Wine Education from a Sommelier
There is nothing like enjoying a great glass of wine after a long day...or a short day...or ANY day, for that matter! I am definitely no expert in wine, so it's nice to know there's one in the family! Today we chat with my cousin, Helynn Nelson, who in addition to being a wife, mother, legal scholar and HR professional in Austin, Texas, is also a sommelier. Fueled by her love of wine and her interest in the business side of things, Helynn took on the challenge of becoming a sommelier. Here she helps debunk some wine myths, and gives us a fresh perspective on all things wine..
Meaux: How did you decide to become a sommelier?
Helynn: Wine chose me and I kindly obliged. My wine journey began on vacation in South Africa several years ago. What started as a life altering discovery on vacation turned into a wine import/consulting business. The business aspect of it led me to formal wine education and if I’m being completely transparent I was a litigator billing insane hours in an international law firm in DC at the time and wine provided a much needed escape from my daily routine.
Meaux: Is there any real difference in corked wine vs. screw-top wine?
Helynn: Ohhh the age old debate. Here is how I weigh in. Cork is a natural resource that crippled the wine industry several times in its history. Cork as an export primarily comes from one place in the world-Portugal. If that region in the world suffers any natural disaster resulting in the spoilage of cork, the wine industry is impacted and frankly it never has forgotten this. Out of necessity the industry has responded and created work-arounds or other ways to preserve the integrity of wine and check all the boxes that cork has provided namely; hygiene and preservation. The juice in the bottle never changes so the real question is does a screw top mimic the conditions that a cork creates….the short answer is yes!
Meaux: I have so many decanters in my house and sometimes use them just for fun, but when should they really be used and should all wine be decanted?
Helynn: I will take this question in reverse. No, all wine should not be decanted. Decanters present a visually appealing way to display wine so I get the allure of wanting to put wine in a cool looking vase and place it in the middle of your dining room table for a dinner party. The purpose of a decanter and the reason they take on such beautiful and complex shapes is because you are supposed to use them to transfer wine from its original bottle to another vessel without disturbing any sediment in the wine. Decanters are essentially the debutante presentation for an aged wine that has reached optimal maturity and is ready to be presented to your palate. Further, the act of transferring the wine from the bottle to the decanter puts the liquid through a rites of passage with many literal twists (curvy bottle anyone) and turns that aggressively aerate the liquid and get it ready for presentation. Caution: you may find wine diamonds which are totally cool.
Meaux: Is it really true that you should only drink white wine when you're eating seafood?
Helynn: The shorthand for wine pairings are the (3)Ps: preparation, protein and preference. Taking the first two Ps, white wines are historically (like Old World, throwback purpose) ideal for basic seasonings and lighter proteins. Fish ideally fits in that category. This follows a very traditional pairing mindset. Traditional pairing first says I will have a steak from the cow that grazed on the pasture adjacent to the vineyard where the grapes for this wine were grown. True farm to table in protein and wine. Those very literal traditions are upheld in restaurants in Burgundy and Bordeaux (to name a few wine regions). Those traditional concepts are still honored, however we stick to the preparation (spice) and protein shortcut now. Now a modern pairing mindset refers to the final P which says that you should have wine with anything that is pleasing to you. Another wrinkle to consider is seasonal wine pairings which considers the mouthfeel and weight of the wine and how that complements the environmental temperature outside your body.
Meaux: In warmer climates, if you aren't able to invest in a good wine cooler, what do you suggest as a storage solution?
Helynn: When storing a wine an ideal environment would be free of vibration and direct sunlight and held in a 75% humidity. If you can make the investment, a wine refrigerator is awesome. However you can get creative with your wine storage-an empty shoe box at the bottom of a closet, an overhead cabinet in the bathroom, a crate on a cool slate flooring are great. Your options are truly endless. Always remember in wine storage that you are trying to achieve conditions to preserve and protect the wine. You want to keep wine (of any hue) at an ambient temperature of 72 degrees that way when you are ready to drink it that can happen through dropping the wine temperature gradually or opening the bottle and drinking right away.
Meaux: How long should you keep wine stored before enjoying it? Is there a such thing as storing wine for too long?
Helynn: Wine falls into two categories; ready to drink (RTD) or cellar. If a wine is meant to be cellared there is a maturation process that needs to happen over time to balance the wine and achieve RTD status. Typically bolder, bigger, complex red wines are cellar worthy and white wines will be ready to drink from purchase Day One. How long you should keep or cellar a wine depends on the make and model of the wine (translation: varietal and vintage). It’s quite nuanced so unfortunately there is no hard and fast rule, which makes the next question even trickier to answer. In short: you can store a wine too long. Wine is a living and breathing natural resource and if overstored you will encounter something undrinkable and/or transitioning to vinegar. Just so you know, there would be signs that a wine is past its prime from the outside of the bottle before you encounter disappointment when opening it.
Meaux: While wine is stored in a wine refrigerator, is there anything you should do to maintain the freshness of wine?
Helynn: Wine refrigerators come in all varieties and offerings. A multi zoned model is ideal, however, if you can’t invest in that then keeping the temp at a standard 68-72 degrees is fine for still reds and whites. The only caveat I would make is for sparkling wines and particularly champagnes. I like to riddle (or give the bottle quarter turns every 30 days) when I store champagne. Champagne should also be stored at colder temperatures and resting on its side.
Meaux: How do you know if wine has "turned" or spoiled?
Helynn: Love the question and it's super appropriate to know when you go to a restaurant and receive wine service. The keys to a spoiled wine are the following: if it’s been oxidized the cork will be spoiled and the wine will smell like rotten eggs or wet cardboard (the taste will also be soured); if it’s been madeirized (overheated) it will smell like overcooked or stewed fruit. There are other spoilage clues but these are the top two you should train your nose to detect.
Meaux: What wines are you loving right now?
Helynn: I’m loving Greek rose’, Oregon Pinots and Zinfandels from Lodi right now. I’m a seasonal wine drinker-these wines are awesome for any summer outing or staycation. I like to say that my husband and I have a “house wine” which outlasts the seasons and is kept in large quantity around the house and that’s the Zinfandel. And P.S. there is no such thing as a white Zinfandel, I am speaking of the pure Primitivo varietal.
Meaux: What's the best wine you've ever tasted?
Helynn: For the best wines I’ve ever tasted, I will break them down by red, white, rose’ and sparkling: Chateaunuef du Pape (red), Vihno Verde (white), Whispering Angel (rose') and Dom Perignon (sparkling).
Meaux: I've read that you don't really need a bunch of different types of wine glasses in your collection. What's your take on having a set of glasses for each wine type?
Helynn: I have wine glasses that complement the wine I am drinking. There is such a thing as an all purpose wine glass which is quite accommodating for any wine. My take is wine is best displayed in an environment where it can stretch out, yawn and twirl. Wine glasses are designed to support wine development and it delivers the wine to you in a way that is undeniable.
Thanks, Helynn! Extra credit: Napa Valley Planning Guide
Photo Credit: Niki Benjamin for Mind of Meaux