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Wine Serving and the Human Senses

       Do you ever find yourself wondering if you are serving the wine you chose for dinner at the "right" temperature?  Maybe you are serving more than one wine and are unsure which to serve first, second or last.  Don't let anyone accuse you of wine snobbery you wonder about such details.  Seemingly insignificant differences in how we serve wine really do make significant differences in the taste, aroma and enjoyment of wines. 

       With permission from the folks at Professional Friends of Wine, a comprehensive wine education website, we present the following information about the serving of wine... Northwest or otherwise.

Wine Serving Guides

temperature ... tasting order ... decanting... and leftovers ...

Goldilocks and The Three Connoisseurs

It's no fable that serving temperature has a significant bearing on wine appreciation. While this is somewhat a matter of personal preference, tepid Syrah or icy Chardonnay is sure to make a wine drinker growl, if not roar.

Knowing the basic chemical phenomena involved helps to set some ground rules. Lower temperatures mean less volatility, therefore weaker aromas, but also brighter acidity, so a greater impression of dryness and astringency and lesser of fruitiness and sweetness. Carbon dioxide is also more soluble at lower temperatures.

Descending the thermal scale, big, tannic reds are best served at about 65-70° F, slightly below room temperature. Syrah and Rhône, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Meritage, Bordeaux, Nebbiolo, Barolo, Rioja and Zinfandel could usually use 5 to 8 minutes in the refrigerator. This is also the right range for Port.

Lighter reds, such as Gamay, Valdiguié, Beaujolais, Pinot Noir, Bourgogne, Sangiovese and Chianti, will show well even cooler, around 60-65° F, 10 to 15 minutes in the fridge.

Full, dry whites are often refrigerated too long and served too cold. It is better to give these wines a timed chill of 15 to 20 minutes, rather than store them in the typically 45° environment. Chardonnay, Meursault, Montrachet and Condrieu will display more aroma and have richer flavor and better mouthfeel at 55-60° F. Sherries, sweet or dry, are also pleasant here.

Fruity, dry whites, such as Riesling, Rhein and Mosel Qualitätswein and QBA, Sauvignon Blanc, dry Muscat, dry Chenin Blanc, dry Gewürztraminer, Viognier, Pinot Gris and Grigio, Pinot Blanc and Bianco, Muscadet, Trebbiano and dry rosé are crisp and refreshing at 50-55° F.

Sweeter, dessert and "late harvest" wines, Muscat, Chenin Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese, Eiswein, Sauternes, Tokaj and all sparkling wines will take the lowest chilling and still retain their charms at 45-50° F.

Keep Priorities in Order

Because of the way chemicals affect human senses, there are also some guidelines to follow in the serving order of different wine types. These guidelines have rank and importance. In order, the first listed usually supersedes the subsequent.

Dry before Sweet. Sweet is a long aftertaste. Dry wines drunk following sweet will taste bland and sour.

Light before Full. Again, full-bodied, full-flavored wines will tend to cancel out the flavors of more delicate wines. A light, dry rosé will show better ahead of a big Montrachet than behind it. Pinot Noir is more enjoyable before Cabernet Sauvignon than the reverse.

White before Red. Probably the most common mistake made in serving order is to give this rule the highest priority; don't do it. Keep those off-dry and sweeter whites for later, after the dry reds, or be certain to insert a spacer of sorbet or similar suitable palate wash in between flights. Serving a light Pinot Noir or Beaujolais before a big, full Chardonnay might even be preferred, on occasion.

Old before Young. This rule goes against the common wine dogma that is based on saving the best, the most complex, until last. Every wine drinking experience I have had where the older wines were served last says this is bad advice. Young wines are simpler, yes, but also generally more fruity, more intense, crisper and more tannic than older wines -- they overpower them. Give maturity the first chance, to be appreciated for complexity, grace, elegance, softness and length. Then let the youngsters show off their hard bodies and vigor.

To reiterate, the rules listed first usually supersede the subsequent rules. For example, a Young Dry Red should be served before an Old Sweet White. In this case dry before sweet is more important than both old before young and white before red. There may be mitigating factors, such as food courses, that occasionally might dictate exceptions. A Light Sweet White with an appetizer would be served before a Full Dry Red with a meat course, for example.

Sedimental Journey

Part of the natural process of fermentation and aging is precipitating or dropping the solids out of the liquid. With the exception of Vintage Port, most of this happens during the wine making, prior to bottling. Although the public usually prefers bright, clear wines, getting them to this sterile state somewhat sacrifices elements of aroma and flavor. Some wine producers, therefore, prefer less handling and manipulation and so bottle their wine without filtering or fining.

In any case, after some period of aging, wine will sometimes throw a sediment in the bottle. Although even the chunkiest sediment is edible, even silty sediment is usually unappealing to look at and gritty-feeling to the palate, so removing it before consuming is desirable.

To be done effectively, decanting takes some planning. Being careful to not disturb the sediment by any sudden movement, the suspect bottle should be stood up in a cool place (not the refrigerator) for a minimum of 24 hours. This will help move any loose sediment towards the bottom of the bottle.

When ready to serve, the bottle should be carefully transported, maintaining its upright position to the decanting area. The cork is then removed, again taking care not to shake or disturb the sediment. A clean cloth or napkin should be used to remove any sediment or tartrates that cling inside the bottleneck and to wipe the bottle lip.

The decanter should be plenty large enough to hold the entire contents of the bottle. Few things could be more embarrassing than attempting to decant a magnum bottle into a single bottle decanter.

A bright light source, either a candle or a light bulb, is needed to guide the decanting. With a firm grip on the bottle and using one, slow, deliberate, continuous movement, the wine is poured into the decanter in front of the light. Do not stop or hesitate or the sediment will cloud the wine remaining in the bottle.

Constantly watch the flow of the wine through the bottleneck and, when the first trail of sediment begins to trickle through, stop. Usually only an ounce or two is lost. Diehards may want to use a paper coffee filter to salvage it, although the alcohol will dissolve some paper flavor into the wine.

Leftovers? Again?

There are occasions or circumstances when a bottle of wine is not finished at one sitting. A number of methods may be used to preserve it for another time. First and foremost is to replace the cork in the bottle after each pouring. Second is to refrigerate the leftovers (even reds -- just allow them to warm up for half an hour or so). Make sure to store refrigerated partial bottle upright to minimize the amount of surface area exposed to oxygen.

There are several different devices that minimize oxidation by connecting bottles to a dispensing system using neutral, non-oxygen gases to displace the wine. For most people, these are either too costly or space-consuming.

The most effective and practical method is to use one of several commercial products specifically made for preserving wine. Under the brand names of "Private Preserve" or "Wine Saver" these aerosol cans are filled with a mixture of neutral gases (typically carbon dioxide, argon and hydrogen) which is injected into the partially wine-filled bottle through a long, thin plastic straw. The bottle is then stored upright, minimizing the exposed surface area. These products cost about $9 for a can that will supply 80-100 applications. Their relative effectiveness depends on two factors: how quickly the gas is applied and how much wine remains in the bottle. The more has been poured, the less time the application will last. A treated bottle half-filled or more will remain relatively unchanged for many days, even a few weeks. Below half-filled, the risk of spoilage is exponentially greater. This is perhaps due to oxygen already having been mixed in the wine from several pourings.

The "Vacu-Vin" system is greatly overrated and a complete waste of time and energy, if not outright at cross-purposes. The theory seems logical, but the physics of trying to get a tight-enough seal, using soft rubber (which is gas-permeable -- think of how a toy balloon shrinks overnight) against an imperfect glass surface (think of how often wine corks leak) is implausible. Besides, all that pumping action to remove the "heavy" oxygen is first removing the "light" volatile aroma elements. Aren't those the very elements we're trying to preserve? Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater ...

© 2002 by Jim LaMar

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 September, 2016 Susan R. O'Hara. All rights reserved.
Last revised: 09/09/2016