Storing, Serving, and Drinking Wine

Everyone agrees that how wine is stored, served, and drunk can dramatically affect the experience. No one agrees about how wine is best served and drunk. Some of this is due to subjective aesthetic factors, and some people are just wrong. Here are my time-tested recommendations in chronological order.

Storing a wine. Wine in a bottle is a living thing. The effects of time cause gradual changes in its flavors. If released by the winery at just the right time, a wine will typically be very fruity and perhaps a little rough around the edges, but quite enjoyable. As time passes, the wine will lose some of its fruit, seeming a bit more tannic. The wine may even ``close down'', entering a dormant period in which the wine seems to have little flavor despite its apparent concentration (as apparent from the color or from recollections other bottles from the same release). After a time, the tannins, too will diminish and the wine will again achieve balance, but softer and refined. The exact trajectory of the wine and how long it takes depends on so many factors that no one knows for sure about when to open a bottle. Most wines are not suited to aging and are best drunk young. Reds are the classic agers, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and the Rhone varietals. Even a potential ager is most safely drunk young because of the unpredictability of aging. If you favor powerful fruit flavors, you might even prefer it.

Wines should be stored on their side, in the dark, at modest humidity and 70 degrees or below. The ideal temperature is 58 degrees, although that is difficult for most of us to manage unless you have a basement or a wine fridge. Temperature stability is as important as average temperature. Variance in excess of 20 degrees can cause the small volume of air in the bottle to expand and contract to the point of causing air leaks that can spoil the wine. Others argue that even a deviation of a few degrees in an older wine can disturb its aging process. Unless you are going to put a lot of effort into properly storing wine, my advice is to not store wines for long periods, especially over the Summer if you live in a hot climate. Although I've been told not to worry about temperature that much, I've found that wines change very quickly in warm, changing conditions. The change in the short-term is generally for the worse, although in the long Also, when trying to guess whether an aging bottle has aged enough, the temperature has to be taken into acccount. A wine at 70 degrees may be evolving twice as fast as a wine at 58 degrees.

Opening the wine. To vary degrees, the flavor of a wine can be adversely affected by traumatizing it before opening. Avoid repeatedly tilting the bottle, shaking it, or subjecting it to vibrations. Although most young wines won't be affected by such treatment, why take chances? If a wine has been stored on its side, slowly tilt it upright. If it is an older wine, let it stand upright for awhile before pouring to allow any sediment to settle. It is said that a red wine should be served at about 62-68 degrees, although I regularly drink them at 70 degrees. A white wine should be served at about 58 degrees. The way to remember is that red wines are normally served too warm, and white wines are served too cold. Lighter reds (e.g., Pinot Noir) and wines with a high alcohol content (over 13% for a Cab or Zin) in particular need to be served cooler to better balance the aromatic affects of the alcohol and the other flavors. Use any implement you like to open a wine. I prefer a hollow screw that has some kind of crank mechanism for prying the cork from the bottle. The straighter the pull, the less likely the cork is to break. Make sure the screw gets all the way through the cork, but not so much that it sends bits of cork into the wine. Once opened, inspect the cork for signs of leakage, like a red stain up the side of the cork or even on top of the cork. This is rare in young bottles. Remove the foil and wipe around the opening to remove anything that you don't want to be drinking.

Letting the wine breathe. Once opened, there is considerable debate about what to do. Most wine drinkers agree that most bottles of red wine benefit from some contact with the air. Exposure to air--breathing--changes the quality of a wine by unlocking hidden flavors. The question is how and how much. A wine that breathes too much becomes oxidized and takes on a stale flavor. A wine that is treated to violently (to speed up the breathing) can become ``sick'', its normally integrated flavors fragmenting into distinct, somewhat unpleasant components. The safest and easiest thing to do is simply pour the wine and start drinking. Air is imparted to the wine by the pouring, and continues breathing in the glass and in the bottle. If you want more air, pour from higher above the glass. This is beneficial for a ``tight'' or ``closed'' wine, which gives you sense that there is a lot of flavor there, but your tongue can't taste it. Sometimes you even feel a sucking feeling on your tongue. (In fact it might be better to store such a bottle for a few years to let it open up slowly, but now the bottle is open and so other measures are necessary.) The next-safest way to breathe a bottle is to open the bottle a couple of hours before it is to be drunk. Several hours might be OK for an especially tight wine. A slightly more aggressive approach is to decant the bottle. Decanting is also performed on older bottles that have sediment that needs to be gently separated from the wine. The wine needs to sit for (preferably) two hours after decanting in order for any sickness to pass; an especially closed wine can sit up to five hours before drinking. If you don't own a decanter or you like pouring from the bottle, just pour the wine back into the bottle, which amounts to double-decanting the wine. You can even do this in the morning before heading off for the day, lightly inserting the cork into the bottle (unless it is an especially closed wine).

Drinking. A majority of the wine experience occurs in the nose, not on the tongue. The tongue is capable of sensing only saltiness, sweetness, acidity, and bitterness. Consequently, a wine is drunk to maximize its impact on your nose. To start, the wine glass should be as large as possible (a good red glass is typically over 20 ounces) in size, and not filled more than one-third. This allows the bowl of the glass to hold ample wine vapors to better impart the flavor. The major exception to the use of large glasses is serving a dessert wine (e.g., Port), whose alcohol content demands a smaller bowl to control the sensation of smelling excessive alcohol. See my discussion of glasses for advice on wine glass selection and purchase.

With the glass on the table, hold the glass on the stem near the base. Move the glass in a steady circle, swirling the wine in the glass and bringing the wine up on to the sides of the glass. (Some people can do this without a table; more power to them.) Swirling not only continues the aeration of the wine, but it also vaporizes some of the wine, enhancing your ability to smell it. Placing your nose at the rim of the glass, breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose, appreciating the wine's bouquet. More swirling will enhance the bouquet further. Now drink a small sip of wine, also bringing some of the vapors into your nasal passages. Swirl the wine around in your mouth to further aerate the wine and enhance the flavor. Swallow.

Finishing and saving. When you reach the bottom of the bottle, it pays to make sure you leave any sediment behind. Inexpensive wines have little or no sediment, but even a little can be slightly unpleasant. If you are not finishing the wine, you probably want to store it so that you can drink it at a later time. A typical wine left overnight without any special handling will not be drinkable due to oxidation. On the other hand, a wine that did not fully open up during the first night of drinking may well be better with a night to continue evolving. There are four complementary solutions: vacuum corking, gassing, storage in a smaller bottle, and refrigeration, all of which minimize the effect of oxidation on the wine. Vacuum corking works for the short term, longer if the wine started a little closed in the first place. Laying down a gas blanket works better, but a wine will still react a little with the ``neutral'' gas or continue interacting with the air mixed in earlier. There is some debate about which gasses work best, but I haven't experimented. A small bottle, of course, reduces the amount of oxygen in the bottle, but pouring into the smaller bottle is tedious and exposes the wine to more air. I use half-bottles and quarter-bottles that I've saved. Refrigeration is controversial. Some feel that refrigeration ``kills'' a wine--even a white. I disagree, but if the wine is a red, it needs to be allowed to warm up some before drinking. Whatever you choose, don't spend a lot of money on contraptions; the cheap ones work fine if used properly. See my discussion of accessories for tentative advice on these options.