Storing and serving wine

You might think that once you’ve picked your bottle of wine that’s it. You’ve done the hard bit. But, surprisingly, how you treat your wine once you get it home, and in particular how you store it, can make a big difference to the way it tastes.

Storing wine

If you intend to keep wine for any length of time you have to pick your spot. The conditions in a traditional wine cellar — cool, dark and damp — are perfect, but few people are fortunate enough to have cellars.

Wine doesn’t like extremes of temperature, so don’t leave it anywhere like a garage, where temperatures can swing wildly between freezing and stiflingly hot. Similarly, don’t keep wine next to a  central heating boiler or on top of the fridge. The best kind of place is a  cool dark cupboard where your wine can remain quietly undisturbed — but make sure you don’t store strong smelling things like cleaning products there too.

The key thing to remember is to store your bottles horizontally. This keeps the cork moist and ensures air — the great enemy of wine — doesn’t seep into the bottle.

How long does wine keep?

The biggest mistake people make is to keep wine for too long. Most modern wine is designed to be drunk straightaway. Obviously if you buy a bottle just after it’s been released it will last for longer than if it’s been on the shelf for several months but, as a general rule, I would drink inexpensive whites and rosés within three months, light reds and slightly more expensive whites such as Chardonnay within six, and most other inexpensive reds within a year. That’s not to say they won’t still be perfectly drinkable if you leave them for longer, but their character may well change.

Serving

There’s a lot of mystique about serving wine but in truth there are only four things you need to remember — all of which will add to your enjoyment:

  1. Serve it at the right temperature

    The mistake most people make is to serve white wines too cold and reds too warm. If you leave a bottle of wine in the fridge for several hours it kills the wine’s more subtle flavors stone dead. Depending on the efficiency of your fridge, 45 minutes to an hour is enough for a full-bodied white such as Chardonnay, and up to an hour and a  half for crisp dry whites, aromatic wines such as Riesling and sweet and sparkling wines. Lighter reds, such as Beaujolais and Pinot Noir, also benefit from being lightly chilled, but even more full-bodied reds shouldn’t be allowed to get too warm and soupy — don’t leave them next to a radiator or in the sun.

    If you forget to chill a  wine or need to chill it at the last minute, either plunge the bottle into a  bucket of iced water or pop it briefly (15 minutes maximum) in the freezer. You can also buy insulated jackets to freeze and then slip over the bottle.

  2. Get a decent corkscrew

    Opening a bottle of wine can be a tussle, so it’s worth investing in a corkscrew that will do the hard work for you. The most inexpensive type is the so-called ‘waiter’s friend’, but I think it is worth paying a little more for one that’s simpler to use. It’s also worth having one with a foil cutter so you can easily remove the cap.

    With Champagne bottles and other sparkling wines, opening the bottle is simply a matter of practice. Remove the foil and the wire that holds the cork in place. Holding on to the cork with your left hand, twist the base of the bottle with your right (reverse this if you are left handed) and you should feel the cork begin to ease out. Just hold on to the cork and let the pressure inside the bottle do the work for you — there’s no need for an explosive pop. Have your glasses to hand and hold them at an angle to the bottle as you pour (just as you would a beer) so that the bubbles don’t cascade over the side of the glass. And remember, Champagne should always be well chilled before you open it.

  3. Buy generously sized wine glasses

    It’s better to buy glasses that are practical rather than decorative (some, of course, are both). The ideal wine glass is clear (so you can see the color of the wine), with a long stem so you don’t have to grasp it round the top, a generously sized bowl tapering slightly towards the rim (to trap the aromas), and a fine, thin rim which helps you to sip the wine rather than gulp it down. When you pour you should only fill the glass to between half and two-thirds of the way up so you can swirl the wine around without pouring it over yourself. (Always check, when you pour the first glass, that the wine isn’t corked)

    You may, if you’re enthusiastic about wine, want to buy more than one type of glass. The two extra ones that would top my list are a tall, narrow Champagne flute (better than a  wine glass for preserving the bubbles) and a smaller glass for dessert or fortified wines. If you like to serve different wines during the meal you might also want a second set of wine glasses. It’s traditional to choose a slightly smaller glass for white than for red, but it doesn’t matter hugely.

    Finally obvious but crucial — keep your glasses scrupulously clean and grease free. And don’t store them upside down as it traps stale air inside the glass.

  4. Decanting is just another word for pouring

    Contrary to what most people believe, you don’t get a lot of benefit from just pulling the cork. It is exposing wine to air that makes a difference. However, you only need to decant wine when it has a sediment you want to get rid of (which only tends to happen with older, unfiltered reds or vintage port), or if it is particularly full-bodied and needs to soften up a bit.

    To decant a wine, leave the bottle upright for at least 24 hours then, with a light behind the neck of the bottle (a candle or an up-ended torch will do), pour steadily and carefully until you see the sediment edging towards the mouth of the bottle. Then stop. You don’t have to have a decanter — you can use an ordinary jug.

    In general, you should decant a wine one to two hours before serving it, except in the case of very old wines whose fragile aromas and flavors can easily evaporate on exposure to the air.

Storing wine once the bottle is open

If you have any wine left over you can store it for a couple of days in the fridge; if you can transfer it to a  smaller bottle, so much the better. Curiously, I’ve noticed that traditionally made (particularly French) wines survive better than very fruity New World wines, which often lose their impact if left open for more than a few hours. French wines are sometimes even better the day after opening.

You can buy wine preservation systems that pump the air out of the bottle or protect the wine with an inert gas, but they shouldn’t encourage you to keep it for days (or more than a week in the case of sweet wines).

Fortified wines such as port will keep for longer, but even they shouldn’t be kept for more than a month. Dry Sherries should be treated like white wine and drunk within a couple of days, which is why it makes sense to buy them in half bottles.

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