Serving Wine

How should wine be served? There are times when a tumbler, filled with rough red wine and served to friends with a bowl of pasta, is all that is necessary. Most of the time, if you have taken the trouble to select a fine wine, why not give it proper treatment? In addition to serving the wine in clean, clear glassware of the appropriate shape and capacity, it is useful to serve wine at the proper temperature, which varies with the type of wine. Some wines also benefit from decanting. And when the guests have gone, there are ways to preserve any leftover wine for enjoyment later on.

There are dozens of different shapes of wineglasses—specialists have developed glasses for most of the major wine varieties and regions—but you could start out with two basic types: the classic red-wine glass, which is fine for all sorts of table wine (even for port and sherry), and the sparkling wine flute. As your wine knowledge increases, you can build up your collection of glasses.

Avoid tinted or colored wineglasses, as they hide the appearance of the wine. Also to be avoided are glasses with wide mouths, especially for Champagne, since sparkling wine loses its bubbles too quickly and the aroma escapes before it can reach your nose.

It is important to look after your wineglasses carefully. Keep them in a closed cupboard, free of dust and distracting odors, and stand them upright to avoid trapping stale air in the bowl.

Classic Wineglasses
The glasses below have different capacities and shapes to suit different types of wine. There are many other traditional glasses that can be used for serving other wines, such as Riesling and Chianti.

Red Wine
This tulip-shaped glass has plenty of room in the bowl to swirl the wine and sample the bouquet, which is concentrated around the rim of the glass.

White Wine
This glass has a smaller bowl than the red-wine glass, as white wine's bouquet does not develop as dramatically as that of red.

Sparkling Wine Flute
The narrow shape of this glass preserves the bubbles and directs them vertically up the glass.

Red Burgundy/Pinot Noir
These wines release their aromas very quickly, so the wider bowl and tapering sides of this glass have been designed to maximize the aromas.

Red Bordeaux
This large glass, with its gently tapering sides, provides maximum contact with the air, allowing the aroma and flavor of red Bordeaux and similar wines to develop.

Port is traditionally served in small quantities, and this slim, tapering glass allows you to serve the correct quantity while allowing room in the bowl to swirl and appreciate vintage port's complex bouquet. This glass is suitable for serving most fortified wines but is larger than the traditional sherry glass.

The narrow and slightly tapering shape of this glass, which is called a copita, is perfect for capturing the remarkable bouquet of good Spanish sherry.

ISO Tasting Glass
This roomy glass funnels the wine's bouquet straight to the taster's nose. Developed by the International Standards Organization (ISO), it is a superb professional tasting glass, but because it is made of very thin glass, it is not suitable for everyday use.

Some people decant any wine served, while others never decant at all. The best approach is somewhere between these two extremes. When serving a fine vintage port or an older red wine that might have thrown a sediment, you should decant for clarity, leaving the sediment in the bottle. At the other end of the scale, some very young wines should be vigorously decanted. This aerates the wine and helps soften the youthful tannins.

When decanting an older wine, set the bottle upright for several hours, or even a couple of days, prior to opening and decanting. Pull the cork carefully so as not to disturb the sediment, which should have settled to the bottom of the bottle. Pour the wine gently and steadily with a light beneath the neck of the bottle, so that you will be able to see the sediment when you reach it. A candle may look romantic, but a flashlight will get the job done just as well. When you can see the sediment, stop pouring.

If you don't want to bother with decanting a bottle of wine, pour off half a glass an hour or two before you wish to drink it. This will increase the surface area of wine exposed to the air and allow it to breathe. Simply pulling the cork an hour ahead of drinking does not let the wine breathe to any appreciable extent.

The bouquet of older wines fades quickly, so they should be decanted immediately before drinking. Younger wines (and some big Italian wines, such as Barolo) benefit from being left in the decanter for several hours before drinking. When decanting a younger wine, just hold the bottle upright and let it glug and splash into the decanter.

The choice of decanter is mostly a matter of personal taste. As with wineglasses, decanters should be clear; they should be lightweight enough to pass around the table without great effort.

Chilling Wine
There are a number of ways to chill white wine (or red wine, if it is too warm) to the correct temperature for serving. For real emergencies, when there is no ice available, put a bottle in the freezer for 10 to 15 minutes. Don't forget about it, or you will end up with a frozen bottle of uncorked wine on your hands—wine expands as it freezes and pushes the cork out of the bottle. As a general rule, freezers are best avoided.

For fast chilling, the refrigerator itself is a poor method. Most home refrigerators are set at between 39°F and 45°F. At that temperature, it can take an hour or more to lower the temperature of a bottle of wine by 10°F.

The best method by far is to put the wine in an ice bucket or wine cooler with a mixture of ice and water—water conducts heat and will draw warmth from the bottle fairly swiftly. In fact, the temperature of a bottle of wine fully submerged in water and ice can drop 10°F in 10 to 15 minutes. Ice cubes alone, surrounded by air, are not effective, since air is a poor conductor of heat and cannot therefore extract heat from the bottle.

Once the wine is chilled, you can keep it at the correct temperature at the table for a few hours by placing the bottle in an insulated container.

A gel-filled cooler is useful for chilling wine quickly. Place the cooler in the freezer for a few hours, then wrap it around an unchilled bottle of wine—it will cool the wine in a few minutes and will keep it cool for a few hours. An insulated stainless-steel cooler keeps already-chilled wines cool.

Warming Wine
If you want to take the chill off red wine, one method is to decant the wine into a decanter warmed with hot water. Alternatively, pour out a few glasses in a warm room. You can also heat wine in a microwave oven (follow manufacturer's instructions), but take care not to overheat. Never apply direct heat to the bottle.

Leftover Wine
An opened bottle of wine can be kept for a period of a few hours up to several days. The simplest method is to replace the cork and put the bottle in the refrigerator, where darkness is as important as the cool temperature. In this way, wine will stay fresh for one to three days. If it is a white wine, simply take it out when you want to drink it; for a red wine, remove it from the refrigerator a few hours before you plan to consume it. You can replace the cork with a wine bottle stopper if you wish. Stoppers are useful if you have leftover sparkling wine, because it isn't possible to put the cork back in a bottle of bubbly.

To keep wine fresh longer, inert nitrogen gas (which is odorless and tasteless) with a little carbon dioxide can be sprayed into the opened bottle. The nitrogen mixture sinks to the level of the wine and the oxygen is held above it. This will keep wine for several weeks. The gas comes in handy canisters and is available from most wine shops and some grocery stores. A miniature pumping device that sucks air from the bottle will preserve wine for a few days (the pump should be fitted over a rubber stopper inserted into the mouth of the bottle). None of these methods is recommended for older wines, however, which quickly lose flavor and bouquet no matter what you do.

Wine Accessories
There is a whole range of paraphernalia for serving wine available for the dedicated hobbyist. Decanting devices include wine thieves, decanting funnels and mechanical decanting cradles, which are useful for decanting older ports. Among other accessories are neck labels for wine bottles or decanters, which are handy for identifying wine; pouring disks, which can be inserted in the bottle to avoid drips; decorative bottle collars; and coasters to protect table surfaces. If you are organizing a wine tasting at home, you might like to add a spittoon to your wine accessories.

Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Guides: The Wine Guide, by Larry Walker and Wink Lorch, (Time-Life Books, 1999)