How to serve wine

For me, choosing the right wine to serve on a particular occasion is almost as thrilling as the wine itself - perverse as that may seem. It gives me real pleasure to feel that the bottle, or bottles, have been just right for the circumstances, the people, the time, and any food that's served at the same time.

Slowly, as I have learnt more about wine, I have learnt a little more about this aspect of wine appreciation, which is by no means a modern phenomenon. In the first century BC the Latin poet Horace wrote extensively about the art of matching wine to guest and occasion. And it is an art. It is by no means the single most important thing about wine. It is hardly catastrophic to serve a wine that jars with your main course, or your guests’ tastes or expectations, but a few simple considerations can ensure that you maximise your own and your friends’ enjoyment, and that the money you spend on wine is spent most effectively.

It is usually a waste, and entirely inappropriate, for example, to think that the more you spend on wine, the more it will please. Typically, the most expensive bottles in a wine shop are tough little babies in terms of their evolution: mute, scrunched-up bundles of ingredients that have many years' bottle maturation before they will begin to prove, in mellow middle age, why they were worth paying through the nose for.

And there is a place and a time for everything - even the fanciest bottle of wine. I shall never forget that the first time I ever tasted the fabulous Château Cheval Blanc 1947 was at an outdoor lunch in a sunny Suffolk garden where the breeze playfully wafted into the hot, blue sky every nuance of its subtle bouquet. A well-chilled, flavourful dry rosé would probably have been just the thing for this outdoor lunch - and yet it would probably taste extremely dreary at an urban dinner party in midwinter.

Other examples of the right bottles in the wrong place include:

Mosel Riesling with hearty stews

New Zealand Sauvignon served to any but the most cosmopolitan native of Sancerre

Heavy Chardonnay at lunchtime

Tough, tannic young reds served to wine debutantes

Châteauneuf-du-Pape drunk in midsummer in Châteauneuf-du-Pape (or indeed most full-bodied, alcoholic reds in the heat of the summer that is responsible for that alcohol)

How to choose

It is worth trying to match a wine's:

quality level

style

flavour

geographical origins

to:

people - take account of the individual's likes, dislikes, prejudices, and capacities for alcohol

occasion - whether it's the most casual encounter or a formal celebration may influence the most appropriate price level

weather - the ambient temperature and humidity level can have an enormous effect on what sort of wines taste best (see below)

time of day - may be a significant factor as far as alcohol intake is concerned

place - inside or outside? is more than one wine appropriate, or feasible?

food - see Wine and Food for more on this.

Temperature - the crucial element

It is impossible to over-estimate the effect of serving temperatures on how a wine will taste. Serving a wine at the most flattering temperature may seem absurdly high-falutin' and precious as an activity, but it really can transform ink into velvet and, conversely, zest into flab. (Unlike the wine itself, it need not cost anything either...)

The principles are delightfully simple:

1. The cooler the wine the less it will smell.

2. The warmer the wine the more smelly it will be.

3. Low temperatures emphasise acidity, bitterness and tannin.

4. High temperatures minimize them.

The corollary of rule 1 is that if you find yourself with a wine that tastes (i.e. smells) truly horrid, but you have to serve or drink it, then chill it to pieces. (If it's a full-bodied red such as Shiraz, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Châteauneuf du Pape, Barolo, it could be difficult to pull this off - you'll just have to boil off the flavour and serve it, with added spice and sugar, as mulled wine.)

Rule 1 also means that the more naturally aromatic a wine (Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Gamay for example), the cooler you can afford to serve it - a useful observation if you need the refreshment of a cool drink. Sparkling wines also suit low temperatures, which slow the release of carbon dioxide. Sparkling wines served too warm can be unpleasantly frothy.

Rule 2 means that full-bodied wines, as above, whose natural extract tends to make it difficult for flavour molecules to escape to deliver messages to the olfactory area, can be served much warmer than lighter wines. This applies every bit as much to whites as to reds. The limit to this rule is reached when the serving temperature rises above 20 °C and an increasing proportion of compounds are literally boiled off.

Rule 3 means that you can make a flabby wine taste infinitely better by chilling it a little. Thus, all but the most perfectly balanced sweet wine benefit from being chilled, as do many red burgundies, and soft red wines such as beaujolais which could do with a bit of artificially encouraged structure.

Rule 4 is particularly useful because it means that young tannic or bitter red wines, and also the full-bodied ones listed above, which would seem almost hideously tough when served slightly cool, can be immeasurably improved by serving them on the warm side.

Rough guidance as to suitable serving temperatures:

Wine styleIdeal serving temperature °C/FRefrigerate for (hrs):
Light, sweet, whites5-10 / 40-504+
Sparkling whites6-10 / 42-504
Light (aromatic) dry whites8-12 / 46-542
Sparkling reds10-12 / 50-541.5
Medium bodied, dry whites10-12 / 50-541.5
Full sweet whites8-12 / 46-542
Light reds10-12 / 50-541.5
Full dry whites12-16 / 54-601
Medium reds14-17 / 57-63-
Full or tannic reds15-18 / 59-65-

 NB Throughout, rosés behave as slightly fuller bodied equivalent whites.

The ideal cellar temperature of around 15°C falls within the preferred temperature range for the service of most red wines as well as the more complex, full-bodied whites. In cooler climates, it may be difficult to warm a bottle of red wine to a suitably high service temperature. In these circumstances, the wine may be poured into a decanter warmed with hot water prior to service. This not only aids the warming of the liquid, but the aeration also encourages the release of the wine’s aromas, which will also be subdued if the wine is too cool. Conversely, in warmer climates, it can be impossible to keep red wine at a sufficiently cool temperature, and lighter reds which can be chilled may be more appropriate here (and more refreshing).

Pouring

Wine should be poured into the glass until it is no more than two-thirds full, or preferably less than half full. While this may appear mean or stingy, it allows room for the wine to be swirled and for the aromas to be collected in the upper part of the glass and channelled towards the drinker’s nose. None of this is possible when one orders a large 250ml glass of wine in a bar, which is served filled to the brim. Better here to order a small glass and ask for it to be served in a large one. At home it takes little effort to ensure the glass is not over-filled, and it makes an appreciable difference to the enjoyment of the wine.