#1 Do All Wines Need to Breathe?
In my opinion, yes. Always give it 30!
All red wines benefit from a little air time depending upon their quality as determined by price! If you are drinking at home then retail price is your benchmark, at a restaurant divide the wine list price by an average of 3 to determine a comparable retail price.
- It is a myth that only old wines need to breathe.
- Bottles retailing below £10 are meant to be enjoyed straight from the bottle where aeration won’t make much of a difference.
- Between £10 and £25 retail however, red wines will invariably be more complex and will definitely benefit from aeration. This will release the fruit aromas and soften any tannins and acidity making the mouth feel smoother and better balanced.
- More expensive and back vintage wines require special consideration that I will address shortly as a separate Hint.
- Removing the cork and expecting the wine to breathe adequately through the small aperture in the neck of the bottle is a myth. Too little surface area is exposed to oxygen and therefore will have little effect on the wine until long after your dinner party is over!
- Decant for 30 minutes – the very word sounds pretentious but all it means is that you pour into a glass container large enough to hold 75cl of wine, it has a neck or handle that enables you to hold it for a swirl and pour it efficiently into individual glasses. This has the effect of exposing all the wine to oxygen and, in older vintages will facilitate the removal of any sediment that has accumulated at the bottom of the bottle.
- At home this should not be a problem and any decent restaurant will usually accommodate you if asked, in fact they may be impressed!
- Failing the ability to decant then get the biggest glasses possible and swirl regularly. You really will taste a difference from the first to last glass as the wine is in contact with oxygen!
#2 How Long Should High-Quality Back Vintage Reds Breathe?
How long should high-quality back vintage Red wines “breathe” to get the best possible enjoyment from them?
This rather complicated topic so here is some context:
- The more expensive the wine the better it will age.
- Back vintage wines are high quality and at least 5 years old.
- Correctly cellared, the optimum maturity is generally around 10 years.
- Exceptional wines from exceptional vintages can mature for a lot longer and when to drink them seems to me as much a matter of luck as it is judgement.
- These wines mature nicely but can inexplicably hit a “dumb” period.
- Representing around 1% of wines consumed these wines are made specifically to age having high tannin, acidity and fruit content at bottling.
- The vast majority will be first growth Bordeaux, Grand Cru Burgundy, and a few very select Napa and Australian wines.
Helpful Hints – and that’s all they can be:
- Sediment in the bottle is an indicator of maturity in a wine.
- Older vintages always require decanting to remove this sediment and can vary wildly in how they react when exposed to oxygen.
- Immediately after decanting try the wine to identify any flaws. Be patient as it can often appear a little off before the bouquet gets itself together.
- Assuming it is ok, taste every 30 minutes to determine whether it is improving or declining.
- Research the vintage and see what others have experienced.
- If bought by the case, try a bottle every few years to see how it’s developing and to appreciate the transformation as it matures in the bottle.
- I personally have tasted 20 year old wines that have opened beautifully within a couple of hours and others that have taken a day!
- Remember that older wines are very different to young wines and require knowledge and practice to appreciate their secondary and tertiary characteristics fully
#3 For How Long After Opening a Bottle is the Wine Still Enjoyable?
As soon as you open the bottle you are exposing its contents to oxygen. Oxygen turns red wine into vinegar – it’s only a matter of time.
In reality: The vast majority of wines are most enjoyable within a few hours of opening.
- Wines consumed the following day often lack vitality and many of the characteristics for which you originally bought it. By day 2 and 3 the fruit will dissipate and the wine tastes “flat”. Thereafter the wine becomes increasingly less agreeable.
- Premium wines are “complex” and made from more robust varietals that often react differently to oxidation (as described in HH #2). This means that they can develop longer after opening but the rule above still largely applies.
- Worth noting that light colored red wine varietals like Pinot Noir, Grenache and Sangiovese will deteriorate quicker than more robust red wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Carignan.
Helpful Hints: minimize exposure to oxygen, excess temperature and sunlight by:
- Re-corking the wine (red as well as white) and storing it upright in a refrigerator where the cork will prevent further oxygen entering the bottle, the surface area exposed is minimized and the cool temperature will slow down oxidation. Simply retrieve from the refrigerator an hour before you want to drink and room temperature should be restored.
- Using a wine pump to extract the oxygen from the bottle prior to storing as above.
- Immediately rebottle wine into a clean half bottle and store as above. This will significantly increase longevity up to 14 days or longer.
- Invest in a Coravin wine system that enables you to draw just the amount you need without compromising the contents of the bottle at all.
- Remember that when buying wine by the glass in a restaurant or wine bar if a wine has been opened a little too long and /or has been standing in the bright lights of a bar unrefrigerated it will lack aroma, taste “flat” and be generally uninteresting.
- Wine by the glass is expensive. It is not unusual for a glass to be proportionately 1.25 to 2 times more expensive than buying the bottle, so do not accept mediocrity.
- Ask to taste before buying and request a fresh bottle to be opened if you are not satisfied.
#4 How to Identify Value Wines on a Restaurant List
You may want to know that:
- Restaurants charge anything from twice to four times their cost for a bottle of wine
- This is even higher if you buy by the glass
- The relative values of individual bottles on a list are not all equal.
- Reputable restaurants will deliver quality wine irrespective of price
Helpful Hints for identifying the best value wines on a list:
- Reading the wine list
- If possible, preview the wine list online to give yourself more time.
- If you want an idea as to the type of margins they apply select a particularly popular wine and compare prices at your supermarket. Double of retail is average.
- Quickly scan every page by region and earmark those styles you may be interested in within your price range.
- Start by looking at the least expensive wines on the list – the best value can often be found here as a more modest margin is applied to sommelier favorites or new introductory level wines from new regions or varietals.
- Restaurants have learned that a frugal customer will instinctively move up to the next level or two. This is therefore where they place overstocked wines and load the margins. Either way it’s not a good area to choose from.
- Look for “adjacent”, outliers and hard to pronounce wines.
- Adjacent wines are those wines produced in locations close to the more illustrious and expensive wines on the list. A good example would be a Savigny-les-Beaune from Burgundy which comes from a vineyard over the hill from its pricey and famous neighbor Aloxe-Corton.
- Hard to pronounce wines are less popular simply because no one wants to be embarrassed in asking for them (Agioritiko from Greece comes to mind) which lowers demand and therefore margin which makes them good value.
- An outlier is where there is only one of a certain type on the list e.g. Nero D’Avola from Sicily. Typically included as a favorite of the sommelier for trial and therefore offered at a reasonable price.
By no means exhaustive, here are some examples to look out for:
Maconnais – chardonnays from Macon Village; Pouilly-Fuisse and St. Veran offer a rich style.
Chalonnaise – Montagne 1er Cru is a fuller wine approaching the more expensive minor Cote de Beaune wines; Rully for something a little leaner and Givry from small quality domaines.
Portugal – Douro; Dao and Alentejo for dried currant, plum and slatey minerality.
Italy – Primitivo from the sunny south producing deep black fruits and rustic wine.
Southern France’s Languedoc-Roussillon delivers dark berries and a mocha , lightly spicy accent.
Spain’s inexpensive star Monastrell shows black cherry and plum and a gamey edge
Beaujolais Cru’s – Morgon, Fleurie, Moulin a Vent, Brouilly and Julienas will not disappoint.
- Ordering the wine
- Determine the number of bottles to order based on each bottle containing five, 5-ounce glasses.
- Never ask a waiter for his or her recommendation. It’s irrelevant to you.
- Be skeptical even of a sommeliers’ motivation for recommendations.
- Try and dissuade anyone from ordering a rogue glass of wine before making your selection.
- Resist the urge to buy expensive wines as these are never the best value.
- Ensure the same attention to detail in serving, tasting and enjoying wine whatever the price.