When it comes to serving wine, the most important things are correct temperature and decent glasses. But it also pays to be careful when opening a bottle and to check that there isn’t anything wrong with the wine before pouring it. Should you serve wine in any particular order? And when should you use a decanter – if ever?
The general rule of thumb is that reds are best served at room temperature while whites should be chilled. Trouble is, the people who came up with the ‘rules’ of eating, drinking and being merry were living in a cool-climate country in the Northern Hemisphere … before the invention of central heating!
What is meant by ‘room temperature’ is somewhere between 16˚ and 18˚ centigrade – not 35˚C-plus as is often the case during the South African summer (unless there’s an air-conditioner in operation). And ‘chilled’ doesn’t mean ‘refrigerated’, by the way, given that the average temperature inside a fridge is 4°C or 5°C.
Too warm (anything from 22°C) and wines start falling apart: the alcohol becomes noticeably ‘hot’, the fruit loses focus and becomes flabby. Too cold and wines lose their personalities, the fruit becoming subdued and dull.
Ideally, the different types of wines should be poured at the following temperatures:
- Sweet sparkling wines at 5˚ – 8˚C
- Dry sparkling wines at 8˚ – 10˚C
- Off-dry & semi-sweet at 8˚ – 14˚C
- Rosé & Blanc de Noir at 8˚ – 14˚C
- Unwooded dry whites at 8˚ – 14˚C
- Wooded dry whites at 13˚ – 16˚C
- Lighter-style red wine at 10˚ – 14˚C
- Full-bodied red wine at 16˚ – 18˚C
- Dessert wine, white port at 8˚ – 10˚C
- Dry sherry at 5˚ – 8˚C
- Medium cream sherry at 8˚ – 10˚C
- Full cream sherry at 8˚ – 10˚C
- Red port at 16˚ – 18˚C
- Brandy at 16˚ – 18˚C
Try to avoid adding ice, which initially makes the wine too cold – and then melts, diluting the wine. Plunging the bottle into an ice bucket is the best solution and – in a hot climate – not only for white wines.
Throw away those small round goblets with thick, rounded rims – these do nothing to enhance the enjoyment of wine – likewise those flat Champagne ‘coupes’ (allegedly modelled on Marie-Antoinette’s breasts but now best known for making bubbly lose its fizz too quickly).
You also shouldn’t drink wine out of glasses that are coloured or opaque, sand-blasted or ornately patterned – no, even expensive imported crystal.
Essentially you want to avoid anything that can distract or detract from the qualities of a wine, visually or otherwise.
This is what you DO want:
- Thin, clear crystal with more or less a tulip shape (i.e. the glass tapers inwards towards the top with the mouth of the glass still large enough to smell the wine easily).
- Stems that are long enough to hold without touching the bowl with your fingers (not just because finger prints are unsightly but also because your hand could warm the wine above its correct drinking temperature).
Many experts insist that different styles of wine, even different grape varieties, warrant glasses of different shapes and sizes in order for them to appreciate specific smell/taste characteristics properly. The rest of us can just follow a few guidelines:
- Red wine glasses are traditionally slightly larger than those for white wine, though both should hold a decent amount of wine
- Sparkling wine is best in a long and narrow flute so that the mousse is contained and you can admire those tiny bubbles streaming up from the bottom.
- Dessert wine glasses and those intended for port and sherry are smaller, simply because sweet and fortified (high-alcohol) wines are served and drunk in smaller quantities.
Glasses must be perfectly clean before use. After proper washing, rinse thoroughly with fresh, soap-free water (first hot then cold). Then dry with a clean, odourless cloth – a cloth that hasn’t been used to dry any crockery or cutlery beforehand.
- An oily film on a wine’s surface is usually a sign that that the glass hasn’t been properly rinsed or dried.
Don’t store glasses upside down on any surface or stacked in a cupboard that smells of anything (you don’t want your wine to acquire whiffs of varnish or wood, let alone any kind of foodstuffs, do you?).
Removing a cork is a simple matter if you have a decent corkscrew (and maybe some tools for dealing with crumbling stoppers in bottles of old wines).
The most important part of a corkscrew is the screw itself – the spiral that goes into the cork.
- Corkscrews with hollow spirals are more efficient than solid screws, which can mangle the cork if it’s fairly soft or a particularly tight fit in the neck of the bottle.
- Ideally the spiral should be slightly flexible rather than solid steel.
- It should also be at least 5cm in length to get through those very long, top-quality corks.
Choose a corkscrew that pulls the cork out straight. Models operating in an arc-type motion can break the cork when it’s half to two-thirds of the way out. Your best bet is a corkscrew with a two-stage or double-action lever method.
Ease the cork out slowly, rather than by way of a sharp yank.
If the wine is bottled under screwcap, be suspicious if it twists off too easily and you don’t hear a crack as the seal is broken: there might be a leak in which case the wine will have oxidised.
There are a few quick quality checks you can do even before you pour the first glass:
- Check the lip of the bottle of cork fragments, or mould that might occur on old bottles of wine from humid cellars. Simply wipe with a clean cloth.
- Glance into the neck of the bottle to check for sediment or tartrate crystals – not necessarily a problem but you don’t really want anything floating in the wine once poured into a glass. (Tartrates can actually be a positive sign, indicative of a more natural, less manufactured wine.)
- Have a look at the cork: if it’s wet all the way through or has a wine stain running along its entire length, chances are that it was leaking, and that the wine is oxidised.
- Smell the cork: any musty or off odours could indicate cork taint.
Then pour a little of the wine into a glass. Firstly it’s a way to rid of any bits of cork that might have fallen into the bottle if the spiral of the corkscrew penetrated through the bottom of the cork. Secondly it allows you to check for faults:
- Browning in a red wine is acceptable in an older wine but usually indicates oxidisation in a young wine.
- Cloudiness or haziness can point to bacterial spoilage – as can bubbles, a no-no in all but sparkling and lightly petillant wines, and in ‘sur lie’ wines (kept on their lees without racking or filtration) that retain more carbon dioxide than most still wines.
- An off-putting nose is sometimes ‘bottle stink’, a reductive aroma that will dissipate after a while. What won’t go away is cork taint, the mustiness that you may already have picked up when you sniffed the cork. You must replace this ‘corked’ wine with another bottle.
If you’re hosting a dinner party, you can simply start with white and end with red. Or not.
Other typical advice includes light before heavy and, generally speaking, youth before age. (But when to drink a really old, complex beauty? Too late in proceedings and you might not appreciate its properly; too early and you might battle to come up with a satisfactory encore).
Personal preference is a factor, as is the menu (click here for an A to Z of food and wine pairing suggestions), but wines are usually presented in the following sequence:
- dry before sweet
- white before red
- light-bodied before full-bodied
- young before old
- red before dessert
Decanting is quite cumbersome and time-consuming, which is why most people only bring out the decanter for special, aged wines. The irony, however, is that these wines have probably already had more than enough exposure to oxygen over time (through their corks) and don’t need any further (let alone accelerated!) aeration before whatever fruit is left starts to fade.
There are three main reasons for decanting wine from the bottle into a jug or container specially designed for this purpose:
- To help soften tannic young reds (making them smoother and easier to drink).
- To get rid of the ‘bottle stink’ that some (usually older) wines exhibit for a short while after opening.
- To remove the sediment deposits in old wines (or even not-so-old wines) that have been made to last and didn’t undergo much or any filtration prior to bottling. Sediment is harmless, comprising mostly tannins and tartrates, but unsightly in a glass of wine – and not very pleasant in your mouth!
Some would argue that there’s a fourth reason for putting wine into a decanter:
- To try and pass off an inferior wine as something much grander! Jokes aside, a beautiful crystal decanter certainly adds to the occasion.
It’s not just a question of sloshing the wine in, though, particularly in the case of sediment. First the bottle should be stood upright for 12 to 24 hours to let the deposits settle at the bottom. Then the wine must be poured very carefully to avoid the deposits rise from their resting place and become suspended in the wine again. If this happens, your only solution would be to pour the wine through filter paper or a cloth. Either way, be ready to drink an older wine the moment you’ve decanted it, or you’ll miss that last burst of fruit.