How to Drink Wine

The many rituals surrounding wine often seem silly, but for most of them there's a good reason. Just about every aspect or nuance of wine and its presentation is rooted in utility.

After a bottle is opened, for instance, it's often left to sit for an hour or so in order that it may "breathe;" a little exposure to the air releases the flavors, especially in reds, adding to the taste. With red wines, there's another benefit; sediment is allowed to settle to the bottom. If it's then handled gently when poured, the sediment stays toward the bottom. Additionally, the high shoulders on the bottle prevent the sediments from being poured with the wine. The presence of sediment also explains why the bottles for red wines are usually dark; the green glass helps obscure them. White wines, on the other hand, are supposed to be clear and sediment free, thus the clear bottles with the sloping shoulders.

It's the same with serving temperatures; whites and sparkling wines are served chilled--at about 50 degrees--because the coldness subdues the flavor somewhat, insuring subtlety so that the wine doesn't overpower the food it accompanies. Dessert wines are also served cold; otherwise the sweetness would be overwhelming.

Red wines, typically drunk with heavier dishes, are served at room temperature because the comparative warmth releases more of the wine's flavor. The same usually applies to fortified wines. The idea is to match heavily flavored wines with heavily flavored foods, subtle wines with subtle foods.

In most cases, the correct glass to use is the traditional clear glass with a stem which holds eight or nine ounces, and narrows toward the top. Colored or cut glasses are inappropriate since they make it difficult to observe the color or clarity of the wine. (There were times when such glasses were used just for that reason; up until 150 years or so ago, wine could be pretty murky.) The stem is a handle for holding the glass; this is especially important with white wines, because holding the bowl for any amount of time will warm the glass, and thus the wine, perhaps detracting from the taste.

The narrowing top of the glass helps trap the aroma of the wine, and the glass is usually only filled to about a third of the way up; that allows enough room above the surface of the wine for the scent to accumulate.

The major exception to the traditional glass is for sparkling wine. The flute glass is the proper alternative, because its height and limited diameter help prevent the bubbles--or gas--from dissipating too quickly, rendering the sparkling wine flat. Since sparkling wine isn't usually whiffed the way other wines are, filling the glass two-thirds of the up is standard; that also provides a pleasantly long backdrop for the bubbles to rise against. As for the shallow, wide-mouth "champagne" glass, that's an aberration which should be avoided at all costs.

Regardless of what sort of glass is used, it must be clean. That seems a given, but most people don't realize that the residues of soaps and detergents often remain behind in "clean" glasses, and they inevitably alter the flavor of wine. Always be sure to soak wine glasses in very hot water before they're used, and rinse them again before drying.

Storing and Opening Bottles

Wine should always be stored in a cool, dark place because sunlight or heat can damage the wine and harm its flavor. Bottles are kept on their sides so as to keep the corks moist; otherwise they dry out and allow air to enter the bottle and ruin the wine.

As mentioned before, it's advisable to open a bottle of wine about an hour or so before you mean to drink it. What device do you use? The French "waiter" is probably the best opening system around; that's the metal pocket-knife-looking device which includes a small blade on one end, a cork screw in the middle, and something mysterious looking on the other end.

The small blade is for cutting away the lead foil; run its edge around the ridge at the top of the bottle, and a small cap will drop away. Then insert the cork screw, insuring that it's centered, and screw it in. Do not, however, go through the bottom of the cork; you want to avoid having cork particles drop into the wine. Then, if you fold out that final tool on the end of the device, you'll notice that it will hook on to the lip of the bottle; pull up on the other end, and the cork will come out.

There are many other options, of course. Avoid those with augurs rather than the twisting cork screws; if the cork's in tight, the augurs may just rip out the center, making it almost impossible to remove.

Once the bottle's open, exposure to air starts to change the wine's flavor. At first, this is a good thing. But after a few hours, oxidation sets in; the wine begins to spoil. Four or five hours after a bottle has been opened, the wine will taste substantially different, and negatively so. It doesn't matter if you keep a cork in; the air in the bottle is sufficient to force a change. The wine is still drinkable, and will remain so indefinitely. It just has an inferior flavor.

Tasting Wine

You've heard of those people who are supposed to be able to taste a wine without knowing anything about it, yet can identify the different grape types in it, when they were harvested, where they were from and a dozen other things. Such mavens are mostly fictional, and in any case are so rare as to be irrelevant. No one is going to quiz you, and the label on the bottle has most of the answers anyway.

The main reasons for learning tasting skills are to develop a taste for what you like, and to differentiate good wine from bad. After you know what to expect, you'll be a more satisfied consumer as well as a more effective host.

Tasting wine begins with a close look. Clarity and color are prized in reds and whites, and by tilting the glass to its side you can get an idea of both with this shallow view. Reds ideally have a ruby color, whites a golden hue; a brownish cast to either is a bad sign.

Then swirl the wine around the sides of the glass; watch to see how it runs back down. Thick, slow moving strands of liquid that are momentarily left behind on the walls of the glass indicate that the wine is full-bodied; their lack reveals a lighter-bodied wine. Neither quality is necessarily good or bad; they just help in the description.

Now comes a good, strong smell. Swirl some more, and stick your nose into the glass and take a whiff. Be on the lookout for any strong, unpleasant smells; that's the first hint of a bad wine. Otherwise, savor what's there, and try to discern the flavors. Just as with actually drinking the wine, the smelling leads the experts to extravagant attempts at discerning the constituent smells. They may be described as cinnamon, berries, feces, chocolate, mango, steak, literally anything you can imagine. You, however, can settle for a narrower range of description: smells good, smells great, whatever.

Then take a healthy drink, about half a mouthful, and swish it around in your mouth, bathing your taste buds. Swallow a little, and try to determine if there's an aftertaste, and whether it's pleasant or not. Take your time before you make a judgment or express an opinion. And take a second taste. The first drink of wine on any foray is going to taste different from the succeeding mouthfuls since it's something of a shock to your taste buds.

As explained above, some people will go to great lengths to describe flavors they think detect, sometimes approaching the absurd. But there is some validity to this; if all you can say is that the wine tastes good, bad or indifferent, descriptions of all wines would be numbingly similar.

Flavors you certainly will be able to detect are those such as that of the oak barrels that wine is aged in, as well as some of the acids. There's astringency--that quality that makes you open your eyes a bit--and the taste of citrus, which makes you want to pucker up a bit. The wine may be harsh or smooth, the flavor of alcohol overpowering or subtle.

After drinking several examples of a particular varietal wine--Chardonnay, for instance-- you'll develop an idea of what the wine should taste like in a general sense, and then start appreciating individual nuances from one brand or vintage to another.

Clearing your palate between different types of wine is always a good practice if you're seriously paying attention to tasting. Neutral-flavored, salt-free crackers are often served at tastings, along with water. These help remove the flavors of a previous wine so they don't confuse the tasting of ensuing vintages. It is also common to spit out a taste rather than drink all of it; at a tasting with 12 or 15 wines, inebriation is a genuine concern. Pitchers or other containers are often present at tastings, just so you can pour away what's left in your glass.

There is a general order that should be followed when sampling or drinking wine, and taste buds account for this as well. Usually, you drink white wines before reds, and dry wines before sweet. The goal is to start with more subtle flavors and progress to stronger ones; otherwise, your taste buds won't be able to appreciate the lighter flavors since they will have been overwhelmed by the heavier ones. At a winery tasting room, the normal progression is from light whites to Chardonnay, then from lighter reds--like Pinot Noir--to Cabernet or Zinfandel. Afterward, sweet dessert wines may be offered.

The most important thing to be able to identify is a bad wine. Any hint of a vinegar taste is a mark of a wine gone bad, and so is any other obviously inappropriate flavor. Corking is another common type of damage; the wine tastes of the stopper. These aren't inferior wines, they're spoiled wines; they should not be consumed.

The Restaurant Ritual

When you order a wine in a restaurant, you have the right to insure you're getting what you ordered and that your guests are treated to an acceptable product.

After you register your desired choice, the waiter should return with an unopened bottle of the wine you requested, with the foil intact; this guarantees that some cheap substitute hasn't been put into a loftily labeled bottle, an eventuality that happens more often than you might expect. The waiter should show you the bottle, so you can see the brand and the year; if it's what you asked for, nod and assent. The wine is opened in your presence, and the waiter will then pour a small amount into the glass of the host, or the person who ordered the wine.

The purpose of this taste is for you to decide whether the wine is suitable for drinking. Here you go through the tasting routine; a swirl, a fast glance, another swirl, a smell. Remember that you're looking for flaws; if you see a little piece of cork floating in the glass, tell the waiter so--politely--and ask for the taste in another glass, absent any cork residue. When you sniff, really look for a bad smell; and when you taste look for evidence of corruption, whether that taste of vinegar or a strong taste of cork.

All of this should take only 30 or 45 seconds; you're not trying to give the waiter a hard time or impress your guests, nor are you really trying to fully appreciate the wine. You're simply trying to determine if there's anything wrong with it, and that is the only acceptable reason to reject it--genuine spoilage.

This routine is less necessary now than in past years, when quality control, transportation and storage methods were much less rigorous than today. Even so, damage occurs, so the exercise is not irrelevant.

And, to reiterate, damage to the wine is the only legitimate excuse for sending it back. If the wine is sweeter than you thought, or not quite as good as you expected, that's your problem, and you must live with it.

On the other hand, you are well within your rights to turn down a wine if it's not what you ordered, not opened in your presence, or spoiled in any way.

Wine and Food

You've no doubt heard that red wines should be consumed with meats, whites with fish and fowl, and perhaps even that a blush wine will go with either. There are roughly equal parts of fact and error in this advice, and the topic's well worth further exploration.

Red wines tend to be heavy and extremely flavorful, so the conventional wisdom suggests that they accompany food that will hold up against them. This is good advice, and there are few better matches than a Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Zinfandel and a filet mignon or some other glorious piece of red meat. Such reds go well with dishes characterized by heavy tomato sauces, for instance, or any other richly spiced course.

White wines are more subtle, and so should be the food they're served with, thus the recommendation of fish and fowl. But there are exceptions. Turkey and duck, for instance, can hold up quite well against a light red, such as a Pinot Noir, and maybe even some Merlots.

Meats like pork and lamb can go either way, depending on how they're served; heavy flavors invite reds, lighter ones, whites. But Chardonnay or Pinot Noir will almost always go with either, as well as with the aforementioned duck or turkey.

Sweet wines, of any color, should never be served with lunch or dinner. White Zinfandel, or a similarly sweetish wine, may be appropriate for brunch, depending on the tastes of the guests. As for blush wines in general, just forget about them, except, perhaps, for that same brunch.

Usually, the red and meat or white and fish truisms hold up if you want to be safe. But they aren't absolutes, and if you use your head and common sense, you can deviate without too much risk of disaster.