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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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 ...