Whether you’re in a restaurant, hosting a sit-down dinner party or just relaxing, there are some basic guidelines about serving wine. Jacques Scott’s Wine Marketing Manager Lee Royle discussed some of the finer points of good wine service during lunch at the Lobster Pot Restaurant in George Town.
Wine isn’t like most beverages in that you can’t just open it and pour – at least not if you want the wine to have its optimum taste.
Knowing some basics will not only impress your guests or dinner companions, but will bring out the best in the wine served.
Different kinds of wines should be served at different temperatures.
Royle offered a general guideline for white and red wines.
“For me, it’s the 20 minute rule,” he said. “You take white wines out of the refrigerator 20 minutes before serving and put reds into the refrigerator 20 minutes before serving.”
Royle said Sauvignon Blanc – especially from the New World – was one exception to the 20-minute rule, because it needed to be served fairly cool.
“Sauvignon Blanc is a little different. It’s very aromatic and acidic,” he said, adding that if it’s served too warm, it can be overpowering.
Royle noted that most white wine is served too cold in Cayman, something that mutes the taste.
“The more you chill it, the more you’re going to kill it,” he said.
For very inexpensive white wines, this might even be preferable, but for wines of decent quality, most of the taste complexities will be lost serving it ice cold.
Most connoisseurs would frown on the practice of putting ice in white wine, but it happens here in Cayman’s hot climate, and particularly when people are drinking outdoors.
“You can’t really blame people because we live in hot climate and you want to cool down,” Royle said. “I’ve seen people here put ice cubes in already ice-cold wine.”
Ultimately, Royle acknowledges that different people have different tastes.
“At the end of the day, it’s up to the person who’s drinking it.”
In general, however, aromatic lighter-bodied white wine like Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc should be served well chilled (46 degrees or a little warmer), while medium-bodied white wines like Chablis and Semillion should be served a little less chilled (50 degrees or a little warmer) and full-bodied wines like oaked Chardonnay should be served slightly chilled (54 degrees or a little warmer).
Many people believe red wine should be served at room temperature. This might work in climates of the far north or far south, but room temperature – even in air conditioned homes – is too warm for red wines in the Cayman Islands.
Serving red wine at a temperature that’s too warm will make it seem soft and intensify the alcohol, overpowering other taste complexities.
Full-bodied, tannic wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, Barolo and Barbaresco are best served here around 60 degrees, plus or minus a couple of degrees. If drinking these wines outdoors, it’s almost always better to serve them a little less than 60 degrees because they will warm up quickly.
Medium-bodied red wines like Chianti and Burgundy/Pinot Noir are probably better choices for evening outdoor drinking because they can take a little more chilling.
For daytime outdoor drinking, try light-bodied red wines like Beaujolais or Rose from Provence,which can be served between 50 and 54 degrees.
Champagne and sparkling wine takes chilling the best of all wines.
“It’s the one thing you can keep the coldest at all times,” said Royle, pointing out this was why Champagne is often served in an ice bucket. Still, to maintain the taste profile, Champagne shouldn’t be served at less than 43 degrees.
Wine is best consumed out of glass or lead-based crystal. Some experts believe that lead-based crystal glasses cause a chemical reaction with the molecules in wine, amplifying its aromas.
There are different shaped glasses for different wines, and for certain wines – like Champagne – the shape makes a big difference.
Royle said narrow-mouthed flutes are designed to keep Champagne or sparking wine bubbly for longer.
“The wider the top, the bigger the bubbles,” he said, adding that larger bubbles and more streams of them will make Champagne go faster.
In flutes, Champagne will normally have three or four streams of very small bubbles, keeping its ‘fizz’ longer.
Other wines benefit from different shaped glassware that emphasises different tastes or aromas. Big, tannic reds are better in glasses with big bowls and wide openings. Lighter reds, like good Burgundy, are better in a wide-bowled glass that narrows a little at the opening.
Fruity, aromatic white whites like Sauvignon Blanc are better in what is typically associated with a white wine glass, a glass that is smaller and narrower, helping to keep the wine cooler longer. However, full-bodie
white wines – especially those that are heavily oaked – are better in a wider-bowled glass that narrows slightly at the opening.
Wine glasses are now sold for many specific types of wine.
“They have glasses for just about everything,” said Royle.
Some wine benefits from decanting, some wine doesn’t.
Decanting serves two purposes: it helps separate sediment that naturally occurs in some older red wines as the age; and it aerates the wine.
In general, young, full-bodied, tannic wines benefit from aeration, allowing them to blow off some unpleasant aromas and to mellow some of the harsh tannins. Royle pointed out that decanting is not only an option for red wines.
“There are some white wines you need to decant,” he said. “Wines like big Chardonnays or anything massively oaked. Hopefully, by decanting you can get rid of some of that oak influence and start tasting some of the wine underneath.”
Although young wines can be allowed to ‘breathe’ in a decanter for several hours or more, older wines – which have probably undergone some oxidation in the bottle already – shouldn’t be decanted too long in advance of drinking to prevent further oxidation.
There are certain accepted etiquettes with serving wine in a formal setting, like a restaurant. Prior to lunch being served, Lobster Pot manager Gunter Gosch showed the proper ways to serve wines.
Any wine served out of an ice bucket should be wiped with a napkin and presented to the person who ordered the wine, label face up. This allows the guest to ensure it’s the correct wine and correct vintage being served. Once the guest agrees it’s the correct wine, the bottle is opened. If it’s Champagne, a napkin is placed over the cork for safety reasons.
Wines with a cork will normally have ‘foil’ seal around the top that must be cut off. Since the foil usually contains lead, it is important to cut the seal beneath the collar, Royle said.
Before pulling, the top of the cork should be wiped off with a napkin.
After the cork is pulled, it is presented to the orderer. Royle said that one of the big myths of wine service is that the person is supposed to smell the cork.
“You can’t tell anything about a wine by smelling the cork,” he said.
Instead, the person is supposed to inspect the cork. If it’s still firm and doesn’t have wine stains going all the way to the top, chances are the wine is not oxidised. Conversely, a crumbling cork or one that has wine stains over the top is probably a sign of a bottle that had not been stored properly.
The server will then pour a small amount of the wine into the glass for the orderer to taste. If it’s a red wine, the guest can give it a couple of swirls to vent any unpleasant bottle aromas. The guest then tastes to see if the wine is either oxidized or ‘corked’, a musty smell wine gets if it came in contact with a cork tainted by bacteria.
If the wine is satisfactory, the server will then pour. Royle said that sommeliers are trained to pour to the oldest lady at the table first, working their way down to the youngest, and then afterwards pouring to the oldest gentleman and working around to the youngest. In practice, however, he said most sommeliers will just pour to the women first and then to the men.
Wine should be poured only half-way to two-thirds up the glass. With Champagne and white wines, this prevents the wine from getting warm before it’s finished. With red wines – and some full-bodied white wines – it helps concentrate the aromas in the bowl.
There’s another reason why Champagne flutes should only
be poured about two-thirds the way up the glass, Royle said.
“If you fill it up to the top, by the time you get to the bottom, it will be warm and flat.”
For those serving Champagne at home, it’s a good idea to purchase a Champagne stopper, which helps to keep the bubbles inside the bottle. R
oyle said that he’s seen some people hang a silver spoon upside down in a bottle of Champagne, thinking that will prevent it from losing its bubbles. It doesn’t.
“That’s another myth,” he said.
To test some of the wine service tips, four Jacques Scott French wines were tasted with lunch: Joseph Perrier Cuvee Royale Brut Champagne ($54.95); 2007 Bouchard Pere & Fils Meursault Genevrieres Chardonnay($68.99); 2007 Louis Latour Aloxe-Corton ‘Domaine Latour’ Burgundy ($45.99); and 1999 Chateau De Chambrum Bordeaux ($53.99).
To go with the wines, the Lobster Pot served a fresh fish sampler appetizer with three different entrees – seafood risotto, rib eye steak and fresh tuna.
The Champagne was poured in two different glasses: a traditional flute and a modern stemless flute with a wider bowl and mouth. The Champagne in the latter produced larger bubbles and went flat much more quickly.
The Meursault was served very cold from an ice bucket, and, while good from the beginning, got much better as it warmed up a bit. The Bordeaux, even though it was nearing the end of its expected shelf-life, tasted better after even 20 minutes of decanting.
The Burgundy also smelled and tasted better in glass with a wide bowl that tapered toward the top.
Royle is a believer that full-bodied, oaked Chardonnays can go with steak, so the Meursault was tried with the rib eye as well as the seafood dishes. The temperature of the wine was key to the steak pairing. When served out of the ice bucket, the wine couldn’t stand up to the full-flavoured steak. But as the wine warmed up and its flavours intensified, the pairing worked much better.