How To Serve Wine
There are lots of long held views and traditions about how to serve wine; some are right, others are totally wrong, but have somehow got into the lore and mythology of wine tasting over the years, and many wine drinkers simply adopt these rules, and are surprised when they find out that some of the traditions that they have been following, simply aren’t necessary!
There are 3 main topics to think about when serving wine:
Letting the wine breathe/decanting
Here are my views on each of these subjects:
The general rule is to chill whites, sparkling wines and Roses, and to serve reds at room temperature; that’s not too far off the mark, but there are a few exceptions to this rule, and the real question is, why do we serve whites chilled and reds warm?
Chilling whites brings out the freshness, and fruitiness in whites, but don’t chill too much or you will dumb down the flavour altogether. Fuller styles of white, such as white Burgundy, and oaked wines, need less chilling that zesty, zingy styles, to allow the rich, creaminess of the wine to develop.
Other whites to be chilled are sparkling wines, Rose wines, dessert wines and dry sherries, as the same rules apply.
Full bodied reds are definitely not for chilling, and indeed a slight degree of warmth is preferable to bring out the ripe, deep, rich flavours of these wines, especially those with firmer tannins, as this tends to soften them. But if you have taken the wine from the cellar, or left it in the boot of the car overnight, and it is chilled, don’t warm up by a radiator, as that can stew the wine, leave it at room temperature for a few hours.
Light, juicy, fruity reds can, however , benefit from slight chilling, and you will find many of these wines served chilled in French restaurants – there is nothing better on a hot summer’s day ( if we get any), than a lightly chilled bottle of Beaujolais or Cotes du Rhone.
Sweeter sherries and Ports are best served at room temperature; the only exception is Tawny Port, which is delicious chilled.
Quick tips – If you need to chill a bottle quickly, you can be brave and opt for 15 mins in the freezer ( but be careful, as longer than that will result in a mess of exploded glass and frozen wine in the freezer, as I’ve learnt the hard way); or keep a chiller sleeve in the freezer, ready for action. The other way is to fill an ice bucket with ice and water and dunk the bottle in ( for parties part fill a bath with cold water and a few big bags of ice).
To warm up a bottle, don’t go for the microwave trick, it cooks the wine; fill a bucket with warm water and dunk the bottle in for a short time.
Check out what wine glasses, wine professionals use, and you won’t see a piece of lead crystal, or a wide and shallow champagne ‘coupe’ anywhere! The best way to serve and enjoy wine is in simple, clear, fine glasses, that show off the colour.
The best glasses have long, thin stems, and you should generally hold the glass by the stem; this keeps sparkling wine and white wines, cool, rather than warm hands warming the wine up. Occasionally friends will see me wrapping my hands round a glass of red wine – that’s if the red is too cold, and I’m trying to warm it up, but otherwise, the stem is where to hold the glass.
Avoid glasses with wide, open tops, and choose glasses that curve in slightly at the top, both for wine and champagne. This is so that the aromas are retained in the glass, until you start to swirl them around; it also helps retain the fizz in champagne.
Finally, never overfill a glass – why? So that you have enough room at the top of the glass to swirl and enjoy the aromas ( see my tips on how to taste wine).
Quick tip – be very careful washing up decent wine glasses – don’t use much washing up liquid, as it can leave a residue, which may both leave a soapy smell next time you fill the glass with wine, and if so, will cause bubbles in fizz to go flat. Use warm water and dry carefully.
Letting the wine breathe / Decanting
There is a great amount of tradition and ceremony attached to decanting a wine, and many people believe that almost every bottle of red wine needs decanting. This is definitely not true!
Similarly there is a long-held view that bottles need to be opened a couple of hours before serving, to let them ‘breathe’.
Unless you are serving very serious or mature wine, which may need decanting because of sediment, you are not going to get that much benefit from either of the above – it’s more of an exercise in ‘show’. If you open a bottle of wine an hour before serving, it’s not going to open up very much, as so little of the wine, in the neck of the bottle is in contact with the air – you’ll get a quicker reaction, by pouring wine into a big glass and swirling it around to get the air contact, to release the aromas and flavours.
Decanters can be useful for getting air into a wine, if you want it to soften – the simple act of pouring wine from the bottle into a glass decanter, will enable the air to get to the wine, and aereate, which is a good trick to soften young, or inexpensive wine.
Don’t worry if you don’t have a decanter – it may not look as impressive, but if you want to soften and open up a red wine quickly, then pouring into a jug is just as effective.