Time to dust down the glasses, get the decanter out and root around for those special bottles in the garage, the cellar, the wine rack or in the cupboard under the stairs. Whatever you’re drinking, here are some tips on how to get the most from your wine this Christmas.
If you don’t have any of the items in bold, you might want to add them to your Christmas list.
1. Good wine glasses are important, and are usually tulip-shaped. (There are exceptions, such as the more angular Zalto.) The best are made of fine glass but they don’t have to be really expensive – the three on the left of the photo below cost under a fiver each.
2. Smallish cut-glass goblets might look traditional but the wine, sorry, just doesn’t smell or taste as good, and you have to fill them up too much.
3. Don’t worry too much about matching the right type of wine to the right type of glass, based on what we’ve been brought up with. White wine, sherry and port is often served in glasses that are too small.
4. Glasses are sometimes named according to region or grape, such as ’Bordeaux’ or ’Riesling’. In the picture, the more bulbous glass on the right is great for Pinot Noir/Burgundy but other than that, don’t worry. (At Chateau Lafite, they use Riedel Chardonnay glasses for their tastings, of all things, and the most popular glass at Bordeaux wine tastings, albeit not dinners, is the Riedel Chianti/Riesling – the glass third from the right.)
5. The biggest ’wine fault’ I come across isn’t a fault of the wine at all. It’s when the glass smells musty and slightly dirty. This can happen anywhere, as at a Bordeaux First Growth tasting earlier this year.
6. ’Glass whiff’ is more common at Christmas because lots of us tend to use the same few glasses throughout the year and dig out more when friends come round. The musty smell can come from a cardboard box, time spent in a cupboard (worse still if glasses are kept upside down), a rogue tea-towel, or from a dish/glass washing machine.
7. To get rid of the nasty niff, wash your glasses by hand. Some people don’t like to use any washing-up liquid at all but, for me, it’s quick, effective and your glasses will sparkle. It’s essential though to rinse the glasses under plenty of (warm) water to get rid of any soap residue.
8. To dry, use the type of linen tea towel marked ’glass cloth’ that you can buy in stores like John Lewis. Or polish them with a special fibre cloth like this one from Riedel. Be careful when drying – don’t twist the bowl of the glass in the opposite direction to the base. That’s how to break the stem.
9. If your bottles have corks, you must check every one before serving, I’m afraid. Same with Champagne, by the way. Check by pouring a little into a glass to give it a sniff, like in a restaurant. If the wine smells of damp, musty, mouldy cardboard, it’s more than likely corked. A taste will confirm it – corked wine tastes horrid and bitter. (You should get your money back in most scenarios if you call the supplier or take it back.)
10. The most common problem with ’corked’ wines is when folks assume that just because the first bottle is fine, the rest will be good too. Topping up everyone’s glass of good stuff with corked wine is a crying shame, or even a crime.
Foil cutters and corkscrews
11. This is a personal thing. Assuming the bottle doesn’t have a screw cap, use a foil cutter or the little knife on the ’waiter’s friend’ type of corkscrew, or even a kitchen knife, to cut off the top of a capsule. Grabbing the foil capsule and pulling it off in one oikish motion leaves the bottle looking topless.
12. As for corkscrews, avoid the 80s double lever type, with it’s big thick screw that mangles the cork. They are hopeless for older corks too.
13. The best corkscrews are the small ’waiter’s friend’ types that have an effective double action to levering out the cork, and have a practical thin wire thread. Each style and brand takes a bit of getting used to, and it’s worth investing in a good one, rather than relying on the freebies you get from wine merchants.
14. If you open a lot of bottles, the much more expensive Screwpull lever-type in the photo will pay for itself many times over.
15. If you can, decant red Bordeaux. I do for all but the cheapest. It’s amazing how much the wine can look, smell and taste better after an hour or so in a decanter or carafe, once the wine has had an airing. It also means that any sediment is left in the bottle.
16. What works for Bordeaux doesn’t necessarily work for other reds. I don’t decant red Burgundy as a rule, and for the myriad of other styles, experiment. See what works for you.
18. If in doubt, decant an hour or two beforehand, but ten minutes is better than nothing. With older, fragile claret (another name for red Bordeaux), give it less time in the carafe than a younger red because it may have a shorter life once opened.
19. Whenever you read about decanting, it all looks such a fidge. It isn’t. That’s because you seldom need to use the lighted candle that is recommended in every mention on the subject. I hardly ever use a candle.
20. Do try to leave an older bottle upright for a while beforehand so that any sediment can settle, or handle carefully from a rack or opened case so as not to disturb any sediment. Do not shake the bottle up.
21. If you haven’t used the decanter for a while, rinsing with a little wine is a good idea. Once you’ve checked that a bottle isn’t corked, as above, pour the dribble from the glass into the decanter and sloosh it around to get rid of any nasty odours inside. Tip that dribble back into the glass (and drink).
22. To decant, simply pour the wine slowly into the decanter, in one steady motion, leaving a little bit in the bottle at the end. That approach will work 98% of the time. That’s it.
24. Most people prefer their whites chilled, which is fine, but don’t serve your reds too warm. The wine won’t taste as good if it’s been left by the Aga for too long. Remember that when they said that red Bordeaux should be served at room temperature, they didn’t have central heating. It should be refreshing, not flabby.
25. When serving, don’t fill glasses too full. A good general rule, assuming you’re using tulip shaped ones, is to pour the wine to just below the widest point of the glass. (Handy advice if you’re delegating that bit to elder children.) That way anyone can swirl the wine to take in the hopefully delicious aromas, and to look like a wine pro.
That’s more than enough to be getting on with. As if you don’t have enough to worry about.
Do pass on any suggestions – or disagreements – below.