information, restaurant etiquette or how to buy good wines at low prices.

Here are my ten most asked wine questions.

I’ve had this bottle for many years, is it worth drinking or should I dump it?

All wine changes with age but that doesn’t mean it automatically gets better and more valuable. Around 90% of the world’s wine is made to be enjoyed within a year of bottling. It’s important to understand that before getting your hopes up about an ancient bottle. It may be valuable, it may taste like nectar from the Gods but the vast majority of enquiries I get relate to bottles that are worthless and probably taste bad.

Wine won’t poison you if it is old and has turned to vinegar. Alcohol kills all pathogenic bacteria, so you’re quite safe. Taste the wine before you decide to chuck the bottle in the recycling bin, there’s always a chance that it might be worth drinking.

If you really think it could be worth something, contact a local wine auction house (Dunbar Sloane in Wellington, Webbs and Fitzgerald’s in Auckland).

Are screwcaps really better than corks?

For white wines there seems little doubt that screwcaps are superior. The jury’s out on red wines, particularly big, tannic reds such as Cabernet Merlot and Syrah/Shiraz, simply because we haven’t had enough experience with reds under screwcap. Diamond or Diam cork is a new development that has many enthusiastic winemaker supporters but it needs a little more testing before it gets my unconditional backing.

Wine labels often show “preservative 220 added”. What is it?

Preservative 220 is the preservative sulphur dioxide. It has been used widely in the food and beverage industry for hundreds of years to extend the life of wine and food. The maximum levels controlled by law with lower maximums for organic wine with Bio-Gro registration. It seems fairly clear that without the use of sulphur-dioxide the life of wine would reduce dramatically. European wines are not required to indicate that sulphur dioxide has been used although virtually all European wines do use the preservative which, at very high levels, may trigger an asthma attack in severe asthmatics. More “biologically stable” wines like reds use less while less stable wines, such as sweet white wines, use more.

What should I do in a restaurant when the waiter offers me a taste?

This ritual invites the customer to decide whether the wine they’ve ordered is faulty. Common faults include cork taint (musty wet cardboard-like aromas) or oxidation (sherry-like characters). If you taste the wine and declare it to be fine you can still reject it if someone else thinks it’s faulty. The popularity of screwcaps means that the chances of finding a corked or oxidised wine are greatly reduced. It is still worth tasting a wine from a screw-capped bottle – there is a tiny chance that the cap may have been damaged allowing the wine to oxidise.

When a wine’s heavily discounted does that mean there’s something wrong with it?

Not in today’s very competitive wine market although we should always be on guard for a clearance of dodgy wine. Line up half a dozen bottles and look at the fill-level of each bottle. If these are low (more than 20ml below the cork), or variable, it’s possible that the wine has been affected by heat and that some bottles have leaked. In that case don’t buy it, the wine’s unlikely to be a bargain.

I want to buy a bottle that will last 21 years for a christening present.

Champagne is a favourite christening present but unless it’s stored in perfect, temperature and humidity-controlled conditions the wine is unlikely to be in good condition when the 21 year-old pops the cork. Vintage Port (from Portugal) is a pretty safe bet. The same applies to big Australian or European reds with a track record of longevity. Penfolds Grange (tastings) is an obvious choice but other less expensive wines such as Penfolds St Henri Shiraz (tastings), Cape Mentelle Cabernet Sauvignon (tastings) or Taylors St Andrew Cabernet Sauvignon (tastings) are all contenders. Local examples include Craggy Range Le Sol Syrah (tastings), Trinity Hill Homage Syrah (tastings) and Te Mata Coleraine (tastings). They must be stored in a cool, dark spot to have any chance of survival.

What fish, animal and dairy products are used to make wine?

A relatively recent change to wine labelling laws now requires winemakers to list any product that has been used in the winemaking process if it could potentially cause an allergenic reaction. They include dairy products (casein may be used as a fining agent), poultry products (egg white is a popular choice for clarifying red wine), meat products (gelatine is sometimes used to fine wine) and fish products (isinglass from the roe of a Sturgeon can be used to clarify white wine).

I should stress that these products are mostly used to clarify wine and that they are then removed from the wine by racking the clarified wine to another tank and/or filtering the wine. Residues of fining agents are unlikely to be able to be detected in the finished wine.

Is organic wine better?

When I’m asked that question I’m never sure whether they mean “does it taste better” or “is it better for you”.

In my experience some of the best wines I have tasted have been organic, but then so have some of the worst. In my view some organic winemakers are guilty of sacrificing quality for the sake of producing an organic wine. Others are able to make organic wine without compromising quality. Organic winemaking may also be a quality factor in some cases. It’s simply too hard to determine a strong link between organic winemaking and quality.

Is organic wine better for you or, to put it another way, is non-organic wine worse for you? I haven’t seen any evidence to suggest that non-organic wine is less healthy than organic wine. That’s not to say organic wine isn’t healthier, just that there’s no evidence to prove it is.

How can I get a job in the wine industry?

First define what part of the industry you’d like to work in. For example wine producers need people to work in the vineyard or winery and salespeople behind the counter or out in the field. Wine distributors need administrators and sales staff. Retailers need knowledgeable people behind the counter as well as store managers. There are also opportunities to work with wine at many restaurants. Don’t ignore all of the industries that support the winemakers by selling them products (barrels, equipment, labels etc.) or services (accountants, marketing consultants, vineyard consultants etc.).

Next thoroughly explore all of the potential employers in the field you choose and narrow the list down to the ones you favour. What can you offer a potential employee? Do you need more qualifications in your chosen field? Should you start at a more junior level to gain experience?

You should also check the website of an organisation that specialises in wine industry employment:

How can I learn more about wine?

My wine education started with a few friends deciding to meet on a monthly basis for a wine tasting. It was fun and, for a small cost, we were able to taste many wines and learn from that experience.

Wine courses are more structured and will fast-track your wine knowledge. Many adult education courses now include wine classes. A few retailers like Glengarry run regular courses. My wine diploma course is taught over five weeks in Auckland or over one day at main centres throughout the country. Details on

In partnership with Jane Skilton MW I run the international, exam-based, three-tier Wine & Spirit Education Trust courses in Auckland, Wellington and soon in Christchurch. Details on

Visiting wineries to taste and discuss their wines is another very useful way to make sense of a vast and fascinating subject.

You could fill a small library with the number of books on the subject. My favourite for beginners is Wine Wise by Michael Schuster. Indispensable texts for the enthusiast include The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson and The New Zealand Wine Atlas by Michael Cooper.

If you have any wine questions drop me an email to

First published in Taste Magazine NZ – Jul 2006.

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