Let’s say you’ve chosen a few nice wines for a dinner party (click here for GCU article on Wine and Food Pairing). Where to go from there? Here are some suggestions for making the most of the wines you serve at home. Remember that these are only guidelines. Wine is to be enjoyed, and shouldn’t exist around a set of rules.
Opening the Bottle
Sometimes we think the reason that more people don’t drink wine is that they’re afraid they won’t be able to get the cork out of the bottle! There are countless different wine openers available these days, and most of them work very well. Here are a few of the most common, and they’re common for a reason-they get the job done!
The Screwpull: If you think of pulling the cork as something you attempt rather than something you just do, then go buy a Screwpull. It’s wonderful because it requires absolutely no skill. You will be successful the first time and it will become your opener for life.
The Ah-So (two-pronged) cork puller does require some practice, but those who have mastered it, swear by it. The trick is to rock the opener down rather than push. It’s particularly good for older wines, if the cork has deteriorated.
The waiter’s corkscrew is a classic because it’s effective and efficient. It takes a little practice, but if you avoid trying to pull the cork out at an angle it’s 99% of the battle. Once you’ve used the lever to pull the cork most of the way out, make sure you grab the cork and opener together as one unit and pull the cork straight up and out of the bottle.
“The rabbit” is like a hand-held counter-top opener and is another virtually fool-proof way to go.
There is no “best choice.” Find an opener that you like and stick with it.
After opening the wine, give it a quick taste to make sure it’s all right. It almost always, is, but if something’s wrong, then you can go to plan “B” before your guests arrive.
Selecting the Wine Glasses
You don’t have to have fancy glasses to enjoy wine. However, just like other things, the choice of glass will influence your experience. If you’ve invested in some nice wines, why not try to bring out the best in them? The thing to remember is that it doesn’t matter whether the glass is crystal or not. The real secret is in the shape of the glass. This means you don’t have to spend a lot of money to have attractive, wine-friendly stemware at home. Just concentrate on the shape, and make sure the glass isn’t too small because you shouldn’t fill it more than about 1/3 full.
Any wine glass should have a clear bowl so you can admire the color and clarity of the wine.
All-purpose glass: If you don’t have a lot of storage space and want one good, all purpose wine glass, then you should get one with a bowl that’s bigger than the opening. The bowl is there to give you room to swirl, and release the aroma. The narrowing at the top of the glass will help to capture the aroma, so when you smell the wine you get the full impact. To handle both reds and whites, you might want to get a glass that’s about 10-16 oz.
Red wine/white wine: You can set a beautiful table and show the wines better if you have one glass for whites and another for reds. In that case the red wine glass should have a big bowl to give a young, tannic wine room to open up. The red wine glass should be at least 12 oz. up to 28 oz. White wines tend to be more expressive when they’re young than reds, and very delicate whites might be “eaten up” but a large glass, so a smaller glass, perhaps 9-16 oz. will do the trick.
Sparkling wine: Glasses for sparkling wine also make a lovely addition to the table and should be narrow flutes or tulips to keep the bubbles in.
Dessert wine: Dessert wine glasses are generally smaller than white wine glasses, and should be of the same shape. If you’ve inherited beautiful dessert wine glasses that aren’t the right shape, don’t worry about it. There’s a lot to be said for carrying on family traditions!
Varietal glasses: For the ultimate in wine glasses, there are increasing numbers of glass producers who make specific shapes matched to the style of wine, for instance they make Cabernet (or Bordeaux) glasses and Pinot Noir (or Burgundy) glasses. These producers will tell you that the shape of the glass overrides the question of whether the glass is made of crystal or blown glass in importance. If you want to get the most out of your wine, these glasses make a noticeable difference.
Setting the table: If you’re putting a series of glasses on the table, they should progress from the outside in, just as you do with your choice of forks. The sparkling wine glass goes on the outer right, the white wine glass to its left, the red wine glass next, and the dessert wine glass on the left. It looks absolutely stunning! In a case like this, I hope your glasses are dishwasher safe! After a party, it’s smart to run a dishwasher load of glasses only, because then you can run it without detergent, which tends leave a residue.
Again, the wine is there to make you happy, and you should serve it at the temperature that pleases you. However, just as your choice of glasses makes a difference, the temperature will influence your enjoyment and that of your guests.
Most of us enjoy our white wines with a bit of a chill, especially on a warm day. If you’re greeting your guests with sparkling wine or a light bodied white or rose, you can serve it quite cool, in the upper 40s or low 50s F., depending on the weather and the wine. The guideline is the wine itself. If it’s served very cold, it contracts and offers very little aroma. For instance, when you heat soup, you can smell it all over the house. If you take cold soup out of the fridge it has very little aroma. Also, the cold shocks and deadens your tongue and it’s hard to get much flavor. So, if you’re serving a very fine white or bubbly, you may not want to serve it too cold. If it’s a hot day, and the wine is relatively simple, then ice cold might be just the ticket.
Full bodied whites, like Chardonnay, are more flavorful if you serve them from the low 50s up to 60, depending on the wine, your taste and the weather. Just remember your investment. The colder it is, the less you’ll be able to smell and taste it.
You’ve heard the phrase: “Serve the red wine at room temperature.” 72 degrees is unpleasantly warm for most people. The term “room temperature” was coined before the days of central heat. For reds, cool room temperature, between 55 and 65 F., is good. Depending on the weight of the wine, and your own preferences, you might decide to go to the cooler or warmer end of the scale. There are a few exceptions, but generally it’s smart not to chill red wine because it dampens the flavors and leaves you and your guests with a mouth full of puckery tannin.
If your storage area is a bit warmer than ideal, you might find yourself chilling the red wine a little before serving it. Conversely, if your whites have been in the fridge for awhile and are very cold, it’s a good idea to take them out for a brief time before serving them.
Decanting the Wine
There are two major reasons for decanting a bottle of wine:
- to aerate young wine
- to remove the sediment from older wine
When you serve a young wine, especially a red, it will be more expressive if you give it some air. That’s why we swirl it. Decanting can accomplish the same thing, although it takes longer than swirling. Simply pour the wine out of the bottle, into the decanter a few hours before dinner and it will bring out both the nose and the flavor. If you just pull the cork to “let the wine breathe”, you won’t get much in return for your effort. The neck of the bottle is so small that there’s very little opportunity for the exchange of air. Any kind of decanter or even a pitcher will get the job done better. The added bonus is that your guests won’t know what kind of wine it is-it can start a lively conversation about the “mystery wine”-it’s a common form of entertainment here in the Napa Valley!
There’s a very different reason to decant older wines. Over time, the wine forms sediment, which isn’t harmful, but it’s gritty. Stand the older bottle up for a day or two before you plan to serve it, to allow the sediment to settle to the bottom. Then, just before serving, slowly pour the wine into a decanter, and stop pouring when you see sediment coming into the neck of the bottle. You’ll need good light or a flashlight.
Young wines can be splashed into the decanter to pick up lots of air, but older wines may be more fragile, and should be decanted gently.
Storing Open Wine
After all the effort you made cooking, selecting the wines and setting a beautiful table isn’t it wonderful to discover that there’s a little wine left? A nice glass of wine always makes clean up more bearable, but if you plan to keep it for a few days, there are things you can do to keep it tasting good.
You’ve probably noticed that open wine doesn’t keep very well. If you just cork it and leave it on the counter it may begin to fade in a day or two. The air in the bottle oxidizes the wine. The first effect is a slight fading, then the wine becomes very noticeably dull, and finally it goes off and is offensive (but not harmful). Here are some practical suggestions to prolong its life:
- At least refrigerate the wine, even if it’s red. Like other foods, refrigeration will slow down the spoilage. You can let it warm up again before you drink it, and it will probably be okay for 2-3 days.
- Keep a few clean beer or half bottles around and transfer the wine into them. If the bottle is full to the top, cork it or cap it and it will keep for several days under refrigeration.
- Purchase a product such as Private Preserve at your wine shop. It blankets the wine with inert nitrogen and argon gas. The gas displaces the oxygen and helps to keep the wine fresh for several days-some say weeks. As another option, the vacuum pump devices extract oxygen from the headspace and help to keep the wine for several days.
Whatever you do, remember that wine has no purpose other than to make life more fun and food more enjoyable. Your choice of wine, wine glass, the serving temperature, is up to you. The most important thing is to share the wine with family and friends, have some wonderful food, and ENJOY!