Serving Wine: From Cellar to Glass

All you really need when serving wine is a glass, an opener, and a smile. Sometimes you don’t even need the opener, but “don’t try that at home.” However, there are a few niceties and gadgets which make the ceremony of serving wine a bit more special or help with particular issues.

I’ll cover a range of topics in this article: preparing the wine, proper stemware, opening the bottle, and pouring.

Preparing the Wine 

The primary elements of preparation are making sure the wine is at proper temperature and accounting for sediment. We’ll handle the sediment issue first, because it’s the first you would need to deal with.

Settling the Sediment Issue

If you are going to be serving red wine that is well aged, or even a fairly young red that happens to be heavily oaked or extracted, the bottle may contain sediment. You don’t want that getting into the glasses. Avoid that by dealing with the bottle in advance.

Two or three days before you will be serving wine, sit the bottle upright in your storage area. The sediment will collect at the bottom of the bottle.

Handle the bottle very carefully. Never shake the bottle. Shaking or vibration stirs up sediment. It can take days or even longer to settle down again.

If you will be serving wine at a restaurant or friend’s house, make sure the bottle is held upright and very carefully in the car. Don’t let it slide around in the trunk. Even better, deliver the wine in advance so it can sit upright there.

Correct Temperatures for Serving Wine

Different types of wine have different temperatures at which they show best. In general, white wines should be served cooler than reds.

Sweet white wines, such as botrytised or late harvest wines, and sparkling wines need the coldest service temperature. The ideal range for them is between 42 and 46 degrees Fahrenheit. Food refrigerators should be kept at 41 degrees or less. So, if you keep the sparkling or dessert wine in there for a while, it will be at just about the right temperature by the time you’ve opened and served it.

To keep the wine at the right temperature after the first pours, you can either put the bottle back in the fridge or use an ice bucket. If you elect to use an ice bucket:

  1. First, make sure the bucket is large enough that it can accommodate the bottle and a plenty of ice and water.
  2. Mix the ice and water at a ratio of about 1:1 and put in enough to cover most of the bottle. If you only use ice, there won’t be enough contact with the bottle to cool it effectively.
  3. When you’re ready to pour more wine, make sure to wipe the bottle off with a clean cloth so that water doesn’t drip all over.

There are some ice bucket alternatives, such as marble or clay sleeves. Both are designed to hug the bottle closely. Cool the marble in the fridge or freezer before use. Soak the clay sleeves in water and then cool it in the fridge (not the freezer!). Both are effective, but lack the classic charm of an ice bucket and are not nearly as versatile.

Light- and medium-bodied whites and most still rosé wines should be served at about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Wines that fall into this category include unwooded Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris/Grigio, Fino Sherry and dry or off-dry Riesling.  If you’ve kept them in the fridge, allow them 15 minutes to warm up. If you keep them in the wine cellar, you will need to cool it down a bit by putting in the fridge, freezer or an ice bucket for a little while.

White wines of medium-plus to full-body and light-bodied reds should be served at approximately 54 degrees Fahrenheit. If you have a cooled wine cellar or wine refrigerator, serving wine may straight out of storage may be perfect. If you store your wine a bit warmer, brief cooling is in order.

Serving wine  too warm emphasizes, the alcohol, sweetness and body. This minimizes perceived acidity and makes the wine taste big and flabby. Serving wine too cold, diminishes the fruit and you may experience bitter oak flavors.

63 degrees Fahrenheit is about right for all other red wines as well as fortified wines such as Port. Again, served too warm these wines will be big, flabby and brimming with alcohol. Served too cold, the wines will seem harsh, tannic and under-fruited.

Proper Stemware

The most important thing about glasses for serving wine is that they be clean. They should not just look clean; they should have no odor. Often glasses taken out of a cupboard, or even from a dishwasher, will have an odor to them. If this is the case, rinse them with fresh water and dry them carefully with a clean, lint-free towel. Even a small amount of residual odor can effect the aroma and flavor of wine.

Serving wine in the wrong glass can definitely make that wine less attractive.

Ideally, you want at least three different types of stemware. For sparkling wines, most people want a tall flute. The best shape tapers inward slightly at the top. Flutes help preserve the effervescence in the wine and look great, with long streams of bubbles rising up.

The flatter champagne glasses that look a bit like curvy martini glasses are not a good choice. The wine has too much surface in contact with the air and the bubbles disappear quickly.

To me and many Champagne producers though, the best glass for sparkling wine is a regular white wine glass. Flutes are too narrow for good aromatics. The Riedel glass mentioned below works very well for sparkling.

For red wines, you want a glass with a large bowl to allow aeration and emergence of complex aromas. A 22oz glass will be a good all-around choice.

For dessert wines, you want a small glass. The wines are high in sugar, alcohol or both. So, you want a small serving size. And, with fortified wines, such as Port, large glasses allow too much alcohol to rise which can make smelling the wine less pleasant.

If you can only have one glass for serving wine, try to choose a mid-sized glass like the Riedel Zinfandel/Riesling Grand Cru glasses. It’s the Swiss Army knife of wine glasses.

Your glasses should have stems. Stemmed glasses are a bit more cumbersome and fragile. But holding the glass by the stem prevents the wine from warming as quickly. It also avoids leaving unsightly fingerprints on the bowl of the glass.

Wine glasses should have thin lips. Thin glasses feel more elegant and guide the wine more gracefully into one’s mouth. Save the thick glasses for milk or frosty root beer.

Good wine glasses are clear, colorless and without fancy facets or ornamentation. Colored and faceted wine glasses were popular in centuries gone by when wine wasn’t as well made and didn’t look good. Now, wine is pretty. Let that show.

Wine glasses should be made of glass or crystal. Plastic glasses feel cheap and can affect the flavor too. They may be necessary for safety’s sake now and then, but try to avoid them otherwise.

Buy enough glasses so you’ll still have a full set if a few break. And don’t buy glasses that are so expensive you’re afraid to use them. Fancy stemware doesn’t do you any good sitting on the shelf while you drink Cabernet out of a jelly jar. If you are really concerned about breakage, consider buying break-resistant glasses like those made from Tritan crystal by Schott Zwiesel. They are excellent glasses and very durable.

Opening the Bottle 

Procedures for opening a bottle vary depending on the type of wine (still or sparkling) and the type of closure (cork, screw top, or glass). With screw top wine, simply twist off the cap and you’re ready to go. Making a “cork pulling sound” with your mouth and finger is strictly optional and not recommended for formal occasions…

With still wine, the first step is to remove the top of the capsule. Do this with a purpose-made capsule cutter or with a knife. Capsule cutter fit over the top of the bottle and, when you squeeze and twist, cut and then remove the capsule about 1/8 of an inch from the top of the bottle. It is an easy and clean way to go.

If you are opening a bottle made prior to 1996, I recommend using a knife or the cutting blade on a waiter’s corkscrew to remove the capsule farther down. Take it off just below the ring of glass that protrudes around the neck of the bottle. This ensures that the wine will not come in contact with the capsule. In the old days, capsules were made with lead. If the wine comes into contact with the capsule, some lead wind up in your drink. The FDA banned the use and import of lead capsules in 1996.

Next, use a clean cloth to wipe the mouth of the bottle and top of the cork. This removes random schmutz and loose particles that could fall into the wine.

If the wine has a glass stopper, you should now be able to snap it off by applying pressure with your thumb. If the wine has a cork or cork-wannabe closure, remove it carefully and as smoothly as possible using your favorite cork-removal device.

If the wine is aged, you will need to be especially careful with the corkscrew. Old corks are notorious for falling apart. This leads to difficulty getting the whole cork out and sometimes bits of cork fall into the wine.

My usual weapon of choice for corks is the “waiter’s corkscrew,” it is sometimes wise to opt for an “Ah-So” for old bottles. The Ah-So is not a corkscrew. It has two thin metal blades that slip between the outside of the cork and the inside of the bottle. You work the blades in, being careful to avoid treating yourself to twin puncture wounds or pushing the cork into the bottle (sometimes they are a bit loose). You then carefully pull the Ah-So back out while twisting it. This should remove the captured cork in one piece.

Opening Sparkling Wine

Bubbly is all fun and games until somebody loses an eye. The corks are under as much as seven atmospheres of pressure and can cause serious injury if the shoot out.

  1. Remove the foil.
  2. Put your thumb over the cork.
  3. Untwist the wire cage, but don’t remove it.
  4. Gently twist the bottle from the bottom while holding the cork steady.
  5. Continue to twist and the pressure will slowly be released from the bottle.
  6. The cork should come out gently and quietly.
  7. Once the wine is open, use a clean cloth to wipe out the inside of the of the bottle’s opening. This ensures that there are no loose particles of cork, sediment or tartrates that will get into the wine as you pour.

Decanting Wine

  • Sparkling wines, rosé and light white wines should usually not be decanted.
  • Orange wines and skin-contact whites may be better when decanted.
  • Vintage Port and red wines likely to have a lot sediment should almost always be decanted.
  • Extremely old red wines, especially Pinot Noir, should not be decanted. Their condition and flavors will be very delicate. Decanting them may quickly dissipate the aromas and flavors.
  • Some young medium- to full-bodied red or white wines can benefit from decanting, but not because of sediment. With these wines, decanting aerates the wine, allowing its flavors to open up.

Decanting for aeration is a matter of personal taste. Determine your preferences through trial and error. In general, very few white wines from the New World will benefit. On the other hand, heavily extracted and oak-aged red wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah may benefit from aeration. The risk with decanting for aeration is that some flavors and aromas may disappear more quickly than you would like.

You can also aerate wine in the glass by simply swirling. In most cases, this is good enough. However, there are some wines that really don’t show well young without substantial aeration.

Simply removing the cork from a bottle without pouring out any wine does nothing to aerate wine. There is not enough wine-air contact to have any effect.

If you are decanting for aeration, pour the wine somewhat aggressively. You want the wine to get a little churned up. If you pour so the wine hits the inside of the decanter’s neck and then spreads out in the body of the decanter as it falls, that will maximize the aeration. Once the wine is all in, feel free to swirl the wine around inside a few times. But don’t go crazy with it. Decanters are not cocktail shakers.

For aeration, you may want to decant the wine well in advance of the time you plan to drink it. One hour ahead is a typical interval. For some wines, six hours, or even 24 hours, may be more appropriate. But, as with aging wine, it’s better to drink it too early than too late.

If you are decanting for sediment, treat the wine like it’s nitroglycerin! You want to do everything slowly and gently. Put the decanter on a table or counter. Very carefully, lift the bottle and tilt it just enough so wine begins to flow slowly into the decanter.

While you are pouring, watch the wine closely as it goes through the neck of the bottle. Eventually, you will see the sediment (either a small collection of particles or a thick sludge) heading toward the neck of the bottle. Stop pouring before any sediment gets into the decanter.

There will be a small amount of wine left in the bottle. That’s okay. You won’t miss it and even a small amount of sediment can ruin the majority of the wine.

It is sometimes helpful to hold the bottle between you and a light source while pouring so you can better see the sediment. (Remember red wine is usually in dark green bottles.) The most traditional and elegant approach is to use a candle. Any light will do though. Just don’t stare into the sun.

Choosing a Decanter

If you are decanting, you’ll be needing a decanter! Decanters should be clear, colorless and unfaceted, so that you can see the wine. Your decanter should have a large enough base to contain a full bottle of wine and have a large portion of the wine in contact with air. You want a contact area about the size of a saucer or five inches in diameter. The decanter should be designed so that you can easily grip and pour it with one hand. It is best if the decanter is made of thin glass or crystal so that it is light in weight. A bottle of wine is heavy and if the decanter is also heavy, pouring can become a challenge.

The decanter should also be easy to clean. You will need to clean it before and after every use, so some artfully twisted design or a decanter designed to look like an animal may be more decorative than functional.

Finally, we prefer decanters with rounded lips, because they seem to drip less. In a pinch, you can improvise. I’ve seen people pour a $500 bottle of wine into a clean flower pot. But, let’s not get that desperate. Your local wine or kitchen specialty store should have a range of nice decanters. You might ask a clerk if you can fill a couple of them with water to see how they feel and pour when “loaded.” You can also find a usable decanter at Ross or TJ Maxx for about $15. Go ahead and get a decanter now. Go ahead. We’ll wait for you.

If you haven’t headed off to the store yet, bear in mind that if you are decanting a bottle of wine, it’s likely to be a nice wine. And, a decanter full of nice red wine can lend a very elegant touch to your dining room table. Plus, decanters don’t really wear out. So, you might want to splurge on a good one.

Pouring Wine

If you will not be decanting the wine, go ahead and pour 3 to 6 fluid ounces of wine into each glass. Leave the glass on the table when pouring. You don’t need to pick it up or tilt the glass to pour.

If you have decanted the wine, pour from the decanter into glasses just as you would have from the bottle.

When refilling glasses, wait until about 2/3 of the wine in a glass has been consumed. With wines served very cold, it’s best to wait until the glass is completely empty so the fresh wine isn’t warmed up by that remaining in the glass.

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