We talk about wine with beautiful descriptors. It’s delicious, velvety, fruity, flowery, aromatic, and so on. But every now and then, we pop a cork, and an evil genie emerges, leering at us in front of friends at the table. Reviewing how wine can betray us is a good exercise because some of its devils can be forced back into the bottle and transformed back into the fruits and flowers that we expected when we first extracted the cork.
Since this is summertime, the first thing that comes to mind is the red wine gone bad simply because we’ve served it too warm. We’ve brought home a couple of bottles of a particular wine that we love and put them on the kitchen counter maybe a day ahead of the party. But when we pour the wine at the table, it tastes like bad grape juice. Big reds like Cabernet can be served as cool as 65 degrees and light fruity ones as much as five degrees less, almost like a white. Summer kitchens or any other part of the house in plain sight are not going to run temperatures like that in most places.
But the remedy for this mistake is easy. Shove that bottle into an ice bucket for a few minutes. Of course, it’s going to take a few minutes to locate the bucket and fill it with ice. But it’ll take a lot less time to cool down the wine than if we put it into the freezer and possibly forget it while we go back to conversation and the white that we had been serving earlier.
Another red devil in the bottle regards the wine that we’ve always loved but has gone dumb. We choose it for a dinner party, same producer, same vintage. But what has happened? It has none of the captivating charm that it showed last time we drank it. Maybe we’ve served an acidic side dish, which is the enemy of a red, or maybe not. The wine just doesn’t taste as good as it did the last time we drank it.
The first thing I’d do with a bottle like that is pour it into a decanter to get some air into it. I sometimes choose a wine for the club, and it’s definitely a fine wine. But two days after I’ve opened the bottle, it’s terrific. The newsletter has already gone to the printer, so it’s too late to suggest decanting. Some sommeliers are now saying that all reds and even whites should be decanted. I admit that I don’t normally bother, but I sure would in a situation where the wine doesn’t measure up to memory and should. Apart from getting air into the wine and loosening its flavors, decanting can also blow off sulfur compounds, carbon dioxide, or other components that are volatile and mask flavor. This is another dinner table interruption, but at least the remedy is likely to improve the wine.
Another demon in the bottle that has very personal implications is alcohol content. Especially reds and particularly Californian reds, but European reds as well, can hit 15 percent or more. If you’re opening a couple of bottles for four people, you should check the alcohol content. If you’re not a big eater or a big person, or that describes someone at the table, a couple of glasses that contain 15% alcohol can knock a person off a chair. If those bottles are shared by more than four people, who are enjoying a dinner and sitting at the table for a couple of hours, they’ll be fine. But it’s a courtesy to notify guests because most people don’t consider several glasses of wine intoxicating. Such wines should definitely be decanted so that they blow off some of the alcohol, which will also improve flavors.
White wine is a lot more forgiving. You might store it in the fridge and serve it too cold so that it doesn’t show its best, but at least it’ll warm up at the table and in the glass.
Whether white or red, the devil in the bottle that you hope never to meet is in a corked wine. In its first stages, the wine simply has no flavor. Later it smells distinctly like mold. There’s nothing that you can do about that except take the bottle back to the seller, me included, although in my case, you only have to email or make a phone call.
In the meantime, have a wonderful summer. The season is all too short.