Serving Wine, Part 1

Many, many paragraphs have been written on the subject of serving wine, a fact which surprises quite a few people. ‘Surely you just open the bottle and drink it’, somebody once remarked. It is true that there can be a lot of pretention and fuss made about serving wine, there are times when a ‘beans out of the can’ attack would be silly to deny.   To be fair however, there are also a few useful pointers and guidelines to follow when serving wine, rules which ensure that you don’t destroy the bottle of sauvignon blanc you have been waiting for all day, by serving it too cold!

For example, most people believe that red wine can be improved by contact with air – sometimes for several hours. This is an issue which divides wine lovers, some people contend that letting the wine breathe only damages it, weakening the aromas and flavours. Our own experience has taught us that many wines change perceptibly after prolonged contacted with the air, sometimes for better or worse. Basically you need to experiment, but young tannic reds like cabernet sauvignon often improve with aeration. Older, more delicate wines less so, contact with the air can destroy very old wines in a short space of time.

What is often a surprise to people is that white wines can improve just as much as red from exposure to the air. A good bottle of white wine that has been kept in the fridge at low temperatures, say 8 degrees centigrade or below, which is then put into a wine cooler is bound to be disappointing. Low temperatures are fine for cheap white wines which have little flavour to start with, but serving white wines too cold kills the aromas. A good white wine will improve dramatically if it is that bit warmer and has had a chance to breathe – although served too warm it will taste flat and insipid.

As a general rule, serve everyday white wines at between 6-8 degrees, above 12 degrees for fine wines – many of which will go on releasing their flavours up to 16 degrees or so. Sweet white wines and sparkling wines should be served cooler than that, below 8 degrees.  It is often a good idea to take a good white out of the fridge about half an hour before serving, and keep it in one of those twin-walled wine coolers. They don’t cool the wine, but they keep it at the right temperature for much longer. Buying some freezer gel packets is also a great investment, slip one over a warm white bottle and it should be drinkable within 10 minutes. Very useful at picnics or bbq’s!

There are times when we have needed to chill bottles in a hurry, its fine to put them briefly in the freezer. Some people claim that the sudden chill strips the flavour – our experiences show that this is not the case. Be careful though, left too long the wine will freeze and may expand and break through the bottle.

Onto the subject of decanting, a key reason to decant is to avoid the sediment that builds up in some older red wines getting into the glass. Sediment forms as the wine ages, and is a by-product of complex chemical reactions that take place in the wine. It is completely harmless, but some wine drinkers will go to great lengths to avoid it.  Only older red wines are likely to be affected. If you think that the wine does have sediment, don’t worry, it can be easily remedied. When pouring the wine into a decanter, a funnel makes life easier, but if you don’t have one then just pour more carefully. In either event pour slowly. You want to expose the wine to the air. Put a piece of white paper on the table under the neck of the bottle and it should be easy to spot the black sediment when it starts to show. At that point, bring the bottle upright and stop. Voila – problem solved.

James Lawrence

James Lawrence is a self confessed wine obsessive, passionate about discovering and promoting the lesser known wines and wine regions of the world. He is a frequent contributor to and runs an interactive, community led wine forum, In 2004, he went to study in Bilbao, Northern Spain. Luckily for him, the famous wine region of Rioja was just over an hour away by car. He began to spend a great deal of time there, visiting the wineries in Rioja and speaking to local wine makers. Their passion for the subject and their pride in the wines was infectious. He began to realise what an amazing subject wine is and how wide and complex the world of wine could be. Subsequently James moved into wine retail while finishing his degree, and was hooked. James also enjoys food and travel writing - he lives for Italian and Thai cuisine!

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