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