The Service of Fine Wines
If a wine has been properly stored, its quality will be best appreciated when correctly served. Aside from glassware, this is mostly a matter of attention to detail.
White and sparkling wines should be served chilled, but not too cold. At 45 to 50 degrees, fruit and freshness are at their peak, but at colder temperatures, bouquet and flavor nuances begin to recede.
Red wines should be served at cool room temperature, but not warm. At roughly 65 degrees, the fruit is most evident on the palate and in harmony with the tannins. Served too warm, red wines will seem “hot” (high in alcohol) and their tannins aggressive.
The best way to chill wine is to put it in the refrigerator for at least a half hour. If it becomes too cold, allow it to sit at room temperature for 10 or 15 minutes to warm a little before serving. The cooling process should be gradual. It is better to use an ice bucket to maintain a wine’s temperature rather than to lower it. A wine should never be put in the freezer; the shock can unsettle it. There is also the risk of forgetting it.
Never attempt to open an insufficiently chilled sparkling wine. As a sparkling wine grows cooler, the bubbles recede into the wine and reduce the amount of pressure exerted on the sides of the bottle – and the cork.
Uncorking a warm sparkling wine will result in the contents escaping the bottle like water from a fire hose, pushing a dangerous cork projectile.
Simple, clear, uncut stemware of moderate proportions is best for serving wine. Crystal is not necessary, but the thinner the walls of the bowl, the better. Colorless, uncut glass allows the color and clarity to be examined, thinness minimizes distortion. By filling the glass no more than half (a quarter to a third for large red wine balloons), there is space for the bouquet to collect in the top half of the bowl.
Champagne and sparkling wines should never be served in flat, saucer-shaped glasses (“coupes”). The bubbles the winemaker worked so hard to get in the wine will dissipate on the surface area of the wine and flatten it in short order. “Tulips,” whose elongated bowls curve slightly inward at the top, and “flutes,” which curve slightly outward or not at all, are the right glasses for the job.
While numerous glassmakers have created lines of glassware suited to specific wine types, not everyone is interested in acquiring a glass library. A lightweight, stemmed glass with an ovoid bowl of 8 to 10 ounces’ capacity will accommodate most everyday wines quite well.
It is critical that glasses be immaculately clean. Any residue, especially soap, will interfere with the taste of the wine. This applies both to visible residue and aromatic residue (sniff the glass). Any suspect glass should be thoroughly rinsed in clear water and dried well. The glass may also be rinsed again with a little of the wine to be poured.
Most wines do not require decanting. There are, however, two reasons to decant a wine:
- Breathing, or oxygenation, is increased with the amount of surface area of the wine exposed to the air (removing the cork without decanting has little short-term effect on the wine). An aggressive, young, tannic red wine will become slightly softer and more mellow with a couple of hours air contact.
- Removal of sediment which has developed over an extended aging period in high-quality red or fortified wines must be accomplished by decanting. In this instance, the objective is to allow the sediment to fall completely out of the wine and to then pour the clear wine off the sediment without disturbing it. To do so, follow these steps:
- Stand the bottle upright for one to two days to allow the sediment to settle; if not possible, use extra care in carrying out remaining steps.
- Remove the capsule (or chip off the wax) and wipe the neck and lip of the bottle with a hot, damp towel to remove dirt or mold.
- Uncork carefully, as the cork of an old wine will crumble and break more easily than that of a young wine.
- Place a decanting funnel (or ordinary kitchen funnel lined with cheesecloth or a coffee filter) in the neck of a clean, dry decanter or carafe.
- Agitating the wine as little as possible, pour the wine through the funnel, and into the decanter. Ideally, pour in a single, steady, slow movement without stopping or putting the bottle down.
- Observe the wine as it exits the bottle. As the bottle nears empty, sediment will begin to be carried out with the wine. Stop decanting at this point.
- The wine may be served from the decanter or from its bottle. If the latter, rinse the bottle well in hot water, drip as dry as possible, and return the decanted wine to its original bottle. In either case, stopper or re-cork until serving.
- The wine should then be consumed within 24 hours or preserved from air contact with a Vac-u-Vin™ or Nitrogen system.
Storage of Fine Wines
Nearly eighty percent of all wines are purchased for near-term consumption, but whether for tomorrow night or for a future special occasion, proper storage is a good idea:
Wine should be stored with the bottle lying horizontally. Thus in contact with the wine, the cork is kept moist and fully expanded against the inside of the bottleneck to minimize entry of oxygen. A dry cork can shrink, resulting in the wine’s oxidizing and possibly leaking. The exceptions to horizontal storage are sparkling wines, in which the effervescence (CO2) keeps the cork moist, and fortified wines, whose elevated alcohol content over very long storage periods can erode the cork.
Controlled-environment wine cabinets are not essential for proper wine storage. Any stable, cool, dark, slightly humid environment is appropriate. Light and warm temperatures cause wine to evolve at an accelerated pace, an effect exacerbated by pronounced changes in either.
Most white wines are made to be drunk within a few years at most of the vintage date. Those capable of more extended aging are Burgundies and Chablis from premier or grand cru vineyards, some of the classified Graves châteaux and German Riesling from great vineyards.
Many red wines, including rosés, are also intended to be drunk in the two to four years following the vintage date. The list of red wines with aging potential is much longer than that for white wines, and can roughly be equated with wines having spent 18 to 24 months in oak barrels. On the other hand, some red grapes do not by nature produce long-lived wines. Gamay, Grenache, Cinsault, Barbera, Dolcetto, Grignolino, Corvina and Rondinella are among these.
Sparkling wines do not generally age gracefully. Tête-de-cuvée and vintage Champagnes are the exception, yet their grace in old age is a question of taste. Evolution produces toasty, nutty flavors at the expense of fruit character and tends to diminish effervescence.
Dessert wines generally do age gracefully. Natural residual grape sugar acts as a preservative, an effect greatly enhanced as degree of alcohol increases. Dessert wines can range from 7% alcohol (which should be drunk without aging) to natural sweet wines, between 16% and 20% alcohol by volume, and fortified wines at 19% to 21% alcohol by volume (which can age for decades).
Vintage charts are useful in generalizing about the quality of a harvest only if they are broken down by regions smaller than countries. Phenomena affecting harvest quality may be as localized as hail, frost or rain occurring on one side of a river but not the other.