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Aging and Serving Wine
By Ed McCarthy
Jan 23, 2018
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Have you ever opened a bottle of fine wine, poured it, and thought, “This doesn’t taste so good”?  I have that feeling many times.  It happens to me frequently because, as a wine writer, I taste wine samples sent to me every week, in addition to whatever wines I happen to be buying.  I have come to the conclusion that lots of newly opened wines need aeration to show at their best, particularly young wines.

This reference to the need to aerate young wines doesn’t apply to most priced under $15, as many of them are really geared toward the mass marketing and are made to drink as soon as they are opened.  Often, my first reaction to drinking better-quality wine--especially red wines--goes something like this:  “Wow, that’s tannic,” or “it’s too acidic,” and / or, “it’s unbalanced.”  The bottom line is that newly opened wines often taste unpleasant.

I have some suggestions on how to avoid this unfortunate taste experience:

--Don’t open the wine shortly after you buy it.  The wine has not yet settled down from the trip.  Give it at least a day’s rest.

--If you must open it the same day you acquire it, aerate the wine.  Pour it into a wide-mouthed decanter, and let it breathe for an hour or two.

--Try to save some of the wine for the next day; a half bottle of it or more would be ideal. 

From my experience, I am betting the wine will taste better on the second day. It almost always does.  Some wines, especially red wines, can even taste better on the third day!  Keep your leftover wines in the fridge, and take them out at least an hour before you drink them.

Just the other day, I tasted four young Cabernet Francs from Chile:  A 2015 that was priced at $14, another 2015 was $20; a 2012 cost $40; and a 2011 cost $85.  The first two were rough, tannic, and ungainly; the $40 wine was better, although clearly too young; and the $85 wine was the most drinkable, thanks to its depth of fruit, its aging in oak, and its age.  I put the bottles in the fridge and tasted all four the next day.  All of them tasted a lot better; the two 2015 Cabernet Francs showed remarkable improvement; both were quite pleasant.  The 2012 ($40) was a star; for me a great value for the price.  Yes, the 2011 ($85) was the best--one of the best Cabernet Francs I have ever tasted.  This experience happens to me mostly all the time: wines taste better on the second day.

And it’s not just red wines.  I drink a lot of Chablis.  Young Premier Cru and especially Grand Cru Chablis wines definitely improve on the second day.  Many white Côte d’Or Burgundies also improve with aeration.   If you are lucky enough to be drinking a Corton-Charlemagne, by all means decant it (unless it’s very old).  In France, sommeliers routinely decant white Burgundies--much more so than red Burgundies, which often are not decanted (Chardonnay is a sturdier variety than the more delicate Pinot Noir in red Burgundies).

Prestige Cuvée Champagnes and young Vintage Champagnes often benefit from an extra day’s aging.  On New Year’s Eve, I opened a 1998 Dom Pérignon, thinking I was in for a treat.  Although 20 years old, the ’98 Dom was just too young.  I saved a half bottle of it for the next day and it was perfect, at its peak.  Lesson learned.  Great Prestige Cuvées such as Dom Pérignon and Roederer Cristal, when stored properly in a cool environment, demand aging.  They are made to live long; this is especially true in great Champagne vintages, such as 2008, 2002, and 1996.

This brings up another important fact about aging wines: don’t collect great wines, such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo, Champagne, and so forth, unless you can keep them in a cool place.  Otherwise, you are just wasting your money.  I have quite a few wine-loving friends who buy and collect wines and keep them at room temperature.  Usually, when they serve one of their old Barolos or Bordeaux wines, it is oxidized or over-the-hill, sadly.  Even if you live in an apartment, you can store wine properly by buying a refrigerated wine cave (cabinet), which keeps your wine at 55/56° F.

Tasting a great, old wine is a magnificent experience, but it can be disappointing for you and your guests if the wine has not been properly stored.

Wine Temperature

The temperature of your wines is critically important.  Have you noticed how frequently you are served a glass (or a bottle!) of warm red wine in bars and restaurants?  This happens to me at least 75 percent of the time when I order red wines in restaurants or bars.  It has become my pet peeve (call me a curmudgeon if you want) to the point that I try to avoid ordering red wines by the glass--unless I know that the wine will be served at the proper temperature at this particular establishment. 

At least, if a bottle of red wine is too warm, the server can stick it into an ice bucket for ten minutes.  But a glass can be a problem.  I have even asked for ice cubes at times, bearing up under the server’s disapproving or baffled look.  A single ice cube swirled in the wine for a few seconds and removed might dilute the wine a bit, but at least the wine is drinkable.  When the server informs me, “Red wine should be served at room temperature,” I reply, “Not your room temperature”(often 72-74°F.). The best temperature to serve most red wine is at 61 to 63°F.; for Beaujolais, Barberas, and light-bodied Pinot Noirs, I find 56-60°F. an appropriate range for my taste.

With white wines in restaurants or bars, we have the opposite problem. They are often stored in refrigerated cabinets, and are served as cold as 37°F!  And then the server suggests an ice bucket.  “No, please just put it on the table to warm up.  No ice bucket, please.”

The same problem can occur with Champagne and other sparkling wines.  Often, it can be much too cold.  It does not need the ice bucket; just let it warm up a bit.  However, Champagne is a very personal thing for people when it comes to temperature, in my opinion.  The Brits and the French generally serve it warmer than I prefer, often at 54/55°F.  I prefer Champagne in the 45 to 50°F. range.  It warms up so quickly that serving it cold at the start makes sense to me.  The exception would be older or more complexly flavored, very fine Champagnes.  For these Champagnes, 50 to 53 °F. would be fine to appreciate their taste and structure.

Summing up, my advice to you to get more enjoyment out of drinking fine wines involves two important elements:  Proper aging, with emphasis on aeration for immediate drinking, and storing wines in a cool environment over the long term for future drinking.  Added to that is the question of drinking wine at an appropriate temperature.  The person serving the wine to you might not be aware of its importance.  Let him or her know. You will doing the server and yourself a favor!