Wine Etiquette: tips & tricks for serving wine
Choosing the wines for a dinner party is exciting because you'll get to open all those wonderful wines. But once you’ve decided on the wines, a whole host of daunting questions emerge. Should the wine be decanted? What temperature should I serve it at? What if the cork crumbles? How much should I fill each glass? Below are my tips for serving wine—remembering that Lise and I value the quality of food, wine, and conversation over formal etiquette!
The right equipment requires planning ahead
Wine Service “equipment” is something you will want to address long before your party—but you may already have this category completely under control. The types of equipment we think are most important are the glassware (crystal), the wine opener (worm, not screw), the decanter (easy to clean), and your wine storage area (constant temperature).
- A decent storage location is critical to wine quality. You don’t need an underground cave or a temperature controlled cellar—even a rarely opened interior closet will suffice. But you do want a place that doesn’t expose your fine wine to light or to temperature changes greater than >10F. Constancy of temperature is more important than the actual temperature. This means anywhere in your kitchen is definitely out! Additionally, the bottles should be stored on their side (or upside down) to keep the cork moist, if you plan to store them for more than a year.
- Glassware should be crystal (or contain zinc or magnesium oxide) which refracts more light. Lise is especially picky about really sparkly glasses, which shows wine at its best. The minerals also make the glasses sturdy enough to be spun very thin, which is nice.
- Using glasses of varying sizes isn’t as important as having the right bowl. The bowl of the wine glass should have (a) a cut rim rather than a rolled rim, and (b) a slightly narrower opening at the top, thus propelling the wine's aroma toward your mouth and nose. Most people prefer a glass with a wider bowl for reds because it allows a wine breathe and volatalize the aromas, but most of our dinner parties make use of a single glass with a wide bowl (we prefer more full bodied whites with complex aromas anyway).
- The corkscrew should have a worm as opposed to an auger. If the cork is at all dry or long, a fat auger will just drill a hole in the cork and then come out without actually extracting the cork. There are many designs, but the best corkscrew is the one you feel most comfortable with! Lise likes the compactness of the classic waiter’s corkscrew especially for one or two bottles, while I like the lever-based mechanisms (e.g., Rabbit) when I have to open several bottles. We also have a pronged cork remover for older bottles whose corks may crumble.
- A decanter is optional, but ideally it would have a wide bowl (it’s that breathing thing again), be easy to pour (the stylish ones tend to be difficult), and be easy to clean (sparkling!). We have never found a decanter that meets all three criteria—but let us know if you have! Don’t have a decanter?
There are lots of other wine gadgets which may be helpful, but we like to keep things simple.
Pre-party Preparations require the most attention
Most of your attention to wine service should be spent on the pre-party preparations, which include: setting the table, selecting the right sequence and quantity of wine, decanting the wine, and serving it at the right temperature. The first two are fairly straightforward, but temperature and decanting require more thought.
- For a weekend dinner party, count on one bottle per person. Four wines and eight people means two bottles of each wine. But a few extra bottles never hurt!
- Wines should be served progressively from light to heavy, dry to sweet. The general order should be: light whites, full-bodied or highly aromatic whites, rosés, light reds, high tannin reds, dessert wine. The ordering of courses and their ideal pairings may dictate a different progression—Lise has been known to serve our Rosé before the 3Divas due to optimal food pairings—in which case consider either separate glasses or a brief water rinse.
- Set your table with all the necessary glasses ordered from water to white to red. We like water glasses that stand out by either by color or shape, because it’s embarrassing not knowing which is which. Place the water glass above the knife with the wine glasses to its left because: (1) everyone needs to drink more water, so that glass should be the easiest to grab, and (2) water pitchers tend to be much heaver than wine bottles so this facilitate refilling. If there is a dessert wine, we prefer to bring out separate glasses as it is served (but we’d like to note that dessert wines are best served as a dessert, not with another dessert). There are many sets of conflicting etiquette rules regarding placement of glasses, so we prefer just to be practical.
Although there's no need to be exceedingly precise, the temperature at which to serve wine is very important. If a wine is too warm, it will taste alcoholic and flat or flabby. But if it’s too cold the aromas and flavors will be muted and, for reds, the tannins may seem harsh and astringent. Often, white wines are served too cold right out of a 35F refrigerator, while reds are opened at a toasty 70F room temperature, both of which discredit the wine. Here are our general guidelines:
In order to reach those ideal temperatures, put a bottle of red wine in the refrigerator for 15-30 minutes before serving, or a bottle of white/rosé in the refrigerator about two hours ahead (and then take it out 15-30 before serving). To measure the precise temperature of the wine, you can use a wine thermometer (the infrared ones don’t require the bottle to be opened), but in our opinion, that is overkill. A few other tips: (1) when in doubt, serve the wine a bit too cold because it warms up in the glass quickly (especially if you instruct people to cup their hands around the bowl); (2) I generally like wines cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter; (3) lower quality wines are better when they are cooler. Don't have time to chill the wine?
The other major thing to contemplate before your dinner party is whether to decant the red wines. At Montemaggiore, I decant wines for two reasons: to aerate a really young wine or to remove the sediment from an older wine. If a wine is less than five years from vintage and it’s full-bodied like a Cabernet or Syrah, aeration will release more nuanced aromas and “open up” the wine’s flavors. The tricky question is how long ahead of time to decant. While a young, intense, tannic Bordeaux first growth may need up to 6 hours, with Montemaggiore wines we think 2 hours is a good rule of thumb. Don't have time to aerate?
Older or fully mature wines can benefit from decanting to remove the sediment (the dark residue on the bottom or side of the bottle). If you don’t remove the sediment first, it will likely end up in everyone’s glasses which can be annoying although not harmful. You'll want to leave the bottle upright for at least one day prior, and then decant just before serving. Don’t decant ahead of time because the fragile aromas of older wines dissipate quickly.
Dinnertime etiquette is somewhat intuitive
At this point, you have everything you need for great wine service, and it’s a mere matter of actually serving the wine. Here are a few practical tips, which you may already know:
- If the meal is served buffet-style, a great option is to simply leave the wines on the sideboard for people to choose and serve themselves.
- If you're pouring the wine after everyone is seated, serve women before men, oldest to youngest. Miss Manners would say that you should follow this strictly, but that can involve dizzying circles around the table. We typically start with the "most special" (or oldest, or closest) female and then make one round of the table serving the rest of the women. Then we do a similar round for the men.
- Wine should always be poured from the recipient’s right because that’s where the glasses are!
- Fill the glass to just below the widest part of the bowl, between ¼ and ⅓ full. This will allow people to swirl the wine without much danger of spilling. The only exception comes when pouring champagne into a flute.
- In order not to drip, slightly twist the bottle at the end of the pour. If you are serving many people, have a napkin handy because you are likely to drip somewhere along the way.
- Ask permission before you refill someone’s glass, or if they are deep in conversation try to at least catch their eye as you pour (so they can stop you). There’s hardly a worse crime than having a great wine just languish in someone's glass at the meal's end.
- Before you take the last pour of an especially nice wine, ask everyone (or at least those around you) if they would like to share it . If they take you up on your offer at least you'll be perceived as polite.
Afterwards... the cleanup
So you’ve had a great party, and everyone’s left. You still have a lot of work to do!
- If you have partially full bottles, reduce oxygen contact and store in the refrigerator. We use a Vacu Vin to extract air, but you could also pour the wine into a smaller vessel (e.g., a 375ml bottle). Storing the wine at a cold temperature discourages oxidation and keeps the wine fresher.
- Clean the red wine stains in your tablecloths and napkins with Wine Away or OxyClean (or both). If you don’t have these products, you can use a mixture of dishwashing liquid and hydrogen peroxide.
- Clean the wine glasses with lots of hot water and a good cloth towel. We don’t like to use soap, which can leave an odiferous residue. The right towels for cleaning glasses will be absorbent without leaving any lint. We never put good wine glasses in the dishwasher because Lise insists that they must sparkle.
Wine Disasters are often easily solved
Life is never ideal, so here are some backup plans:
- If you don't have a decanter, just pour the wine into any other vessel, then pour back into the wine bottle. Uncorking a bottle of wine and letting it sit for an hour is useless because the narrow bottleneck still prevents much air from opening up the wine.
- When you don’t have time to aerate the wine, pour a small glass from the bottle, recork the wine, then shake, shake, shake the bottle vigorously for about a minute. Or you can just instruct everyone to swirl, swirl, swirl the wine in their glass.
- If the cork starts to crumble, try to extract the rest with a pronged cork puller like the Ah So. If that doesn’t work, just push the whole cork in the bottle. Then pour through a fine mesh strainer (we have one for loose tea) or coffee filter.
- When you don’t have time to chill the wine, put the bottle in a bucket full of ice water, then add salt. Ice water conducts heat more effectively than just ice, and salt lowers the freezing point of the water making it colder than “sweet” water. You probably only need 15 minutes to chill a white wine this way.