Know how

It’s an art – 10 lessons to serve wine like a pro

July 2022

But do you REALLY know how to serve wine? Antonio Spiga, sommelier and consultant at the Ecole du Vin de Bordeaux, answers the 10 questions you’ve always wondered about serving wine. 

Antonio, tell us everything!

I’m a trained agricultural technician who has bloomed to become the sommelier and marketing expert I am today. I teach too, for the likes of the Ecole du Vin de Bordeaux. My role as a teacher in different structures means a lot to me: I love chatting with my students and sharing my passion for the world of wine with them. I hail from Italy and earned my stripes in Sardinia before visiting Bordeaux and settling down here: it’s a real love story 11 months of the year but my homeland still has my heart in August (laughs). I also worked at CIVB’s Bar à Vins (Bordeaux Wine Council) for a long time when it first opened: it was an amazing experience and a real challenge at the time as wine bars weren’t the norm in Bordeaux back then.

Let’s start at the beginning: how do you open a bottle of wine properly?

There are a few rules to bear in mind. First of all, out of respect for the winemakers, the label should always face your guests, from when you open it to when you serve it. You want them to form a bond with the bottle: it’s important to let it speak for itself. Keep the label facing your guests, pick up a corkscrew (there are all sorts of different ones but I like the classic screw type because it’s the simplest and fuss-free) then start cutting around the lip in a circular motion. Then make a vertical cut up to the cork. We tend to cut above the lip but it’s far simpler this way. Doing this means we can clean the bottle neck if necessary: dust, crystals etc. Then simply position the corkscrew in the middle of the cork so the outer pressure is evenly distributed. Now all you have to do is lever out the cork!

What is the first taste for?

Actually, before you serve the first taste, remember to smell the cork to check it hasn’t been “contaminated” by unpleasant aromas such as mould. Then you can serve the first taste to yourself or your guest: it’s an extra test to ensure the bottle hasn’t been corked and the wine isn’t too oxidised.

So how do you know if wine is oxidised?

It’s actually pretty easy. You need to train your nose to spot it but it’s fairly easy to recognise on the palate: there’s a very “green” aftertaste reminiscent of mushrooms. There may be very powerful and bitter aromas too. You should always mention it if you’re in a restaurant: that way the owner can give the winemakers feedback. It’s vital for them so don’t be shy: wine tasting should be an enjoyable experience.

Which glassware is right for a meal?

There’s a whole host of fabulous glasses in the trade but they’re not always functional. I tend to lean towards glasses that suit any wine type: still wine and sparkling wine i.e. Crémant de Bordeaux. Contrary to popular belief, it’s actually best to serve sparkling wine in a wine glass: I think flutes dampen the sensory complexity of sparkling wine. I recommend a medium-sized classic tulip glass with a thin lip. Let’s take the little balloon glasses you get in Parisian bars: I really don’t recommend them as the lip is very thick and the “bowl” (the bit holding the liquid) is far too small to aerate the wine properly and bring out all its aromas. 

What temperature should you serve wine at?

The first rule is to enjoy yourself and try different things so you know what sort of temperature you like for each wine. However, there are a few rules you can use as a guide. To each their own: I suggest serving red at 16-18°C. How strong the tannins are is what helps choose the right temperature. For example, a wine from the right bank, which tends to be a very smooth merlot, means we can lower the temperature. Whereas a wine from the left bank, which tends to be a cabernet sauvignon with strong tannins, means we can increase the temperature. Lower temperatures bring out the tannins and vice versa. You can play with your tastebuds and that’s what’s fun about it: learning what you like and creating your own tasting profile. Rosés should be served chilled, around 10°C. Dry white and red wine should be served at 12°C whilst a lighter wine like an Entre-deux-Mers tipple can easily be enjoyed at 10°C. I’d stick to 10/12°C for Sauternes wine. They are very rich with powerful residual sugar meaning we can drop the temperature. Crémant de Bordeaux should be served cold: lower the temperature to 8°C.

How do you hold a bottle?

As we said at the start, with the label facing your guests. The standard protocol is to grip the bottle with four fingers and your thumb on the base. I actually think that’s a bit risky, I prefer the safe side! It’s best to grip it firmly, with the label facing the customer. Remember: never hide the label. Try to avoid the bottle touching the glass, use a napkin to soak up any spillage and avoid stains. I’ve always preferred this technique to using a drop- stop but again, that’s a personal choice. 

Which order do you serve wine in?

The order of service is based on several features. There are cultural aspects like Sauternes with foie gras. I’ve personally always liked the idea of a crescendo: simple to complex. Create a sensory journey that flows with pairings that don’t take away from the “partner” or dish.

So which wine goes with which dish?

It’s all about balance. The wine shouldn’t hinder the dish and vice versa. I think both should match in complexity. Nothing’s set in stone, I like playing with balance: a full-bodied red with a complex saucy dish. I prefer things to compliment each other rather than contrast. A rich wine/rich dish and vice versa, otherwise someone loses out (laughs) and that’s not the idea! You can also work on matching the aromatic profile. It’s hard to match a sweet dish with a wine that isn’t sweet. Dessert wine works a treat with puddings and cheese! 

Do you need to decant all your bottles?

Not necessarily. You decant wine for two reasons: to aerate young wine and speed up the oxygenation process that occurs slowly in the bottle. You can also decant very old wine to separate the sediment so the liquid isn’t full of unpleasant little particles. Sommeliers used to use a candle between the glass and bottle to watch out for solids in the liquid.

So you should only aerate red wine?

You can decant white wine in carafes if it’s a fairly full-bodied and complex one. So wine like Graves or Pessac-Léognan which has spent time in casks and needs a little help to aerate and come into their own, whether they’re dry or sweet. Rosé doesn’t age so it’s best to drink it soon, within 2 or 3 years. But you could decant a bottle of claret, why not?

How do you store a bottle once opened?

There’s a whole host of tools from vacuum pumps to plastic corks. That’s fine if you just want to store it for one or two days. Dessert wine actually keeps very well because the residual sugar locks in the aromatic potential. If you want to polish off the bottle the next day, just pop the cork back in. You may even be pleasantly surprised as it will have aerated well the next day. 

Do you have a little secret to share with our readers?

Asian and Korean dishes go down a treat with sweet, Sauternes and Barsac wine. I love this style of sweet and sour cuisine that works beautifully with the complex aromas of dessert wine. Sometimes I serve an entire meal with Sauternes wine, I love it so much. Stay curious, that’s my motto. Curious about anything and everything. Build your own sensory vocabulary, an encyclopedia of flavours, taste, test, try and enjoy yourself! You can have all the techniques in the world but there’s nothing like personal experience. Often you wait for the perfect time but, in the end, just opening a bottle is a good time. 

Thanks Antonio, in the end there were more than 10 questions but who cares 🙂

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