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Serving Wine

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Serving Wine Optimally

(We should note that the very first thing to do on opening a bottle of wine, before pouring or aerating or whatever, is to check for obvious taint. The usual way is to inspect the cork—which is why in restaurants the host is presented with the cork—checking for any apparent "off" smells; it is important to not merely sniff, but to first give the cork a good squeeze, as "corkiness" often is not immediately apparent.)

Bottle Temperature

It is a safe bet that a large fraction of wine drinkers regularly serve their white wines too cold and their red wines too warm. Let's try to understand why.

First, the warmer a wine, the more "volatiles" it releases, which is to say the more easily we can smell it. From, say, 60° to 65° Fahrenheit is about optimum for volatile release (over 65° or so, the wine starts to evaporate too quickly). So why not serve all wine in that range? Because the human palate is sensitive to temperature: the cooler the wine, the more readily we perceive bitter flavors and tannins; the warmer the temperature (within reason), the more we detect sweetness (and, in wine, the balance betwen perceived sweetness and acidity is crucial to our taste sensations of it).

Between this and that and these and those, the general temperature guidelines that have evolved for maximizing our enjoyment of wines—expressed below in degrees Fahrenheit—are these (borrowing heavily from Jancis Robinson in The Oxford Book of Wine). These times assume starting from room temperature:

Typical wine-bottle thermometer

The "times to chill" shown above are only very, very rough guides. There are various simple and relatively inexpensive "bottle thermometers" available (usually liquid-crystal strips with an elastic band to secure them to the bottle); they are probably not terribly accurate, but work a lot better than a touch-the-bottle guesstimate.

The main lesson here is to not serve any "serve-cool" wine straight out of a refrigerator (normal refrigerator temparature, if the refrigerator is properly set, is about 35° to 38°, with 40° as about the upper limit—above that and your health is at risk), and not to serve any "unchilled" wine at room temperature (nowadays typically at least 68° and more likely to be 70° to 72°). For wines stored in the refrigerator, take them out a bit before you plan to serve them, and do use that bottle thermometer. For reds, if you are among the lucky few with something resembling a real wine cellar (storage temperatures 55° to 60°), take the wine out soon enough to allow it to reach optimal temperature. For the most of us, stick the wine in the refrigerator for a little bit before serving (and, again, use that thermometer).

Keep in mind that for all wine types, it is wise to serve near the bottom of the optimum temperature range, because the bottle will warm over time. And no wine deserves the ignominy of an ice bucket. But slide-on cooler jackets can be useful when room temperatures are warm and the drinking is likely to take place over some time.


Stemware

Wine does not come across well if served in the wrong sort of container. First off, the container substance must be thoroughly non-reactive (wine is acidic): no paper cups or styrofoam! Second, for esthetic pleasure, it wants to be transparent—no colored glasses, no engraved or etched glasses, just simple, clear glass. Third, so our hands don't unduly warm the wine, we want glasses with stems, not tumblers. Fourth, to help capture and retain the "bouquet" (smell, from aromatic particles released into the air by the wine), we want "barrel" or "balloon" glasses: glasses that are wide lower down (to maximize the surface area of the wine, so as in turn to maximize the release of aromatics), then tapered to help keep the released volatiles contained within that thicker "barrel" part of the glass.

Properly filled wine glass Overfilled wine glass

Important: when pouring wine into a proper wineglass, stop when the level of the wine is a little below the point of maximum diameter of the glass (as with the glass of red at the right); overfilling wineglasses (as with the glass of white on the left) quite defeats the purpose of their design, and makes you look a fool to knowledgeable wine drinkers.

And for pity's sake, eschew champagne flutes (which, nevertheless, are vastly better than those old triangular, wide-topped disasters of yore—no, John Steed would never really have served champers to Mrs. Peel in such a thing.)

There are claims that certain wine types are best drunk from certain particularly shaped wine glasses, and the Riedel Company, for one, has made a huge success catering to such beliefs. Here is an example, from the "Wines of Lodi" web site:

Generally speaking, white wines taste best in 12 to 14 oz. glasses in the graceful shape of a tulip. But for red wines, you can use the same 12 oz. tulip as you do for whites, but they won’t taste nearly as good as in a bigger, 19 22, 25 or even 30 oz. glass. Why? Red wines, being denser and heavier than white wines, need a larger surface area to create the vapors (through swirling) that increase aromatic qualities. And the more aromas you smell, the more flavors you taste on the palate.

A skeptic might ask Why are white wines so bemeaned as to not want or need their aromatics released as freely as reds? Mais chacun à son goût.

For a longer discussion, and some particular recommendations for glasses, see the article "How to Select a Good Wine Glass" in The Wall Street Journal.


Aeration

Let's start by saying that this is an unsettled, controversial topic. When we want to drink wine, the most obvious thing to do is open the bottle and pour the wine into our glasses (a process known to aficionados as "pop 'n' pour", or just PnP). The problem—or the possible problem—is that the wine may want, or even need, to be "aerated".

Aeration is simply the process of exposing the wine to air, or more exactly to the oxygen in air. Some people, including some experts, believe that most wines, and especially certain types of wines, need to be aerated between bottle opening and consumption; others, also including experts, believe that that is only very occasionally true.

Classic wine decanter

The classic method of aeration is to simply pour the wine from the bottle into a wine decanter (typically a glass container with a wide base and a large top opening, so as to maximize surface area in contact with air), then let it sit for perhaps an hour or so. In cases where aeration is believed especially important, the wine can be poured in fairly violently (as by splashing it down the inner surface, which further exposes the liquid to air contact). In particular cases, the decanted wine might be left far longer than an hour. Such judgements are quite subjective and variable. (Eric Asimov of The New York Times has an interesting choice for a decanter.

In the last few years, there has been a proliferation of aerating devices, many of which are used by being attached to the bottle (essentially, plugged into the neck); these supposedly add lots of air to the wine as it is poured out of the bottle, whether into a decanter or, as the makers claim is satisfactory, direct into the glass for immediate drinking. Opinions on whether these gadgets accomplish anything, and if so what and how much, are all over the lot. What is depressing is that each exponent announces his or her view on the matter as the flat, absolute truth, which is very untrue.

Those who have troubled to at least try some blind experimentation seem to report varying results (though we do not recall ever seeing a true "three-corner" blind test). The general sense seems to be that gadget aeration can have some effect, more often with red wines, but there is no uniformity of results. Even in a given tasting session, different tasters often report seriously different impressions.

A few people have even gone on to try, quite literally, whizzing their wine in a blender before serving. That, too, has led to widely varying and inconsistent results, though contrary to expectations it didn't "destroy" any tested wines, which included some pretty well-aged quality specimens.

The bottom line is that the common experience of wines tasting better as one gets farther into the bottle is indeed owing to air contact, but that such effects are not readily duplicated in minutes or seconds. But again, chacun à son goût.


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