No-sweat answers to some basic wine questions
By Eric Asimov
The first and most important thing to know about drinking wine is this: There are no rules.
For an experience that ought to be entirely pleasurable, many people spend far too much time fearing that they are doing it wrong. This is especially true of people new to wine, who often find the onslaught of well-meaning advice and prescriptions to be intimidating and off-putting.
Here’s the reality: Over many years, wine experts have developed a set of best practices. These are based on experience and tradition. For example, they have found that good wine is generally more expressive when poured properly into a stemmed glass rather than a teacup or tumbler.
From that simple insight arises a host of worries. What glass should I use? How much wine to pour into it? How do I hold the glass? What if I don’t have the right ones?
All good questions. Yet, none of the answers are so meaningful that they should diminish the enjoyment of the single most important act: Pouring wine into a glass — any glass, even a teacup — and drinking it.
What follows is not quite a primer, but answers to some common wine questions. All have their best practices. None have serious consequences for not following them.
Any vessel that holds liquids can be used to drink wine. Tumblers and juice glasses are fine if you are enjoying simple wines at home or with friends. Fancy, expensive wines will still taste good in them, too, although they taste even better in good stemmed glasses. If you care enough to want to learn about wine, stemmed glasses are a great investment, as they will permit complex wines to express aromas and flavors to their best advantage.
How much to pour?
Fill smaller glasses one-third of the way — never more than half — and bigger glasses, maybe a quarter. This allows aromas to fill the bowl and offers room in the glass to swirl, as many people do, believing it helps to release aromas. In tumblers, pour whatever amount you like. I’m not a fan of stemless bowls, but if you like them, treat them as you would stems.
How to hold a wineglass?
Ideally, hold it by the stem, which keeps the wine from being warmed by your hand and prevents finger smudges. But if you grab the bowl, no big deal; it’s not going to change the wine. And don’t be the snob telling others how to hold a glass unless they seek your advice.
DECANTING A BOTTLE
Two reasons: First, to expose good, young wines to air, making them more enjoyable to drink when youthful and tight. Second, to separate some older red wines and some unfiltered white wines from sediment that naturally develops in the bottle.
How to decant wine with sediment
Drinking sediment is not harmful, but it’s unpleasant, like having a mouthful of grit. To decant, make sure to stand the bottle upright long enough for the sediment to settle to the bottom. If you don’t have time for that, pour carefully and let any sediment settle in the glass.
And for young wines?
For the vast majority, decanting is not necessary. Sometimes, I will decant a really good wine if I know it is too young. But the difference will not be obvious. Either way is fine.
What is hyperdecanting?
In an episode of the HBO drama “Succession,” character Connor Roy once recommended hyperdecanting, pouring a red Burgundy into a blender to whip it full of air. “You can age your wine five years in 10 seconds,” he said. It was not a joke. The method was promoted by Nathan Myhrvold in his book “Modernist Cuisine.” Personally, I would never subject any wine to such violence. It’s a joy to follow its journey as it gently, delicately evolves in a glass over time. It’s folly to believe you can jump-start aging except in the most marginal way. Feel free to beat your wine into submission, but don’t expect a miracle.
PRESERVING AND REFRIGERATING WINE
How long is wine good after opening?
That depends. A traditionally made wine will be good for at least several days after it’s opened, maybe even longer. You will not need any special equipment such as vacuum pumps. Just keep the bottle in a cool place out of direct sunlight, or in the refrigerator. A processed wine, constructed and manipulated with technology and additives, will fall apart much more quickly. Refrigerate and hope for the best.
What about sparkling wines?
The same holds for bubbly. If it is skillfully and traditionally made, it can keep for days without losing energy or effervescence. A wine made poorly or overly manipulated will die. A good sparkling-wine stopper is nice to have, but in a pinch, you can close a bottle with aluminum foil, fitted snugly around the opening. Foil is far superior, though more wasteful, than the folk trick of inserting a metal spoon, handle down, in the opening, which has been discredited.
Can red wines be chilled?
Absolutely. Most reds are served too warm. The old saw that they should be served at room temperature was probably written by somebody with a chilly manor house. All reds should be at least slightly cool, and reds that are simple thirst-quenchers high in acidity can be served colder than that. In general, reds that are more tannic or complex should be served cool but not cold. Still, what’s the worst that can happen if they are too cold? Let them warm up, or wrap your hands around the bowl of the wineglass to impart some heat.
THAT INDENTATION ON THE BOTTOM OF THE BOTTLE
Why is it there?
The indentation, or punt, is partly a matter of tradition and in some cases a necessity. In the days when bottles were handmade, glassblowers would push in the bottoms of bottles to make certain they would stand upright, without a nub of glass to unbalance them. The punt lives on as a custom, but it does add strength to the structure of bottles, particularly those used for sparkling wine, which are under great internal pressure from the carbonization. Not all bottles have punts. The tall, slender bottles traditionally used in Germany and Alsace have flat bottoms.
Why do some sommeliers grip it when they pour?
It may be an effort to achieve Old World elegance. Or it may be an affectation. It’s never a necessity.
BUYING AND DISCUSSING WINE
I’m not an expert. How do I know what wine to buy?
The absolute best method for choosing better wines is to consult the experts face to face, not those on apps. For retail, that means visiting the best wine shops near you instead of supermarkets and soliciting advice from merchants. It’s good to have some basic information ready: Know your budget. Mention if the bottle is for a particular occasion — to accompany sushi or a roast chicken. Keep a list on your phone of wines you have liked, which may offer clues to styles you appreciate. At restaurants, ask the sommelier for advice. Again, be clear about your budget.
Won’t sommeliers try to upsell me?
They might. But good restaurants count on return customers. Taking advantage of people builds resentment, not loyalty. It helps to be firm with your budget but, at the same time, to be a little flexible if possible. The best wine for you may cost a tad more than your budget, or sometimes a bit less. A sommelier offering options is not the same as one trying to exploit you. In the end, it’s your decision, so don’t hesitate to politely say no if your budget is firm.
How do I describe wine?
Here we get into some difficult territory. Taste and smell are a frontier for describing what you sense. The overly specific references people sometimes use tend to be more meaningful as personal memory aids than for communicating preferences. In speaking to merchants or sommeliers, you are better off staying general. Saying you love big, fruity red wines is clearer than saying you like wines that taste like cherry pie and road tar.
Here are some other useful generalities:
Dry: This means that all the sugar in the fruit has been fermented into alcohol. The wine will not taste sweet, except in Champagne, which has its own lexicon. When, in other contexts, you would say dry, the word in Champagne is brut.
Off-Dry: Slightly sweet.
Sweet: You know this one. The wine will taste sweet.
Fruity: Not the same as sweet, although the industry has sometimes blurred the difference to avoid calling a wine sweet, which has bad connotations with some people. Fruity means as it sounds, tasting like fruit, often extravagantly so. Confusion also arises with ultraripe wines that can be both fruity and high in alcohol, which can give the impression of sweetness even if the wine is dry.
Savory: A general term for wines that convey aromas and flavors other than sweetness or fruitiness, including floral, herbal, stony and saline.
THAT AWKWARD RESTAURANT RITUAL: TASTING THE WINE THE SOMMELIER POURS
What is happening?
When a sommelier presents the bottle and pours a little taste, it gives guests the opportunity to examine the label to determine it is the wine they ordered and to make sure it is not corked or otherwise flawed. In restaurants serious about wine, the sommelier will often taste the wine privately, relieving guests of the burden of detecting flaws. In more casual restaurants, where the bottle is opened and poured at the table, it’s up to you.
What am I tasting for?
By far the most common flaw is corkiness. A chemical compound in the cork can cause a corked wine to taste musty or moldy, like wet cardboard. It’s not always obvious. If I have any doubt, and I’m often not certain of my opinion, I will ask the sommelier to taste it, too.
What if I simply don’t like it?
When I learned about wine in the 1980s, I was taught that once I ordered a bottle, I owned it. The tasting ritual was only to find flaws. Nowadays, restaurants are more enlightened. If you don’t like a wine on tasting it, most restaurants will take it back (to sell by the glass at the bar for possibly greater profit). They want diners to be happy and will try to find something better. But this is not a privilege to be abused. It’s fine to take a few minutes to discuss a wine at the table, with maybe a few tastes poured for others. But it’s not right to return a bottle after most of it is gone.