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SERVING: Guides ... temperature ... order ... decanting and preserving ...

Wine sensory enjoyment increases when the best practices for serving and preserving wine are followed. Wine serving temperature has a dramatic effect on the smell, taste, and texture. Correct serving order (for multiple wine types, styles, and colors) keeps one wine from overpowering another. Wine decanting may improve appearance. Finally, preserving leftover wine can extend its pleasures beyond one meal or occasion.

GOLDILOCKS and the 3 CONNOISSEURS
It's no fable that serving temperature has a significant bearing on wine appreciation. Whether served at home or in restaurants, white wines are commonly presented much too cold and reds commonly much too warm. While this is somewhat a matter of personal preference, tepid Syrah or icy Chardonnay is sure to make an experienced 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 colder wines convey a stronger impression of dryness and astringency and a diminished sense of fruitiness and sweetness. Red wines that are high in tannins, such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Bordeaux will be less flavorful and more puckery served cold. The reverse is true for wines served warmer, so sweet wines will be less crisp and more cloying and wines with more alcohol will seem to burn more when served warm. Carbon dioxide is also more soluble at lower temperatures, so sparkling wines are able to take a chilling and keep on thrilling.

Although much ado is often made of wines "improving with breathing" or "aeration", little attribution is given to the changes due to a rise in temperature, which can be demonstrably more organoleptically obvious. Wine that is lower-than-room-temperature begins to match the ambient temperature of the serving environment within a few minutes of being poured.

Descending the 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 mouth feel 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 still retain their charms at 45-50° F.

Since refrigerators and environments vary greatly, its best to experiment with your own circumstances to find the right amount of time for cooling down your bottles. Although less convenient, an ice bucket filled with two-thirds ice and one-third water is a more efficient and controllable manner of chilling wine bottles.

This is how temperature generally relates to wine chemistry, but the bottom line is individual preference. If you're partial to drinking red wines chilly and sweet wines tepid, go for it! To keep things simple and suit most tastes, however, follow the 15-minute rule: about 15 minutes before serving, take refrigerated white or pink wines out and replace them with red wines for a 15-minutes cool-down.

KEEP PRIORITIES IN ORDER
Because of the way chemicals affect human senses, there are also some guidelines to follow in the order of serving different wine types. Rules of serving order may apply to planning a dinner party menu or to how wines are selected to taste at a winery tasting room or in a blind tasting flight.

These guidelines have rank and importance. In order of listing, the first guideline listed usually supersedes the subsequent.

Dry before Sweet. Sweet is a long aftertaste. Dry wines that are drunk following sweet ones will taste bland, sour, and possibly more astringent.

Light before 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 before a big Montrachet than after 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 might be served before a Full Dry Red with a meat course, for example.

SEDIMENTAL JOURNEY
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 filtering or fining.

In any case, after some period of aging, wine will sometimes throw a sediment in the bottle. Although wine sediment is edible and non-toxic, whether its texture is chewy and chunky or fine and silty, sediment is usually unappealing to look at and gritty-feeling to the palate, so removing it before consuming may be 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 and the coffee filter is not a shortcut or substitute for a careful decanting ritual.

LEFTOVERS? AGAIN?
There are occasions or circumstances when a bottle of wine is not finished at one sitting. Like an apple that begins to brown when cut open, once the cork is removed from a bottle of wine, the contents are exposed to oxygen and begin to deteriorate. (see "Every Breath You Take")

How rapidly this exposure leads to spoilage depends upon the age, strength, and character of the wine, as well as how much wine remains, how and where this remainder is stored, and the drinker's tolerance for volatile acidity (vinegar). Depending upon the age and character of the wine, the time window of drinkability can be anywhere from a few minutes to a few days.

Young, dark, strong, high-alcohol wines will generally hold up better than wines that are either old, light-colored, light-flavored, or low-alcohol. No matter what the flavor characteristics, if a bottle has been poured from several times and left open at room temperature for several hours, what's left may not hold much interest a day later. Each pour exposes more wine to oxygen and mixes more oxygen into the wine, as well as allowing aroma and flavor elements to escape.

A number of methods may be used to preserve partial contents for another time. First 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 15 to 30 minutes or so before serving). Make sure to store any 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. Systems that use nitrogen are least costly, but also least effective. Since air is comprised of 78% nitrogen, 20% oxygen, and 2% other gasses, 100% nitrogen is not completely "neutral" in displacing air. Argon is 100% neutral (there are no known compounds of Argon), but more costly. For most people, such systems are either prohibitively costly or space-consuming.

For consumers, the most effective and practical method is to use one of several commercial products made specifically 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 nitrogen) 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. This product costs about $9 retail and one can will supply 80-100 applications.

Some 100% argon-gas wine preservation systems and products were introduced for consumers in recent years. Although pure argon systems are more costly intitially, argon is by far the most effective gas in preserving wine.

The relative effectiveness of any gas application depends on two factors: how quickly the gas is applied and how much wine remains in the bottle at the time. The more wine has been poured from the bottle, the less time the gas application will preserve the remains. A treated bottle, half-filled or more with wine, can remain relatively unchanged for many days, even a few weeks if also kept under 65°F. Below half-filled however, the risk of spoilage is exponentially greater, most likely due to oxygen already having mixed into the wine from several previous pours. Unless applied with timely diligence and discipline, no product will preserve your opened bottles.

The "Vacu-Vin" system is greatly overrated and a complete waste of time and energy, if not outright at cross-purposes to preservation. The theory may seem logical, but the plastic pumps only produce a 75-80% vacuum at best and the rubber seals leak frequently. The biggest argument against vacuum devices is that, by removing the oxygen, they also remove the vapor and aroma molecules. Aren't those the very elements we're trying to preserve? Talk about throwing the baby out with the bath water ...

Jim LaMar


RELATED LINKS
Christopher Null's Wired magazine article We Can Drink the Rest Tomorrow: 5 Wine Preserving Systems Tested rates and reviews wine-saving methods, some more fancifal than practical, including one not yet on the market.

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Page updated November 27, 2003
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