Serving Wine: The Basics

Pouring wine like a French woman is an art—but it's not too late to learn.

For me, there’s little doubt that some wine-tasting rituals and props enhance the experience, as proper napkins and changing plates for each course can do at the dinner table. Glassware is not a luxury, it’s essential. A good all-purpose eight-ounce glass will do, although you should never pour more than four to six ounces into it. Such a “sommelier’s glass” is fine for whites, reds and even sparkling wines. It should be tapered at the top to capture the aromas but without too long a stem, which can cause instability. Molded glass will do, though crystal can enhance the discernment and appreciation of color and has a delicate feel on the lips that can also enhance pleasure.

The glass makers and wine magazines tout the benefits of glasses designed for each specific wine type. It’s not nonsense: a larger balloon bowl, for instance, does help capture the more abundant bouquets, and there are shapes designed to make the wine flow into your mouth in some optimal way. Most of these refinements have little bearing on the basic enjoyment of wine, though. Yes, a red Burgundy, with its complex aromas, benefits from the big balloon. Yes, the tulip shape of a Champagne flute keeps the bubbles bubbling longer and the bursting bouquet concentrated (so you should immediately junk those saucer-shaped Champagne glasses apocryphally said to be modeled on the shape of Marie Antoinette’s breasts!). And generally a heavy glass with a long stem feels precarious in my hand. Lately, stem-less glasses with bowls of various sizes (larger for reds, smaller for whites) have come into fashion. I rather like them. A nice modern, casually elegant touch, they are our glass of choice in the country.

A word about washing: glassware should of course be clean, but use only the very minimum of detergent, rinse very well, and air dry—don’t use a dishcloth reeking of fabric softener. Many a wine experience is doomed by odors already in the glass.

A corkscrew is the one other essential for wine after a glass, though it may not be for much longer. Corks are traditional, of course, but are in short supply and often are flawed or “bad”—up to one in twenty bottles at times—and impart off flavors, sometimes to the point of making the wine unpleasant and unacceptable. Synthetic corks are making good inroads and are effective. Moreover, with so much wine consumed within a year of bottling, screw tops are finding a place, especially among white wines, in the low and middle quality ranges. Fine by me.

Opening la bouteille

The cork and corkscrew, though, are part of the ritual of wine and are standard for fine wines, as they have been for centuries. There’s even a rich tradition of collecting corkscrews, notably old silver contraptions that penetrated many a venerable neck (and cork). Modern technology has improved the corkscrew and made the job easier. I advise investing in a good one that should last you for life, even if it doesn’t become a collectible or heirloom. What’s a good corkscrew? One you find easy to use. It’s all about the screw, which is called the worm. It should look like a coil and not a screw, and nowadays the most efficient are coated with Teflon. The best-known brand is Screwpull, but there are worthy competitors. We generally use one of the lever types, partly because we tend to open bottles regularly, but any model with a good worm works well and easily. There’s a certain machismo about the purity of the basic waiter’s corkscrew—fine if you can handle one with ease—but such considerations don’t concern French women.

To Decant or Not to Decant?

Before removing the cork, you must make sure you have the serving temperature right. It’s not necessarily the same as the storage temperature. And if you are following the 50 Percent Solution and refrigerating half a bottle, you can’t just plop it straight onto the table like a two-liter bottle of Coke (which, anyway, I hope you are not still drinking). The rules are pretty simple: Champagne and white wines should be chilled to between 45 and 55 degrees. Over-chilled wine will not release its aromas, so chill minimally. The rule of thumb with red wines is room temperature (take the half bottle out of the refrigerator half an hour or so before serving), but this centuries-old rule predates central heating and assumes a room temperature of 65 degrees (a good pouring temperature for reds). If your room is 80 or 90 degrees, serve the wine at the temperature of the cool, dark place where you’ve been keeping it–somewhere in the 60s is a good target.

Decanting is another ritual about which there are strong opinions. There really are only two reasons to decant: sedimentation and aeration. But my practice runs against orthodoxy in respect to both: I mostly decant younger wines and serve older wines from their bottle. Decanters are lovely things, of course. They shine and glitter and look good on shelves. But an old wine bottle or a $5 glass decanter or pitcher is all you need.

You may have observed a sommelier carefully pouring wine from a bottle while illuminating the neck with a candle (rare nowadays). So mystical, when a little flashlight would work fine—the point being to make sure sediments remain in the bottle and don’t make their way into the decanter and your glass and ultimately your mouth. Sedimentary deposition occurs not only in riverbeds; it occurs naturally in big reds as they age and their tannins (the naturally occurring chemicals that account for the astringency of wine) soften. Nothing bad will happen to you if you ingest the sediment, but it can interfere with the pleasure of drinking.

The second reason for decanting is to “awaken” a sleeping wine through aeration. Wine is a living, breathing thing during its time in the bottle and in the glass. It is always changing, especially in the glass. A little oxygen can really open up and release the flavors in a complex wine, as well as mellow the rougher edges of immaturity (again the tannins, necessary for structure but also responsible for harshness: wine can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em).

The problem with decanting very old wines is that they often die in the decanter, oxidizing too quickly, before you can enjoy them. That’s why we prefer to stand the bottle up for a day, letting the sediment fall to the bottom; then, after opening, we take care not to pour the dregs into the glass (think of it as decanting straight into the glass). But who has lots of old bottles of wine to decant anyway? It’s the big, youngish red wines that most of us uncork and find too rowdy to drink without a few breaths or hours of air. When we were newer to wine, we played the game of tracking the taste of a wine from its first awakening when uncorked through its maturity and finally death, when the air has robbed it of all its most pleasing characteristics. In some sense a wine becomes a different wine at each stage of this life of hours. Talk about the fullness of time.

For more Wine 101, read Mireille’s tutorial on buying wine.