Some basic knowledge that applies to all wines.

The correct temperature for serving wine.

I'll bet you're asking yourself, "Who cares? Sounds like a wine geek thing."  The fact is, small temperature differences can significantly affect how you perceive the aromas and flavors of a wine.  I'm not suggesting that you bring a thermometer to the restaurant to check the temperature in your glass,  but you should make sure that you're in the ballpark (more on that later).  Otherwise, why bother spending a lot of money on a great bottle of wine if you're going to miss out on the things that makes it great?

In North America, red wine is typically served too warm, and white wine too cool.  All too often, red wines are served at room temperature and whites either pulled from a refrigerator or an ice bucket after a long immersion. Here's why you don't want to do that:

  • Red wines. When served too warm, a red wine will usually taste more alcoholic and jammy.  Given that most California Cabernet Sauvignons, for example, already clock in at 15 percent of more alcohol, that can be a problem.  As a result, the wine may not be enjoyable and it may pair poorly with foods that it should naturally complement.  Of course, if it is served too cool, the wine can taste thin and lack aromas.
  • White wines.  If a white wine is too cool, it may be difficult to perceive any of the wine's flavors and aromas.  This is because the compounds that carry the aromas become less volatile, and therefore stay in the wine itself rather than reaching your nose.  Similarly, the cold temperature can numb your taste buds so that you won't be able to taste the flavors.  On the other hand, if a white wine is too warm, it will seem more alcoholic.  For a high alcohol New World style wine, this can make a decent wine seem unpleasant.

Pay attention the next time you're in a restaurant.  Is your red wine served at room temperature (probably 72 degrees or so)?  It's pretty obvious when that happens, and it has happened to me more times than I'd care to think about.  I sometimes ask them to put it in the refrigerator for 15 minutes, or put it in an ice bucket for the same amount of time.  The waiter will probably think that you're a lost your mind, but you'll enjoy your wine.  Is your white wine so cold that the glass sweats?  Then, it's too cold.  Let it sit for a while, or hold the bowl of your glass with your hand to warm it.

Generally, the correct serving temperatures are as follows:

Light white and rose 45 - 50° F
Medium – full bodied white 50 - 55° F
Light bodied red 50 - 55° F
Medium bodied red 55° F
Full bodied red 59 - 64° F
Sparkling wines 43 - 50° F
Sweet white wines 43 - 47° F

By comparison, the bottle that you pull out of the refrigerator is probably at about 40 degrees, and the bottle that you pull out of a wine rack is room temperature, probably  72 - 76 degrees.  At home, if you don't have temperature controlled  wine storage, the quick and easy way to get in the right temperature ball park for white wines is to put the bottle in the refrigerator for an hour, and take it out 15 minutes before serving.  For reds, put the bottle in the fridge of 20 minutes before you're ready to serve it and you'll be fine.


What are the proper conditions for storing wine?

The ideal conditions for storing wine are:

  • Temperature: 55 degrees F.  Wine ages as a result of complex chemical reactions, which occur more slowly at lower temperatures.  (For this same reason, if you want to keep an open bottle of wine for a couple of days, seal it and keep it in the refrigerator).
  • Humidity: approximately 70 percent. This is important to keep the cork moist.
  • No exposure to ultraviolet light.
  • No vibration.
  • Bottle stored horizontally so that the cork stays moist.

Ideally, you would have a climate controlled wine cellar or wine cooler than satisfies all of these conditions.  Of course, the higher quality the wine, and the longer you plan to store it, the more it matters.   If you're keeping an simple, everyday wine on hand for a couple of weeks, no big deal if you store it at room temperature (but be sure to chill it to the proper temperature for serving).  It's a very big deal, however, if you leave it in the car for even a short time on a hot, sunny day.

So, here's a pop quiz: If you go to your local supermarket and the wine bottles are stored upright and in sunlight, is there a problem? If you said no, go to the top of this section and start over.  True story: a local "gourmet" grocery store has an extensive wine section, including quite a few $250+ bottles.  All of these are stored vertically, in bright light, at considerably warmer than cellar temperature and subject to significant vibration.   That may not be a problem for lower priced wines that have a quick turnover, but the more expensive wines tend to be older vintages, with slow turnover, and they'll be on the shelves for quite a while.

How long can I drink a wine after the bottle is opened?

That depends on the specific wine and the individual's palate.  First off, however, if you've opened a bottle and don't plan to finish it (it happens sometimes, I'm told), re-cork it and put it in the refrigerator.  Yes, both white and red wines.  That will slow down the aging process.  But remember to remove the wine from the refrigerator and allow it to come up to the proper temperature before you drink it.

Setting aside dessert wines, which can be stored for a month or more after opening, you're looking at a 1 - 5 day range, with most wines falling at the lower end of the range.  Younger and more robust wines will last a little longer, and older, more delicate wines will deteriorate more quickly.  For example, a simple California Cabernet Sauvignon that I keep on hand is easily good for 3 days after it is opened, and tolerable on the fourth day (although by then the flavor has changed markedly).

The bottom line is, you'll know it when you taste it.  After the bottle is opened, the wine's aromas and flavors will change, and not for the better.  Some people are more sensitive to these changes, and will find a wine unpalatable after a day or two, while others may find the same wine acceptable for several more days.

Which brings us to restaurant "by the glass" programs.  Some restaurants - either through neglect or in order to maximize profit - allow their open bottles to be served too long.  Don't be shy - if you order a glass of wine and it has funky odors and lacks the typical fruit and other flavors that you are expecting, ask the waiter how long the bottle has been opened.  If the answer is "I don't know," or several days, don't be afraid to ask for a glass from a fresh bottle.

Finally, do the fancy devices that purport to keep your wine fresh for longer periods really work? Generally, anything that protects the wine from oxygen will help preserve it.  Anecdotally, some of these devices can be effective.  The question is, do you store partially opened bottles frequently enough to make the investment?

To decant or not to decant.

There are three reasons to decant: (1) You have a young wine that needs aeration to open up. (2) You have an old wine that has sediment that you don't want to end up in the glass.  (3) You have a really cool crystal decanter that you want to show off.

  • Young wines. Decanting a young wine will allow the wine to shed some undesirable odors that come from being shut up in a bottle for years, and allow some of its flavors and aromas to develop.  A young wine should be vigorously splashed into the decanter to allow maximum exposure to oxygen, and then left to sit for an hour or so.  This is particularly appropriate for young Bordeaux and big California cabs. On the other hand, Burgundy wines traditionally are not decanted.  (Note that opening a bottle of wine and letting it sit for an hour or so doesn't really accomplish much. The reason is that this only exposes a small area in the neck of the bottle to oxygen, and it is exposure to oxygen that allows the wine to open up.)
  • Older wines.  These wines tend to be more fragile, so the goal is to decant just before serving and pour the wine gently into the decanter.  Ideally you would have stood the bottle vertically to allow the sediment to settle to the bottom.  By holding a light source (candle or small flashlight) under the neck, you can see the sediment and stop the pour.  By the way, the sediment won't hurt you, but it's not particularly pleasant to drink.

OK, give me the straight story - how much wine can I drink per day?

Ah, if it were only that easy.  The fact is, the studies are all over the map, with some recent studies saying that any level of alcohol consumption is bad for your health.  But, the consensus is that if you do drink alcohol, you should do so in moderation.  For the average man, moderate consumption is considered to be two glasses a day, and for the average woman one glass.  Of course, that's between you and your doctor, since people may have medical conditions that may complicate things.

  • Many people think that women get the raw end of this deal because they are smaller.  It actually has to do with enzymes in the liver.
  • For those that are thinking that you're way above average so you get an extra glass - nice try, that's between you and your liver.
  • By the way, a glass means 5 ounces - not one of those big German beer steins!

Here's what the CDC has to say on moderate consumption.  Of course, some studies show that there are some positive effects from moderate wine consumption, particularly red wine.  For example, red wine contains resveratrol, a substance that is thought to have beneficial cardiovascular health effects.