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Serving and Preserving Wines

At a glance…

Primary Factors That Changes A Wine’s Characteristics:

  1. Time (after opening) & Proper Storage
  2. Age and Ageability
  3. Aeration
  4. Temperature
  5. Glass characteristics

Common Misconceptions:

  1. A high priced wine does not necessarily equal enjoyment – everyone's taste differs
  2. Red Meat must be accompanied by Red Wine. White Meat and Fish must be accompanied White Wine – we have much more variation in food choices than when this staid old rule was embraced.
  3. Screw cap wines are universally poor – there are some very good wines now using screw caps - usually wines that are not designed to be cellared.
  4. Oxidized wine is undrinkable, but can be used for cooking in most cases.

The Best Advice:
If you’re not sure, ask someone knowledgeable.

Guidelines for this section:

We assume that if you’re looking at this section, you’re not a wine professional. Furthermore, you probably have a regular job and a normal house so it’s impossible to follow the purist’s advice who recommend $100 bottles of wine and preach having a different glasses for each type of wine.

Details

If given a choice, I’d rather serve a good quality wine well, rather than a great quality wine poorly. The amount of time that the wine has been open, the temperature at which its served, how long it’s breathed, and the size and shape of the glass in which it’s served, can enhance or ruin a fine wine. Hitting all the right points can make it appear that you spent twice as much on a bottle of wine. Miss them all and you might turn an exceptional wine into average one.

Time Open and Proper Storage After Opening
Does this sound familiar? You’ve had a great glass of wine the night before and now after a tough day at work and you just can’t wait to pop the cork and enjoy the rest of it. Drum roll please…what a disappointment. So what happened? The wine was in contact with air for too long.

More than anything else, too much oxygen can degrade a wine’s flavor. It oxidizes when it comes into contact with air. In small amounts and just after being opened, allowing the wine to breath can soften and round out the flavors. Long term exposure changes the chemical composition and degrades the wine. Once a wine’s become too oxidized to enjoy, there’s no way to recover its character.

The amount of time that a wine can be stored after opening is proportional to the amount of wine left in the bottle and how quickly it was recorked. A bottle with only a glass of wine remaining probably won’t even last until the next day so you may as well throw yourself on it that evening rather than taking a chance.

Time Open and Proper Storage After Opening
However, if only a glass was removed and it was resealed soon after opening, there’s a good chance the wine will be fine the next day. If the goal is to drink part of a bottle and save the rest for the next day, try one of the following preservation techniques. The sooner you can slow the oxidation process, the longer the wine will last. There are a number of theories regarding the best way to store an opened bottle of wine (and twice as many wine preserving gadgets).

Light & Dark - Light of any kind is the enemy of wine, especially after being opened (the same is true with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and many other extracted natural substances by the way). Keep the wine in a dark closet or corner. Placing it in an opaque bag will also work.

ight & Dark

Refrigeration - While refrigeration can slow the oxidation process, when the wine cools in the refrigerator, the air molecules in the bottle slow down and the pressure drops. If the cork is not perfectly seated, this can draw in even more air and defeat the purpose. Refrigeration is a viable alternative if nothing else is available but we believe there are better options. Refrigeration

Vacuum - While hand vacuum pumps tend to be somewhat unreliable (often due more to the person using them rather than the pump itself), there are several automatic vacuum pumps out now that do an excellent job of consistently removing oxygen from the bottle. In addition, they monitor the bottle and if the pressure builds (meaning the seal is leaking) it will re-pump air out.

Gas preservative canister Gas If a sophisticated vacuum pump is not available, the next best storage method is to use an inexpensive gas canister specifically designed for preserving wine. Most contain Nitrogen but some contain Argon, which is even better. When sprayed in a bottle, they displace most of the air because the gas is heavier so it falls to the lowest point in the bottle, settling into a layer on top of the wine. The air sits on top of the gas layer much like the separation between oil and vinegar in a salad dressing container. If the directions are followed and the wine is not jostled, very little air can reach the wine. They generally range from about 10 to 40 cents per usage so it’s a cheap way to protect your investment.

Age and Ageability
Most California wine is designed to be drunk directly off the shelf.  However, a number of wineries produce wines that have the characteristics to be “cellared” in the hopes they will improve with age. Aging a wine that wasn’t designed to be aged will only degrade its flavor. Consuming a wine soon after vintage when it was designed to be aged will result in another unsatisfying experience. Refer to the individual Varietal pages of this site to get hints on how long a wine can be stored after purchase and if you have the opportunity, consult with the winemaker, who always has the best idea of how the wine will improve with age. If you plan on storing wine to improve its flavor, temperature stability is key. An ideal temperature is 57 degrees but if that’s not available, find a temperature stable, dark place and avoid moving the wine.

Age and Ageability

Rapid temperature swings cause air to be expelled or drawn into the bottle through or around the cork, which can quickly damage a wine. Wine that was designed to be laid down can age gracefully even at 68 degrees as long as the temperature remains consistent. It’s likely they won’t improve the way they would have at a lower temperature but for a casual wine drinker, the differences shouldn’t be too great as long as it’s enjoyed on the younger side of mature rather than waiting for it reach full maturity as it would have at cellar temperature.

Aeration
Most red wines that were designed to be cellared can benefit from relatively short-term exposure to air, which typically softens the tannins of the wines, greatly enhancing their flavors and aromas. Very few white wines require any breathing.

For Reds, the easiest way to do this is to open the bottle about 2 hours before serving. For heavier Whites that can benefit from breathing, open the bottle for about 45 minutes prior to serving. There’s a common myth that merely opening a wine and letting it breath does nothing to enhance its flavor because not enough surface area of the wine is exposed to air. Frankly, we think that’s BS because it doesn’t take into consideration the amount of time the wine will be open prior to tasting.  Just like a decanter can speed the breathing time by increasing the surface area, opening a bottle which has a smaller surface area than a decanter but letting it breathe for a longer time can improve it.  It’s a mathematical function of surface area and time. If you’re not sure if the wine needs aeration, pour a small amount into a wine glass taste it and then gently swirl it in the glass (don’t splash) for 3 to 5 seconds. If the wine tastes fuller and smoother, allow it to breath. If it’s degraded in flavor, recork it and place it where it will be the right serving temperature when you’re ready to enjoy it. Because only a small amount was removed from the bottle, the wine shouldn’t degrade any further before you are ready to enjoy it assuming you are going to drink it within several hours. If you don’t have a decanter and there isn’t sufficient time to let the bottle breath, pour the wine into a glass and let it breath. Typically 20 minutes is sufficient. The problem with glass breathing is that usually this is done at room temperature. Even well laid plans to serve the wine at the correct temperature usually go out the window if you need to let the wine glass breath, which is usually done at room temperature.

If you are going to drink the entire bottle, the best way to let it breath is to use a decanter. There are numerous shapes but the basic goals of using one are the same:

  1. Allow the wine to be served without sediment in the glass
  2. Aerate the wine more efficiently.

If you’re using a decanter, make sure you are in a very well lit area and pour the wine in slowly and observe the shoulder of the wine bottle (the part just before it narrows at the neck). Make sure there’s sufficient light to clearly see the wine.  As you near the bottom, you’ll likely see small particles begin to approach the neck.  Stop pouring prior to them leaving the bottle. The amount of time to leave a wine in the decanter depends on the surface area. Assuming the decanter is roughly twice the diameter of the bottle, the wine will aerate in ¼ of the time that it would in the bottle so assume about 20 to 30 minutes.

Decanter
Aeration

Caveats

  1. Not all red wine and very few whites need to breath.  Make sure you taste the wine first. Usually (but not always) the fruitier the wine, the less likely it is to need aeration.  Wines with heavier tannins typically will need more breathing time.
  2. If you use a decanter, you’re committed to either drinking the entire amount decanted or throwing the rest away. Once a wine has been heavily exposed to oxygen, it’s well on the road to becoming vinegar and if left too long, becomes undrinkable.

Temperature
As mentioned in the Varietals section, temperature can have a huge impact on the taste of wine. If you want to experiment, take a glass of Chardonnay that was made with oak (it doesn’t have to be a heavily oaked Chardonnay but one kept only in Stainless won’t illustrate this point as well). Once it’s at refrigerator temperature, pour a glass and take a small sip. Now put it in the microwave for 3 seconds (…sorry connoisseurs but this is for science). Try another sip. This can be repeated several times before the wine rises above cellar temperature. The taste and structure of the wine should change noticeably with every 2 to 3 degree increment. Temperature recommendations are given for each type listed on the Varietal page. Remember that these are guidelines for many but not all wines of that type. How the wine’s made will have an impact on the ideal temperature. Your refrigerator and freezer are tools so don’t be afraid to use them. White wines, except those made to be served very cold, should be removed prior to serving. Room temperature Red wines can be brought to the correct temperature by placing them in the freezer for a short amount of time. The table below provides general guidelines to get your wine to the correct temperature. All freezers vary in temperature and most have cold spots so customizing the table to fit yours will likely be necessary.

Desired Temperature for Whites Time Out of Freezer
44F to 48F Serve immediately from freezer
48F to 52F Remove from freezer 30 minutes before serving
52F to 56F Remove from freezer 40 minutes before serving

Desired Temperature for Reds Time In Freezer
60F to 62F Place in freezer 35 minutes before serving
63F to 65F Place in freezer 25 minutes before serving
65F or above Place in freezer 15 minutes before serving
Stone (or ceramic) holder



One you’ve got a wine to the right temperature, keeping it there is also important. Unless you are going to pour the entire bottle at once, use a stone (or ceramic) holder to help keep it at the correct temperature for a longer period of time. The stone will help slow the warming process much as a foam cooler does for a bottle of beer (hey, man can’t live on wine alone).

Glass Characteristics

Glass Characteristics
Other than characteristics of the wine itself, few topics provoke as much debate as the importance of the glass.  Most agree that a clear, large bowl narrowing slightly at the top to concentrate the aromas are key. Beyond that, opinions begin to vary. If you’re looking at this page for advice, odds are you don’t have 4 different types of glasses for drinking different varieties of Red, White and sparkling wines. Also, most homes don’t have sufficient room to store multitudes of different glasses (lord know mine doesn’t). Heresy as it is to many wine purists, I find that one glass fits all my needs except for sparkling wines. A large rounded bowl at the bottom with a top tapering inwards an inch or so from the widest point of the bowl is a great all-purpose glass. Make sure that its big enough to allow for a generous, 6 ounce pour with at least 2/3rds of the glass remaining empty, giving plenty of room to swirl.

Stems are important as well. A number of years ago, wine glass producers introduced lines of stemless glasses. Many of these are well proportioned and have the correct bowl shape but without a stem, the drinker is forced to hold the bowl, which heats up the wine and usually puts greasy fingerprints all over the glass. While fingerprints don’t change the tasted of the wine, visually its less appealing and it increases the chance that the glass can slip from your hand.

stemless glass
The lip of the glass

The lip of the glass should not be rounded over. The theories are endless as to why, but the most credible is that a large lip causes the wine to splash over it and changes how it hits the tongue. Taste buds are not uniformly distributed. A well-made glass with a straight, cut lip will allow the wine to gently fall onto the tongue.

Correctly serving a wine can make it taste like you paid far more than you might have. Incorrectly serving it can make even an exceptional wine seem mediocre. Find what works best for you and enjoy!