Questions to ask on a visit to a winery

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Excited and off to visit some wineries?

Engaging with people in a winery helps you to discover what you like and what you don’t like and why. It’s all part of our ‘Life’s too short to drink lousy wine’ mantra with the ‘lousy’ being a very personal view. For example, Henri Bourgeois is a highly rated maker of Loire Sauvignon Blanc in a village just outside Sancerre. He oaks almost all his wines. Tasting these some years ago made us realise that we do not like that style of wine; we don’t buy it and, when in restaurants in the area, we ask the sommelier if the Sauvignon is oaked just in case there are others who have followed their lead. But, you may love this style; many others certainly do.

So what questions should you ask to start the conversation
When would be the ideal time to drink this?
This is the ideal opener as it shows your interest in wine and that you are prepared to lay wines down to reach their optimum
What varietals are in the blend and in what proportions?
If the wine is not named after a varietal or comes from that part of the world where most wines are blends then this question gives you an idea of what to expect. We believe that wines should be excellent examples of what they are; cultivar(s), terroir or region, winemaking process and vintage. For example, a Côtes du Rhône varies quite dramatically depending on whether the dominant grape is Grenache or Syrah (we usually prefer the Syrah dominant versions). That said, some winemakers are quite innovative in how they make a particular wine and then it won’t be typical – do you like it?
There is not much point asking how good the vintage is because, in the eyes of the winemaker, all vintages have redeeming features. Better to ask to try several vintages of the same wine to see which you like best. Most regions have their vintages rated by wine critics; we are firm believers that one only buys the best vintages.
How was the wine fermented?
The answers are likely to be in stainless steel, concrete or oak but you may come across amphora or concrete eggs. And then if oak, is it new oak or old oak? Can you smell and taste the oak and the difference between old and new oak? Which do you prefer? Is the premium price for the wine with new oak worth it? And then you can get into the differences between different types of oak. For example, the spiciness of Rioja primarily comes from the American oak that they use.
How was the wine aged?
Aged in oak for some months or a short while in stainless steel before bottling and then sometimes quite a long period in the bottle. The more expensive wines in the range will spend longer in oak. Do you prefer the complexity of oak or the freshness or simplicity of unoaked wines? For example, on a recent visit to Puglia we tasted their Primitivo and Negroamaro. We found that generally we preferred the simple unoaked Primitivo but preferred Negroamaro in the Reserva, oaked editions.
Do you use organic/biodynamic/nurture nature methods?
Some wine makers put considerable effort into becoming certified organic etc., some say they respect nature and work with it as much as possible and others just don’t care. What would you prefer to drink if it all tastes good? Beware of those who say they use no sulphur (mandatory for US organic wines) because most of their wines, especially the whites, are likely to taste different to most other wines. For example, we have visited Coulée de Serrant on the lower Loire river several times. In its day (in the 1800’s) it was as famous as Chateau d’Yquem for white wine. They have been fully biodynamic using phases of the moon, crystals et al for some time. In our first visit we really enjoyed their wines and, despite the high price, bought a bottle. On our later visit they had gone sulphurless and the wines were not to our taste.

Enjoy your visit, hope you learn lots and have plenty of fun.
See more of our wine trip tips here

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