So many styles of wine, both Old and New World, so many styles of food available nowadays can make for a great deal of confusion. The traditional system of white wine with fish and chicken and red wine with meat and game is no longer cast in stone.
A golden 'rule of thumb' is to match the weight and body of a wine with the delicacy or richness of a particular dish. For example, a light Sauvignon Blanc from Rueda would be swamped by Lobster Thermidor but would suit perfectly Quiche Lorraine or even a Thai green curry. A fine oaky Chardonnay is recommended for the lobster.
Having a crowd can be daunting. Choose a light, dry white such as Pinot Grigio or a Chilean Sauvignon Blanc and have plenty of ice for chilling. A good fruity red with soft tannins should keep everyone happy. Try a Dolcetto d'Alba or an Australian Cabernet / Grenache blend. Above all have fun.
Having chosen your wine, whether for an important dinner-party, or simply self-indulgence, proper serving conditions greatly enhance its enjoyment.
Perhaps the most important aspect of wine service as it can greatly affect the taste and the aroma of the wine. White wines benefit from chilling but if left in the fridge overnight will chill to around 4°C, enough to mask all the flavour and aroma. If served at around 8-10° they will be so much better. If a wine needs to be chilled quickly, iced water is a far more effective means than placing it in a container of ice cubes.
The term 'room temperature' for red wines can be very misleading as it has a huge variant and in many cases is too warm anyway. Most red wines are best served at 'cellar temperature' around 15-16° to embellish the flavour and lift the natural aromas. If a red wine is very cold try decanting it into a warm jug or pouring it into warm glasses. You can also use a microwave but be careful not to cook the wine - 15-20 seconds will usually suffice. Some light red fruity wines benefit from light chilling to around 10° e.g. Beaujolais, especially for summer drinking
Opening the bottle
Remove the metal foil using a sharp knife or special foil cutter ensuring that no jagged bits remain on the pouring surface - this can cause unsightly dribbling. Most modern corkscrews are effective but invariably an old or weak cork may break or disintegrate. If it proves difficult to remove try pushing it into the bottle and decant the wine into a jug using a skewer or kebab stick to hold it down. If there are bits of cork in the wine filter it through a simple kitchen funnel using a coffee filter. Be especially careful with Champagne and Sparkling Wine as the corks can eject with tremendous force and cause injury. Always open these bottles at an angle away from you (and your best china). Remove the restraining wire and hold down the cork while twisting the bottle from the base. As the cork ejects, angle it out of the neck to release the gas 'softly' - racing drivers take note - anyway, you will enjoy a lot more of your wine!
Many people like to open serious red wines hours in advance to allow the wine to 'breathe'. It can be effective in removing any 'bottle stink' or 'mercaptans' in a wine but the best form of breathing is agitation in the glass.
A much debated subject and generally only necessary for wines which by nature of the way in which they are made, throw a sediment such as Vintage Port. Decanting can help a wine to breathe or aerate. When decanting, the wine should be poured slowly and steadily into a clean glass jug or decanter. Using a candle or bright light will show the sediment as it gathers in the shoulder of the bottle.
The simpler and plainer the better. Ideally, but not necessarily tulip shaped with a wider bowl and tapering narrow at the top. A long stem allows for ease of swirling and the glass shape will trap and deliver the aromas. Holding the glass by the stem minimises temperature change and avoids unsightly finger marks. Many people like to serve white wine in a larger glass followed by red wine in a smaller version, which can be aesthetically very pleasing but often has little bearing on the style of wine served. You will also need more glasses.
Pouring Never fill the glass. The half way mark is fine. It may look mean but you can pour as often as people require. It allows the wine to breathe in the glass and for the recipient to swirl the wine and enjoy the aromas. As a general rule serve white before red, young before old and keep the good wine until last. If you hold the bottle by the base and give your wrist a slight twist as you finish pouring you will avoid the dribble factor. Try it - it works!
There is no mystery to tasting wine. Most people can become excellent tasters with just a little practice and by following a few basic ground rules. You will find here the correct structure and basis of appraisal which can be applied to all wines - it's simple and it's fun.
What you will need...
Proper tasting glasses A box of six standard ISO tasting glasses, available from most good wine shops is a modest and invaluable investment. These are designed to maximise the bouquet (nose) of the wine.
Good light It is impossible to appreciate the colour characteristics of a wine in poor light. A bright room with a white tablecloth or any white background is ideal
A sense of smell Don't worry if it's not great at first - it will improve with practice. Avoid wearing perfumes/after shave etc. - they spoil it for you and for everyone else.
Some company Wine is for sharing and a small group of friends is an ideal way to reduce cost and spread the enjoyment.
Wine Start with four or six straightforward varietal wines, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc etc. If you have a small group let one person select and buy the wines and split the cost or rotate the purchasing.
Pen and paper Always write a note, no matter how short or uncomplicated. You don't have to read it to anyone but it's great to look back on for reference.
A keen sense of enjoyment This is what wine is all about. It is a social creature that is there for our enjoyment. We just need to remove some of the mystique that surrounds the subject.
The approach to tasting...
Arrange your glasses in a row, marking them from 1 - 6 etc. from left to right. Pour all the wines to fill approximately one third of each glass - never fill the glasses. Serve the whites lightly chilled but not too cold as this masks the aromas. Reds should be at room temperature and, if possible, opened one hour beforehand - longer if they are more serious wines. Always taste from white to red, from dry to sweet and from young to old. Allow ten minutes per wine and approach your tasting as follows:
Sight Tilt the glass against your white background and look at the wine. See if it is clear with no obvious haze and comment accordingly. Check the colour - in whites it can go from almost water white to deep straw yellow, depending on style and age, and in reds from light cherry red, through deep ruby to almost mahogany brown. Note a colour and see if it changes between the core (centre) and the rim - this is often an indication of age.
Nose Give the wine a swirl (that's why you didn't fill your glass) and a good sniff. Does it smell clean - fresh, floral or fruity, honeyed, earthy, stalky, vegetal, oily - these are all characteristics of different wine styles, which you will learn and identify as you progress. Watch out for acrid aromas, sour or vinegar style, excessive mustiness that can indicate a wine is out of condition, corked or simply past its best. Many mature quality wines can assume very complex aromas which take time to understand and appreciate, so start with young fresh varietals and work up from there.
Taste Taste the wine, swirl it around your mouth, swallow a fraction and spit the rest (you can enjoy a drink after the tasting). The first discernible factor is whether it is dry, off dry or sweet on the finish. This requires a little practice as fruit concentration or ripeness can sometimes be confused with sweetness. Most varietal wines are nowadays vinified dry - if in doubt check our wine database and read the section on vinification*.
The next important consideration is acidity. All wines require acidity as otherwise they will taste flat or flabby. Acidity is that prickle you get on the side or your tongue after you swallow - a type of drool. It should be there, so comment on it. Tannins are present and are a vital component of red wines. These are generally noticed on the gums and roof of the mouth and have a drying effect. Try a sip of cold black tea to demonstrate a tannic effect.
Fruit is next and should be there in abundance. It could be gooseberry or green apples in a Sauvignon, tropical and pineapple in a ripe Chardonnay, soft blackberry and cedar in a mature Cabernet etc.
What you find is what you get and your description is important to you alone as it will help you to identify the varietal in future tastings. Drawing in a little air before spitting highlights the alcohol content of the wine and can merit comment if pronounced. Most still dry wines fall into the 11.5% - 13% alcohol category with some notable exceptions.
Conclusion Having viewed, nosed and tasted the wine and noted your observations, you should now draw your conclusions. Is the wine well made? Are the components in balance? Is it drinking well now or will it improve with time? What is the quality level? Tasting a wine with the label exposed is cheating a little, as invariably you will write your note to that label. Try covering the labels - a blind tasting - it is not as daunting as it seems especially in the company of like-minded friends
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