Dinner is ready, the family seated at the table. It’s time to pour the wine. As family sommelier, you carefully cut the foil that covers the top of the bottle and worm in the corkscrew before extracting the cork with a festive pop. Or, less ceremoniously, you twist open the screw cap.
You will most likely enjoy the wine as it enhances your meal. You might even notice as you drain the bottle that the last sips taste better than the first. That says you made a good choice of wine for your dinner, but it’s also a sign that you might have enjoyed the wine more with a little forethought.
To get the most out of our wines, we should pay attention to two things many people overlook: time and temperature.
You’ve no doubt witnessed a wine nerd swirl his glass and say, “This wine needs to breathe.” That might seem counterintuitive, because oxygen is the enemy of wine, turning it eventually to vinegar. But wine and oxygen have a complicated, nuanced relationship, combative at times, at others symbiotic. Wine is nearly shut off entirely from oxygen while in bottle. Pulling the cork is a shock. When you hold your breath for as long as you can, you gasp for a few seconds before settling into a normal breathing tempo. Wine can be the same way. Letting a wine breathe gives it a chance to wake up and rediscover its rhythm.
“The bottle is a prison,” says Piero Incisa della Rocchetta, owner and winemaker at Bodega Chacra in Argentina and a scion of the family that owns Sassicaia and other wineries in Tuscany. “If someone sticks you in a bottle, shoves a cork in it and then ships you to another continent to wait a few years before opening it and telling you to run . . . .” His voice trailed off into an Italian shrug.
“No,” he said. “You need to stretch a bit.”
Bodega Chacra is located in the remote Rio Negro region of Patagonia, one of the southernmost wine regions of the world. There, Incisa della Rocchetta crafts austere but elegant pinot noir from vineyards planted in the 1950s and the 1980s. The wines are light, almost reticent at first, with their minerality dominant. After 20 or 30 minutes in the glass, the fruit emerges and the minerality recedes to a refreshing finish.
Decanting is the classic method of letting a wine shake off its bottle funk and strut its stuff. But if you don’t have a decanter or don’t want to wash one later, pour some wine into a glass and leave it alone while you prepare dinner. Our impatient society has led to the invention of aerators, little gizmos to add air to wine to accomplish in seconds what might take hours in a decanter. However, I find them to have limited effect. Time seems to be as important as air. Wine takes time; it should not be hurried.
Nor should it be served at the wrong temperature. Conventional wisdom says white wines should be chilled, so we pull them out of the refrigerator just before dinner; red wines should be served at room temperature, so we leave them by the stove while we cook. Do yourself a favor and forget all that. We tend to drink our whites too cold and reds too warm.
Try this experiment: Take a well-chilled white wine out of the fridge when you are about to start cooking. Open it and pour a glass. Take a sip or two. It is cold and tart, with almost no evident fruit. Let it warm up as you prepare your meal. (If this is an elaborate all-day cooking feast, open the wine no later than 30 minutes before you intend to serve it.) Feel free to enjoy a glass or two while cooking to observe how the wine transforms itself as it warms. (This is science, after all.)
Do the reverse with reds: Place your evening’s wine in the refrigerator about an hour before sitting down to eat, then remove it and pour a glass 20 minutes before serving. The slight chill brings out the fruit aromas and flavors; think of how fragrant your garden is at dusk as the day’s heat fades into night.
I did that recently with the Clos du Mont-Olivet Vieilles Vignes 2012, a spectacular grenache-based Côtes-du-Rhône blend. The chill allowed it to stretch and unfurl aromas of lavender, violets and thyme, a perfume that enrobed flavors of dark fruits and earth. Time (just an hour ) and temperature (a few degrees below room level) had worked their magic.