Category Archives: wine faqs

To Decant or Not?

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In a couple of recent Bristol Wine Blogs I’ve mentioned ‘decanting’ a wine.  It’s a subject that causes considerable debate in the wine world. So, what do I mean by decanting and when and why might I think about doing it?

Thelema redDecanting, simply, is pouring wine out of the bottle it’s sold in into a decanter (or, indeed, any jug large enough to hold the contents).   There are 2 main reasons why you might want to do this: to separate the liquid from any sediment that might be in the bottle or to aerate the wine.

Many wines (and Vintage Ports) are bottled without being filtered (or, at least, with very minimal filtration).  This means that some of the solid matter that results from the fermentation process ends up in the bottle.  This sediment is harmless but you really wouldn’t want to drink it as it’s often quite bitter or astringent.  So, if you expect that there might be sediment in the bottle, it’s best to stand it upright for a few hours or, even, overnight (assuming it’s been stored on its side) to allow the sediment to fall to the bottom.  Then, when you uncork it, pour the wine very slowly into your jug or decanter watching the neck of the bottle to see when the first of the sediment starts to appear.  At that point, stop pouring.  You’ll have a little wine left in the bottle, but the liquid in the decanter will be clear and can be poured into your glasses without worrying.

The other reason for decanting is rather more controversial: to aerate the wine, otherwise known as ‘letting the wine breathe’.  Some, including renowned experts, are firmly opposed to decanting for this purpose, saying that the wine’s aromas are lost in this way.  Others, equally expert, disagree, suggesting that wines, especially robust or tannic wines, can be softened and made more harmonious by decanting.  I’m generally in the latter camp but, as with so much in wine, there are no absolute right and wrong answers. 

My advice is to experiment; open the bottle and taste.  If you’re happy as it is, go on and pour straight away – but have a decanter handy, just in case.

A Wine Worth Keeping

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How long should you keep a bottle of wine before drinking it?  That’s one of those ‘how long is a piece of string?’ questions!  Of course, it depends on the wine – most whites are probably best within a year of purchase, most reds within 2 years – but also on your personal taste.  A friend of ours thinks we drink our wine too young, whereas I think that many of the bottles he opens are passed their peak.  We’ll never agree, but that’s the beauty of wine.

And, although I said that most wines are best within a year or two, there are definitely some – mainly reds, but also quite a few whites – that will only improve for keeping.  Which ones?  Try looking at the back label which may recommend drinking dates.  Otherwise ask a reliable wine merchant or you may be able to check on-line (but always bear in mind what I said above about personal preferences).

I’ve had a bottle of Meerlust Red 2011 from Stellenbosch in South Africa sitting quietly in a wine rack under the stairs for at least a couple of years and, as the label recommended drinking within 8 years of the vintage, I decided recently that now was the time to uncork it – especially as we were having some good friends to dinner who I knew would appreciate it (another important consideration when thinking when to open a bottle!)meerlust-red

This lovely, rich and flavoursome blend of 4 of the Bordeaux varieties (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot) was, most definitely, drinking well now.  Even so, I took the precaution of decanting a couple of hours in advance to let a little air finish the process.  The ripe, red fruit flavours were beautifully vibrant and, despite the warmth of Stellenbosch being reflected in 14% alcohol, there was no burn to the wine, all was nicely in balance.

My one regret: it’s the only bottle of this wine I bought and I can see it still drinking well five or more years from now – for my taste, that target of 2019 shown on the back label looks a bit conservative.

Too Warm? Too Cool?

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“What’s the right temperature for serving my wine?”  One of those tricky questions I’m often asked.  My usual reply: “whatever temperature you enjoy” rarely ends the conversation.  But it’s true.  Each of us has our own preferences; take a friend of ours – she prefers her white wines much cooler than I would want to serve them, so cool, in fact, that I think much of the flavour is lost. We’ll never agree – but that’s true for so much in wine.

But, back to the original question.  The guidelines recommended by the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) allow for individual tastes and so quote a range of temperatures for each different type of wine.  So, for example, they suggest sparkling wines should be served well chilled (6 – 10°C, 43 – 50°F), light-bodied whites and rosés a degree or so warmer and fuller-bodied and oaked whites a little warmer still, say 10 – 13°C, 50 – 55°F.  Unless you’ve got a temperature-controlled wine fridge, you’ll need to experiment a bit, but a half an hour to an hour in a domestic fridge should be about right.

And for reds?  You’ve probably heard the advice about serving at room temperature.  But, when that was first suggested, it was before centrally-heated houses were common and rooms were usually far cooler than we would expect today.   WSET suggest around 15 – 18°C (59 – 64°F) for most reds but with lighter-bodied examples, such as Beaujolais and Valpolicella, lightly chilled to around 13°C, 55°F.

A bottle I opened recently took the idea of correct temperature to a whole new level with a touch-sensitive heat guide on the label. 

temperature-indicatorWakefield’s Clare Valley Shiraz (Majestic, £8.99) has a lovely, fresh black cherry nose with attractive dried fruits – dates and prunes – and spice on a rich and full palate.  A delicious, flavoursome wine, perfect with game, red meat or hard cheeses – even if we did serve it ‘too warm’ according to the temperature guide on the bottle!

Keeping Leftover Wine

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You’ve opened a bottle of wine and you don’t want to drink it all. How long can you keep the leftovers and what’s the best way to make sure they stay in good condition?

The problem you are dealing with is that, once you’ve opened a bottle, air gets in and any wine left in the bottle will start to oxidise. It’s the same effect you see if you cut an apple; leave the cut side upwards and, in a few minutes, it will start to go brown. But turn the cut side downwards, you exclude the air and the flesh stays white.

So, as with apples, the key to keeping wine fresh is to exclude the air. There are a number of ways to do this: the simplest and cheapest, usually sold in the UK as a ‘Vacu-vin’ comprises a one-way seal you push into the neck of the bottle and a pump to remove the air creating a vacuum inside. VacuvinYou can buy one for around £10 and I’ve found it will keep delicate white wines fresh for a few days (especially if you put them in the fridge) and more robust whites and reds for at least a week. The seals are re-usable.

Equally effective are canisters of argon (or other inert gas). You spray the gas into the bottle and it sits on top of the wine forming a barrier to the air. Make sure the canister says ‘suitable for food use’ or some similar comment and, of course, you use some gas each time so you’ll need to keep buying new canisters.

At the other end of the scale, there’s a high tech solution called a Coravin which draws wine out via a hollow needle inserted through the cork and replaces the wine with inert gas. At about £250, this is for real devotees only although many restaurants and wine bars are now using them to offer a far wider range of wines by the glass than was ever possible.

Whichever you choose, a wine saver is one of those useful gadgets that no wine lover should be without.