Tips on When, Where, and How to Serve Fine Wines
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1. When is a Wine at Its Best?
There is no simple answer to this question, because so many factors are involved. Do you like a wine to retain some of its richness? Or do you prefer the gentle, mellow, softer complexity of a fully mature wine? Not an easy choice. What style is it? A great and powerful Penfolds Grange or a more subdued elegant Henschke Hill of Grace may need 10 to 15 years in bottle to even begin to show it’s best, or an easy-drinking Penfolds 389 that may drink very well after a couple of years?
Whatever your level of wine experience, the best answer is to trust your own palate, taste a wine regularly to see how it is developing and judge when it reaches a point at which you really enjoy drinking it. If you have one case of 12 bottles, a typical pattern might be to drink two or three bottles while the wine is developing, six to eight bottles over the year or until you feel it is at its peak, with two or three bottles left over to satisfy your curiosity about its longer-term potential. With another wine, of course, you might try one bottle and decide not to open another for another five years.
Bear in mind that your wine will tend to mature more quickly if your cellaring conditions are not ideal. Also note that half-bottles mature more quickly (probably about twice a fast as bottles and magnums (1.5 liters) more slowly (probably half as fast as standard 750ml bottles).
2. Serving Temperature
Generally speaking, the warmer the wine the more volatility it gives off and up to a point the more flavor it seems to have. There is however an upper limit and a wine that is served too hot (say at 22° Celsius or above) will start the irreversible process of turning acetic and breaking down.
If you want to experience as much as possible what the wine has to offer, good and bad, then it is best to taste the bottle when it is cool to the touch, but not cold; say at a “cellar temperature” of say 14° to 18° Celsius (59° to 64° Fahrenheit) is ideal. Do not be concerned if this means cooling your reds in the refrigerator prior to serving. Whilst not ideal, this is preferable than drinking them too hot.
It has become custom to chill all white wines. What determines if a wines flavor is suitable for chilling is the amount of body in the wine. The more full-bodied a wine is, the warmer it will need to be before the esters and the aldehydes vaporize to yield its flavor. The lighter it is, the more easily volatiles are given off. Because white wines tend to be lighter than red whites, generally chilling them is preferable, however no wines are at their best over-chilled and the more massive white wines will spoil by over chilling.
3. Opening a Bottle
Removing the cork from a bottle of good red requires a little care, which the wine deserves. Start off with a good corkscrew, one that is simple to operate. The best corkscrews pull the cork straight up out of the bottle (without dragging it sideways, like the so-called “waiter’s friend”).
Cut the capsule on the ridge just below the top of the bottle and clean off any residue that has collected under the capsule. Screw down well into the cork until just the tip of the corkscrew is visible at the bottom. If you go fully through the bottom you could push a broken piece of cork into the wine and thus removal may disturb the sediment that might be adhering to the bottom of the cork. Remove the cork slowly. Carefully wipe off any remaining residue inside the rim with a clean cloth. For very old corks a tip is to use two corkscrews at the same time to pull out the cork. This is almost a certain way to remove old corks completely and trouble free.
There are two good reasons to decant a wine, they are; for older wines to separate the clear wine from any sediment or “crust” that has formed in the bottle as the wine has aged. For older and young wines it is to stimulate or enliven the wine by exposing it to air and giving it a chance to “breathe”.
“Double-decanting” is an excellent solution for big closed wines as it gives the wine a double dose of air. Older bottles should be stood up for a few hours (even a couple of days, if possible) and carried carefully from the cellar to the table so that any sediment is not disturbed. Open the bottle and pour the wine into a decanter (or jug) in a single, continuous stream with a minimum of “glugging” (to avoid stirring up the sediment).
If you like, you can use a candle or light underneath the bottle to see when the sediment enters the shoulder, but it is easier, if you have a marked jug, simply to stop pouring when the wine reaches the 720ml mark. Discard the last 30ml and rinse any remaining sediment out of the empty bottle with warm water. Now pour the decanted wine back into the bottle (a funnel is helpful).
It is clear that younger wines benefit most from decanting and breathing, which “opens them up”. There are no rules here – just a lot of trial and error. Generally, 2-4 hours decanting for a young wine is ideal however, some claim up to 8 hours is ideal for many younger wines. For older wines, time to decanter is a more volatile decision. It is wise to taste the wine say every 30 minutes and if it is deemed to be at its peak and still a while before a wine will be served, the bottle should be loosely re-corked or the decanter seal placed at the top. This is recommended for very old wines, which, may deteriorate quickly once exposed to air. Moreover, if you have a beautiful crystal decanter, pour the wine into it, rather than back into the bottle.
The origins of decanting emanated from the days when wines were made with a considerable amount of sediment and the primary purpose was to avoid this heavy deposit being poured into the glass. However not all wines will benefit from decanting and remember that wine and too much air do not make a very good mix. The argument for decanting to improve the flavor of a wine is based on the theory that small amounts of air already present in the bottle react with the wine to make it develop into something more complex therefore by decanting a wine would aerate it, thereby accelerating the aging process of the wine and improving the bouquet. On the other hand some experts argue that the effects of too much aeration can be harmful by exposing a delicate bouquet to air and that the interesting reactions between oxygen and wine are too complicated to be sped up. All that can happen is that the wine starts to oxidize too fast and therefore deteriorates.
We suggest that you decant young, big and closed wines some time before drinking them. For old wines where sediment is evident decant them just before serving. If once the wine has been poured, it is obvious that it is a bit tight and would benefit from more aeration, simply swirl it around in the glass, which is even more effective than the decanting process.
5. The Right Glass
Glassware can make a big difference to the way a wine tastes. Try the same wine out of a thick glass tumbler and a fine, thin-walled Riedel wine glass. The wine will always taste better out of the right shape and quality glass. Expert opinion is growing that these differences in taste are not merely psychological.
While there are many different glass designs, they tend to be driven by fashion rather than the needs of serious wine drinkers. Nevertheless some companies, notably Riedel, have developed fine glasses that are the correct size, shape and color clearly to enhance the taste of particular wine styles.