If you find you’re not enjoying the wines you buy quite as much as you’d like, I’ve got news for you: you’re not alone! Today I want to talk a bit about a few common mistakes people make when serving wine, and easy fixes to these problems that will have you enjoying a more delicious and fulfilling experience that exceeds your expectations.
We’ve all been there – that moment, when after great anticipation, enthusiasm and excitement – whether it be following a recommendation from a trusted local store employee, a glowing review from an important wine critic, tasting while traveling through wine country, a must-try endorsement from a wine-loving friend, or worst yet, through your own research and shopping experience – you finally sit down to try a wine you’ve been dying to taste. You pull the cork, pour yourself a glass and take a sip.
And, well… it’s ok.
Or worse yet, it’s less than ok.
But it’s not exciting or delicious or creating a sensational desire to take another sip – or the any of the other wonderful things you expected or wanted or had been hoping for. This result can be one of the most disappointing wine experiences you can have; approaching a wine with enthusiasm and excitement and a desire to fall in love at first sip, and it just doesn’t live up to your lofty expectations. More often than not, we chalk experiences like this up to faulty advice from the referring party.
But is this really the answer?
Or are there other reasons why wines just don’t taste as good as we’d like them to?
The short answer is yes. Wine is a living and breathing product that is made from natural organic materials. Not only can the way we handle and serve wine impact our enjoyment, but the wine itself can change and taste differently based on a myriad of considerations. The jumping off point in this conversation is to shift perspective; let’s think about wine less as just another beverage – and personify it to a certain extent, and in turn look at how we handle and serve wine with a focus on its “living, breathing” qualities.
My experience is that there are a handful of reasons why sometimes wines underwhelm, so allow me to walk you through the 5 most common reasons why you might not be enjoying wines you buy, quite as much as you’d like to. More importantly, I’ve got some simple and easy fixes you can employ to make sure the wines you’re drinking deliver the amazing, astonishing, delicious brag-worthy WOW-factor you’re after.
#1. Your Wine Has A Fever
The #1 way to ruin a great glass of red wine? Serving it too warm. We all learn early in our wine education that white wine should be served chilled and red wine should be served un-chilled. And at a very basic level this is true. However, the idea that reds and whites are intended to be served at vastly different temperatures is one of the most destructive forces in the enjoyment of many wines.
Reds served too warm tend to lose their balance; alcohol comes across as more prevalent, volatile acidity is accentuated and perhaps most importantly, lukewarm beverages are just not that refreshing, which gets us away from the basic purpose of consuming a glass of wine.
Not all red wines are intended to be served at the same temperature, but as a loose guideline, reds should be served between 59 and 65 degrees F. Lighter reds should be served at the cooler end of that range, and richer more robust reds towards the higher end. And in case you don’t intended to insert a thermometer into your wine glass before taking a sip, in practical terms this range means somewhere between lightly chilled, at the low end, to cool, at the higher end.
No red wine should ever be served warm
Prime Examples of this Principle:
Pinot Noir, Southern Spanish Reds & Grenache-based Reds
#2. Your Wine Is Shivering
If serving wine too warm is the most common felony amongst red wine crimes, then serving whites too cold may get you early parole, but you probably still won’t like your new bunkmate. A glass of white wine served too cold will eventually warm up to a more suitable temperature, but the initial experience – that first sip – which informs so much of our lasting impressions of a given wine, stands to you leave underwhelmed.
Much like the discussion around reds, above, service temperature of whites generally falls within a range between 50 and 56 degrees F – or, in practical terms, cold (but not frosty) through to cool, at the warmer end of the spectrum. Light unoaked wines tend to show better near the lower end of that temperature range, whereas richer, more opulent and oaky whites strut their best stuff at the higher end.
Most white wines are served far too cold
Prime Examples of this Principle:
Barrel-Aged Chardonnay, White Rioja & Sauvignon Blanc
#3. Your Wine Hasn’t Grown Up Yet
Somewhere well north of 90% of the wine purchased by the average person get it’s opportunity to age in the trunk of their car on the way home from the local wine shop – and that’s about it. We often purchase wine like groceries; pick up a bottle today to serve at dinner tonight, or perhaps later that same week. If you find this describes the way you buy wine, I’d encourage you to try a different approach.
If you’re reading this article, it’s probably because you like wine. You may not open a bottle every night of the week, but you are keen to experience different flavours, you appreciate better quality, you spend a bit more on occasion to get something you adore and most importantly, you’re engaged and interested. With all this in mind, better wines, really benefit from a bit of time resting before you drink them.
While it’s easy to assume this idea applies to famous, expensive rare bottles from Bordeaux, few of us realize that it actually holds true with many well-made wines at much lower prices. Amongst the wines listed immediately below, you’ll even find a $20 bottle that I think serves a prime example; in fact, I wouldn’t need to try too hard to find you wines selling for $15 (or less) that taste better after some time in the cellar.
Not everyone has the time or space or inclination to build a fancy wine cellar and age wines, but do yourself this small favour – start picking up wines, a few bottles at a time, and allow them to rest for a few months before pulling the cork. Build a small library (even 20-30 bottles of various styles and flavours) and you will be stunned at the frequency with which these wines begin to meet and exceed – rather than failing to live up to – your expectations.
There are very few wines that 6-12 months aging won’t make better
Prime Examples of this Principle:
Priorat Reds, Red Burgundy/Pinot Noir & Dry Riesling
#4. Your Wine Is Suffocating
Early on in this article, I described wine as something of a “living and breathing” creature. Well, there aren’t too many living creatures who put their best foot forward if they can’t breathe. But that’s exactly how many of us serve wine; we pull the cork and pour. Further to Point #3, above, aging is effectively the slow interaction of air with wine. Unopened, the cork allows small amounts of air to pass through and interact with the wine, softening tannins and acidity, and generally producing a gentler, mellower glass of wine.
Much like aging, there are few wines that won’t benefit from allowing them to “breathe” a bit before serving; effectively, you’re accomplishing a bunch of the same stuff that aging allows for by removing the cork and allowing the wine to interact with air at a much more rapid rate. Other tools to introduce air to wine include decanting or even swirling the wine around your glass.
The result? You’ll find the wine more generous aromatically, exploding from the glass rather than cowering in the corner. You will likely also find that allowing wines to breathe will create a somewhat softer, more voluptuous and round mouthfeel, rather than being dominated by harsh and assertive tannins.
Don’t pull the cork and pour – let wine breath for 20-30 minutes
Prime Examples of this Principle:
Old Vines Reds, White Burgundy & Spanish Godello-based Whites
#5. Your Wine Is Looking For Its Friends
While this is the final point on our list today, in many respects it could have been #1. It has been said that in life, “context is king” – and there’s nowhere in the world of food and drink where that idiom holds more truth than with wine. Whether deciding on food and wine pairings, the surroundings where we’ll be serving a given wine (outdoors on the patio vs a fancy restaurant, for example) or even the people we’ll be serving it to, consider presenting wine in the presence of its friends.
I frequently hear stories from clients and wine lovers who have traveled abroad and discovered a new wine. The story begins with tasting a new wine in the cellar or tasting room of a beautiful estate along with a passionate vigneron, walking them through the experience – and perhaps even some amazing local munchies while sampling this vinous treasure.
Before leaving, you pick up a few more bottles, take them back to the hotel and find them to be every bit as magical and profound and delicious, drinking them over the ensuing days. This was one of those charmed wine experiences; coming across a wine that satisfied each and every last one of your taste buds; you couldn’t stop talking about it as you continued through your trip – and couldn’t wait to get home and order some to show your friends.
It was truly love at first sip.
Flash forward: return home and jump through the hoops involved in getting your new discovery specially imported. After weeks, or months of anticipation you get a call from your local wine shop – your case has arrived! You race to the store at your earliest moment, pick up the case and bring it home. To celebrate the arrival of your new adoption, you plan a special meal and invite your closest wine-loving friends to come taste the most extraordinary wine you’ve ever had.
Everything is perfect. Your guests arrive, and as you sit down for dinner you share a splash of your special wine with your best friends to enjoy alongside your incredible meal. And then it happens.
The wine is just ok.
Somehow, it just doesn’t taste the same. You can’t quite put your finger on what’s changed, but it’s lacking the magic you remember exploding forth from each bottle and glass.
Now it’s entirely possible that something did change in the wine itself between these two experiences, but it’s worth noting that some other things were different too. You were no longer on vacation. You were not standing with the winemaker. You weren’t surrounded by the history and culture and passion and beauty of the wine estate. You weren’t munching on local foods in sublime unpretentious surroundings without the slightest expectation of tripping over the best wine you’ve ever tasted.
I tell this story not to minimalize the experience – in fact, as a professional wine hunter, I’ve had many just like it. Rather, I am holding this up as an example; an example many of us can identify with, to showcase how much better wine tastes when you let it hang out with its friends.
Some wines are made to go with casual and light tapas-style fare while dining al fresco, and just don’t taste as good with a big ‘ol piece of steak. Some wines taste amazing with sushi, but don’t work with roast shoulder of pork. Still other wines are great to sit and sip all on their own, but seem to fall apart next to all matter of food.
So, what’s my rule of thumb in finding out which friends the wine I’m drinking wants to hang with?
Well, for starters, I recommend emphasizing local food and wine pairings: Tuscan reds with gorgeous pasta adorned with incredibly aromatic fresh basil infused tomato sauce; southern Rhone reds with stunning rosemary rubbed lamb; dry Sherry with traditional southern Spanish tapas like olives and almonds and fish. And when all else fails, trust my instincts and experiment a bit.
When something works brilliantly, do it again, or try a slight variation on the same theme, but always at the back of my mind is that I am compiling a guest-list; a guest-list focused on the friends my wine would like to spend the evening with.