Understanding Wine: FAQs
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
Q. How do you open a bottle of champagne or sparkling wine?
A. Hold the bottle at 45 degrees to maximize the surface area from which the bubbles can escape. Take off the foil and carefully untwist the wire muzzle. Wrap a dry napkin round the bottle neck and gently twist the bottle off the cork (not the other way round, in case the cork breaks). This way, there will be only the gentlest of pops, very little wine lost and no danger to eyes.
Q. What is decanting?
A. Pouring wine from the bottle into another glass container. Traditionally this is something along the lines of the decanters shown here, but a glass jug or ordinary carafe would do.
Q. Should one decant wine?
A. Decanting is necessary only in wines that are sufficiently old and grand to have formed a deposit, yet are not so ancient and fragile (as in wines more than 50 years old) that exposure to air should be kept to an absolute minimum, even at the risk of chewing a mouthful of sediment along with the last glass of wine. For any other sort of wine, it is a matter of personal choice. If you have a particularly beautiful decanter you want to show off, or particularly ordinary wine whose origins you wish to conceal, then decanting may seem a good idea. If the whole business seems just a bit too complicated, then be consoled by the fact that many wine experts are unconvinced about the advantages of decanting. Exposure to air may release a bit more vapour and therefore pleasure, but this can be done by simply swirling the glasses once the wine has been poured, without risking the dissipation of the precious bouquet too soon. The more body a wine has, the better it can stand up to decanting. Most sweeter sherries and ports can be kept in a decanter for up to a month.
Q. How soon before drinking a wine should you open it?
A. Some people strongly believe in letting open bottles ‘breathe’ for a couple of hours before serving them. However, it is difficult to see how much effect air can have on the tiny surface area of wine thus allowed in contact with it. Sometimes off-odours can collect as a pocket of stale air between wine and cork known as ‘bottle stink’, but this is easily dissipated as the wine is poured vigorously into glasses.
Q. How long will wine keep in an opened bottle?
A. It depends on the wine and on how much of it is left. The more full-bodied a wine, the more it can withstand exposure to air and vice versa. It is the mixture of air and wine that is dangerous – because it eventually turns the wine to vinegar — so wine will keep best in a stoppered container that is not much larger than the volume left over. A stock of empty half-bottles, half-litres, screwcap tonic bottles and smaller bottles as served on planes and trains is therefore useful to households too small to consume a whole bottle at a sitting so that leftovers can be poured into whichever is most appropriate.
If it is not possible to find a smaller bottle, then the wine will start to taste unpleasantly stale after one to five days depending on how much body it has. Wine boxes are useful because they contain self-deflating bags that let wine out but no air in. Their contents are rarely quite as fresh as those of a bottle, but they start to taste decidedly stale only after several months rather than several days. It is possible to buy special stoppers for sparkling wines once opened.
Q. What is ‘bouquet’?
A. This rather fanciful-sounding word means the intricate smell that develops as a wine matures. It contrasts with the word ‘aroma’ which is usually used to describe the fresher, simpler smell of a young wine that derives straight from the grapes without the advantage of maturation.
Q. What does ‘corked’ mean?
A. The term stems from the time when the cork weevil commonly burrowed its way through corks to spoil the wine. Nowadays ‘corked’ and ‘corky’ are used fairly interchangeably to describe a wine that is musty and indisputably nasty to smell. The terms have nothing to do with little bits of cork floating in a wine.
Q. What happens when a wine is ‘oxidized’?
A. This can happen either in a bottle by accident or by leaving a glass out in the air too long. The air acts on the wine to turn it brown and make it taste stale and flat. ‘Maderized’, ie. rather like Madeira, means much the same thing.