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Serving Wine

Whether you drink wine by the glass or the bucket, there are a number of things that you can do to improve your enjoyment of wine. From decanting a wine to the serving temperature, they can all influence how the wine tastes.

There are two topics

Decanting and Breathing

Breathing and decanting are often used interchangeably, but they are not. Breathing improves a wine by changing it, the wine is likened to breathing in, absorbing oxygen and breathing out, allowing some parts of the wine to evaporate. While decanting can be a great way to let a wine breathe, if poured with gusto, its main job is to decant the wine off any sediment most commonly associated with old reds.

Breathing in, is the most important for most wines. Oxygen reacts with parts of the wine that have been couped up in a low oxygen environment. The wine's tannins and acidity are what most people notice in wine. Tannins (which cause the drying effect in wine) absorb oxygen causing them to feel softer and more rounded. If you think the wine is too tannic or acidic then its a good candidate for breathing. Young wines can be described as too tight or closed, that is the wines aroma may not be very expressive, and letting the wine breathe will open up the flavours. There may also be flavours that you don’t like which breathing can dissipate. For example, sulphur is used to preserve wine, but too much can produce a range of flavours such as stinking of sulphur dioxide (burnt match), hydrogen sulphide (rotten egg), or mercaptan (skunk). Often wines that are expected to age for a long period may have high levels of preserving sulphur, that is meant to be eaten away by the slow flow of oxygen through the cork. If the wine is too young then the flavours can be dominated by the sulphur stink. Screw caps usually have much lower levels of sulphur add because they do not let in as much oxygen, too high a level is in a wine can create a stink. This is true for both reds but more often for whites under screw cap. Be careful though because letting a wine breathe for too long can result in desirable flavours fading too quickly. For example, the pepper note in many cool climate Syrahs can be eroded by decanting the wine or letting it breathe.

Decanting young wines without any sediment is purely about letting them breathe. You want to get as much oxygen into the wine so either pour the wine from a height or splash it into a jug. Swirl the jug or decanter for around 20 seconds and leave to settle for 5-10 minutes. If using a jug, pour it back into the bottle to serve! The wine should then be ready to drink. If you are not in a hurry you could leave the wine in the bottle opened for 2-10 hours first. The limit is the surface area of the neck of the bottle, that restricts oxygen. Rather than wait, pour yourself a small glass, re-seal the bottle and shake it. Re-open it and it should be much better by the time you have finished the first glass.

Old red wines often need to be decanted because they throw sediment. The sediment is made up of a mixture of polymerised tannins (tannins that have clumped tighter to form chains), anthocyanins (colour that comes out of the wine, particularly the blue colouring which changes a wine from purple to garnet to brown), plus any solid material that has been left in the wine such as grape skins and flesh. All this solid material can get mixed with the liquid if the wine is poured out quickly or carelessly. Don’t drink the sediment! It tastes horrible! To decant the wine off the sediment, first let the wine stand for a while to allow the sediment to sink to the bottom (there’s a good chance you’ll have been storing the wine bottle on its side). Then very gently tip the bottle over and pour the wine out. The sediment will be caught in the shoulders of a ‘Bordeaux’ bottle, that is a bottle with high shoulders. Wine in ‘Burgundy’ bottles (sloping shoulders), will normally not throw sediment. Continue pouring the wine into a decanter or other container at a slow steady pace until only the sediment is left. Do not stop pouring midway through - if you do, the wine is likely to mix in with the sediment. All the sediment should remain in the bottle. Special gadgets such as funnels with gauze filters to catch the sediment are available for those of you with a less than steady hand.

Serving Temperature

Some people will say you need to drink Bordeaux at room temperature, while others may say that with central heating, nowadays room temperature is too warm and the wine should be slightly chilled. Some will say Pinot can be served cooler than Cabernet Sauvignon, which can be true, but not always. The correct serving temperature of wine is the temperature that you like the wine best.

That may sound a bit woolly but your sensitivity to tannins and aromas are very individual and while some people prefer richer wines, on a hot summers day a light, crisp, refreshing wine may be the ticket. The solution is to understand how a wine changes as it cools and warms, then drink it the way you want to.

So as the temperature changes:

  Increase Decrease  
Cooler Acidity increases
Tannins increase
Alcohol decrease
Sugar decrease
Flavour decreases
Whites taste lighter and more refreshing.
Reds taste lighter but tannic wines taste increasingly harsh and less enjoyable to drink
Warmer Alcohol increase
Sugar increase
Flavour increases
Acidity decreases
Tannins decrease
Whites taste richer.
Reds taste heavier and wines with firm tannins are more enjoyable /td>

We all taste things differently, but, because tannins can be bitter and there is a range of sensitivities to them, those who are particularly sensitive to tannins usually dislike them and are better off drinking reds warmer. Those less sensitive may be able to enjoy light reds chilled, with the crunchy tannins adding freshness to the wine.

The cooler the wine, the more acidity is highlighted. Things taste fresher and lighter the cooler they are. Acidity also tends to highlight tannins and hide sugar, reducing both the rich mouthfeel (weight) as well as the sweetness. The extra weight alcohol gives is also reduced along with tempering the warming effect of alcohol.

As wine warms up more flavours are given off. The flavour molecules evaporate from the wine at different temperatures. At lower temperatures only a few types vaporize, while at higher temperatures a larger variety and volume will come off.