The Home Sommelier

By Ryan Snyder on March 18, 2005

Category: Wine for Newbies

While choosing the wine is certainly important, one of the most-overlooked areas of wine consumption is how to serve the wine. It’s not as simple as other beverages where you can simply pop the top of a can or bottle and chug directly from the lip, at least not without the paper bag surrounding the bottle. With good wine, you’ll notice each sip provides a different taste or sensation, and how we serve the wine can directly affect our experience with that wine.

Wine Glasses

My friend Joe and I were sipping a bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon when he said, “Someone told me that you’re supposed to use a different glass for each type of wine. Isn’t that a bunch of bull?” I thought about it for a while and responded, “Well, yes and no. Wine glasses are made in different shapes and sizes meant specifically for certain types of wine. The shape of the glass determines how the aromas will be concentrated and where the wine hits the tongue as it enters your mouth. Any wine glass will work fine, because you can swish the wine around in your mouth to make sure it hits all of your taste buds. But if I’m opening a $100 bottle, I want to make sure I use the right glass so I can get every penny’s worth out of that wine.”

In 1961, Claus Riedel found that each style of wine has its own unique qualities, including fruit, acidity, minerals, tannins, alcohol and terroir and began shaping glasses specifically for each of the major styles of wine. By tailoring each glass towards the characteristics of a specific wine, Mr. Riedel was able to concentrate the most desirable flavors and aromas to provide the most pleasurable experience for each wine. Tannic reds and full-bodied whites are best in glasses with a more narrow mouth which directs the wine to the center of the tongue allowing many elements to be expressed at once, including fruit, acidity and tannins. Meanwhile, red and white wines that are lighter-bodied, fruit-forward or higher in acidity show better in glasses with a wider mouth that will direct the wine to the tip of the tongue to emphasize the fruit and lessen the acidity.

Now, you don’t need to drop $1000 on wine glasses just to drink wine. While fancy-schmancy wine glasses will enhance a wine’s aroma and flavor, they are absolutely not necessary for appreciating wine. Newbies can get by with two types of glasses: A wine glass that can be used for both red and white wines, with a bowl large enough to swirl the wine that also narrows toward the rim to focus the wine’s aromas, and a set of flutes used for sparkling wines. As you venture further into the world of wine geekdom, you may find a special affinity for a specific wine, say Sherry or Sauternes, and decide to purchase glasses made to accommodate those wines.

Regardless of the style of glass you purchase, you’ll want to find wine glasses that are decent in quality, yet cheap enough that you won’t shed any tears when they break. Let’s face it, after a couple glasses of wine our coordination tends to dwindle, so broken glass and a puddle of wine covering your dining room table are as inevitable as the change of seasons. You’ll want to look for glasses that are somewhat sturdy, and buy enough glasses to make up for the two or twenty you know you’ll break.

Cleaning Your Glassware

One of the most important rules for glassware is to clean the glasses properly. Off-flavored wines are often caused by leftover residue in improperly cleaned glassware. Make sure to wash your glassware separately from your other dishes. I’ve seen wine glasses that have been cleaned with the same dish brush as a pan filled with bacon grease, and you can only imagine how that made the wine taste!

You’ll want to buy a wine glass sponge brush, available at any kitchen store, and use it only for your glassware. Wash the wine glass with warm water, but don’t use dish soap as it can become trapped in the glass. Afterwards, set the glasses upside-down to dry atop lint-free dish towels. If you’re looking for extra shine, you can steam the glasses over hot water. Then, holding the wine glass by the base, use a lint-free towel to polish the glass. Wine glasses are fragile, so make sure you clean gently and never twist the base or bowl of the glass.

Serving Wine

When pouring the wine, never pour to the rim of the glass. Wine needs room to breathe, and the the recommended pouring sizes are 2-3 oz. for white wines and 3-5 oz. for red wines, which will give you enough room to swirl the wine in the glass. Sparkling wines, which are served in flutes, can be filled closer to the rim because the idea is to allow the carbon dioxide bubbles to bead to the top. However, don't fill the glass completely to the top because they still need at least a little room to breathe and open up.

Some wines are tight and unexpressive immediately after opening the bottle, and decanting these wines can help them to breathe and open up quicker. A decanter is a large carafe in which a wine is poured. Within the decanter, oxygen is able to reach much more of the wine's surface than it would had we opened the bottle and let oxygen come through the bottle’s tiny opening. Inexpensive wines, fruit-forward wines and delicate varietals, such as Pinot Noir, Tempranillo and Sangiovese, are ready to be consumed within minutes of opening the bottle and decanting these wines could do more harm than good.

Meanwhile, good decanting candidates are old world Merlots, Cabernet Sauvignons and vintage Ports, which are typically deep and complex in flavor and require a little time to mingle with fresh air before being served. Some heavy-bodied whites, such as white Riojas and white Burgundies can occasionally improve from a little time in the decanter before serving. If you have any concerns about whether or not to decant a wine, never hesitate to consult your wine purveyor or drop a line in our Discussion Board.

Another important factor is the temperature at which you serve your wine. Wines perform different at various temperatures – a good example being Chardonnay, which is tight and unexpressive when poured right out of the fridge. But after sitting 10 minutes at room temperature its fruit and mineral characteristics become more pronounced. As a general rule of thumb, sparkling and sweet wines should be served at 37ºF-45ºF, dry whites, rosés and dessert wines at 45ºF-52ºF, light fruity reds, Port and Madeira at 58ºF-62ºF, and red wines at 62ºF-65ºF.

Environment is Everything

When it comes to wine, environment is everything. Aromas from cooking food, cigar smoke or a dog that hasn’t been bathed for a week will taint the air around you and will alter the flavor of your wine, usually in an unfavorable manner. Isolating distracting aromas and sounds will give you a more intrinsic experience of the wine.

But wine should never be an exclusive experience. Proper food pairing can provide flavors that will enhance your wine and vice versa. Give some forethought to possible pairings, whether a full five-course meal or a simple plate of dried fruit, peasant bread and brie. And finally, the right company can make a decent wine become a beautiful wine. Never hesitate to call a couple friends and invite them over to share that bottle of Gevrey-Chambertin you’ve been saving in the cellar. Good conversation with friends will always enhance the way you think about your wine, and sharing good wine can do nothing but bring friends closer together.