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Tricks of the Trade
By Robert Whitley
Sep 7, 2011
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The email came from a friend who was about to throw a dinner party. One of her guests, she had been told, was bringing a very old bottle of Madeira to serve with the dessert course. Though the news was cause for celebration, it posed a challenge as well.

She had read that old Madeira should be decanted 24 hours in advance, and wondered if that was truly the case or simply one of the many pretensions of the wine culture.

And, if true, how to do it and then transport it to the dinner venue the next day without spillage, or compromising this precious wine in some other way?

First, the necessity of decanting old Madeira is optional, but when practical it is a very good idea. It is not all that rare to come across Madeira from the 19th century, so bottles with more than 100 years of age do crop up from time to time in the cellars of avid wine collectors.

After that much time, the sediment in the bottle would have reached the consistency of sludge. Bits of sludge in your glass of wine are not all that interesting, and certainly not very appetizing.

Decanting enables you to separate the sludge from the wine and make a more appealing presentation of one of the world’s greatest wine treasures. My advice, then, was to have the guest decant the wine 24 hours in advance, using a strainer and a clean receptacle. A decanter would be great, but a water pitcher would suffice.

After decanting, the empty Madeira bottle should be thoroughly rinsed with cold water until all of the remaining sediment has been removed. After giving the Madeira bottle sufficient time to dry on the inside, the Madeira should be poured back into the bottle and the cork reinserted, unless it has begun to crumble. In that case, a metal or cork wine stopper will do just fine.

At that point the Madeira can be transported and served sediment free the next day. As for any concern that the wine might oxidize and go bad overnight, know that Madeira is made in an oxidative fashion, so a little bit of air simply can’t hurt it. Note that this technique is useful for any older red wine that you suspect may have thrown an unusual amount of sediment.

That brings me to another question I fielded recently about preserving older wines. A young wine enthusiast asked me about the effect of temperature on wine, inquiring at what point high heat begins to harm a wine.

I didn’t have a precise answer except to say prolonged exposure at temps in the high 80s and 90s would likely cook your wines. Room temperature, as defined by me to be in the low 70s, will merely accelerate the aging process without destroying your wines.

Wines you intend to drink over the next several months are perfectly fine stored at room temperature.

If you have the option of a temperature-controlled environment with a constant temp of between 50 and 60 degrees, of course that would be the optimum. At 55F red wines age at a virtual crawl. Closer to 60F and the pace quickens, but is still slow. Wines that already have some age on them when purchased should have the priority of the cooler storage if the space is limited, because those wines would be at a more delicate stage of their development. And white wines that have aging potential will also benefit from the cooler conditions.

If you do purchase an older wine, make every attempt to establish that its condition is sound before you complete the transaction. Feel the neck and capsule of the bottle for the telltale sign of seepage. If the wine has been improperly stored, perhaps at a location with extreme temperature fluctuations, the expansion and contraction of the cork will allow for some wine seepage. A sticky capsule is your best clue. Or the cork may be pushed out slightly.

If wine has escaped, that also means air was able to get in and the wine is very likely on a downward spiral, if not completely over the hill. Also check the ullage, which is the space between the bottom of the cork and the shoulder of the bottle. The closer the level is to the cork, the better.

Finally, I was asked recently about preserving a half-empty bottle of Champagne in the refrigerator overnight. I’m not quite sure how anyone ends up with a half bottle of unfinished Champagne, but I suppose it does happen.

So should this happen to you, please don’t try to reinsert the mushroom-shaped Champagne cork back into the bottle. And never, ever substitute a normal wine cork. The pressure will build from the bubbles in the bottle and the normal cork will eventually blow. Do that and you risk shooting your eye out!

Invest in a Champagne stopper, which has a clasp that attaches under the rim of the bottle and prevents the stopper from exploding in your face, or even in the fridge. Failing that, simply cover the neck of the bottle with aluminum foil and hope for the best. A fresh bottle of Champagne covered in this manner often won’t lose its bubbles overnight.

And those, dear reader, are a few tricks of the trade.

Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru.