Tips for Enjoying Wine at Home

Reading about wine, then buying and cellaring it are merely the prologue for drinking, the moment when you finally get to experience that in which you’ve invested so much time and energy. Though in many cases nothing more than a simple corkscrew and a glass is required, some situations (or wines) may call for a little more. The proper glassware and a few tools of the trade can make a big difference, but you will also want to pay attention to suggested temperatures and the order in which wines are served.


For everyday home use, I recommend investing in the three basic shapes—White Wine, Burgundy, and Bordeaux. The white wine glass can be used for all whites, and is almost always a better choice for Champagne and sparkling wine than the standard flute. The Burgundy glass can be used for richer whites in addition to lighter reds such as Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo, while the Bordeaux glass is ideal for richer reds. I personally include Riedel’s Riesling glass in my assortment. With a slightly rounder bowl and narrower opening than the white wine glass, it does a better job at capturing more nuanced aromatics. I turn to this glass not only for Riesling, but for other aromatic whites, many Champagnes and Zinfandel — provided it is not too heavily oaked.

Multimedia: Choosing the Right Glass

In my house, we use the basic Riedel Vinum series, largely because the glasses are not too expensive and are widely available. Riedel’s Sommelier series glasses are gorgeous and certainly stylish, but are significantly more expensive and also quite fragile. I am partial to the Schott Zwiesel line of glassware as well, which is even more durable than the Riedel, and is available in the same basic shapes. However, the glassware line of the moment definitely seems to be Zalto. Though hardly a new company, this brand has become hot within both the collector set and the restaurant community, largely through the campaigning of sommelier and entrepreneur Aldo Sohm. These glasses are particularly handsome, and sturdier than their delicate frames suggest. They also feature original designs than have become standard—shapes that are very successful in enhancing the essence of their respective wine types. Readers might want to try side-by-side comparisons. I have—and the Zalto glassware almost always wins.

From left to right: a basic white wine glass, Burgundy glass, Bordeaux glass, and Riedel’s Vinum Riesling glass.

Of course it is possible to rely on a single, universal glass for all of your wine needs. Such a glass comes in especially handy if you are hosting large parties or tastings. When serving several different wines over the course of a dinner, a smaller glass can save valuable table space. Similarly, if you are dividing a single bottle of wine among a large group of people, a universal glass can provide a better tasting experience, as that small portion of wine might get lost inside a larger piece of stemware. Most lines of glassware will offer a universal glass, though in many cases the basic white wine glass will suffice. The Zalto Universal glass ($59) and the Riedel Vinum Viognier/Chardonnay glass ($30) are two of my favorites—though the Zalto is the more elegant option, the Riedel is admirably durable. The Spiegelau Winelovers White Wine glass is a terrific value option, and is available in 4-packs for $28.00.

Left: Zalto’s Universal glass. Right: Riedel’s Vinum Viognier/Chardonnay glass.

These companies also offer a selection of decanters; Riedel is especially well-known for their intricate and elaborate offerings at the high end. Though the sky is the limit in terms of decanter shapes and sizes, I recommend keeping it simple, at least for your everyday decanter. The more ornate decanters may be aesthetically pleasing, but they can be very hard to clean, which can lead to frustration and often breakage. I also prefer a narrower decanter as it is easier to pour from, and reduces the surface area of wine in contact with air. Only when I need to fast track an especially tight bottle of wine will I use the more flared decanters. Two of my favorite decanters are Riedel’s basic Cabernet Sauvignon Decanter ($49) and Zalto’s Carafe No. 75 ($76).  For a more reasonable option, Spiegelau’s Classic Bar Decanter ($30) is both user-friendly and durable.

With both wine glasses and decanters, it is absolutely critical that the glass remain odorless. The best way to ensure this is to use either no or very little detergent when washing your glasses, and to polish then immediately after washing with a clean and lint-free rag. If the glasses dry before you can get to them, you can always "steam" the glasses by holding them over a bowl of hot water before polishing. Should the quality of your water be such that your glasses are never entirely odorless, I recommend rinsing the glasses and decanter just prior to use with a neutral white wine such as a simple Pinot Grigio.

Corkscrews Etc.

Simplicity is never more essential in wine than when choosing a corkscrew. Recently I was asked to open a bottle using a winged ‘butterfly’ corkscrew. I fumbled, and ultimately botched, the opening, which was an awkward experience. Wine professionals tend to rely on the much more straightforward ‘waiter’s corkscrew’, which is composed simply of a screw (or ‘worm’) and a hinged lever. The waiter’s corkscrew is easy to find, a breeze to use and relatively inexpensive. It is also incredibly durable. Many of the fancier openers on the market may suffice for the casual wine drinker, but they inevitably prove too fragile for the requirements of the avid taster. The other essential, and even more simplistic, wine opener is the ah-so—a double-pronged implement that slides inside the neck of the bottle, ‘hugging’ the cork, and allowing it to be extracted with little risk of breakage. This is an especially gentle way to remove old corks.

Multimedia: Tips for Opening and Decanting Older Wines

If the neck of a bottle is coated in wax, the best approach is to simply plunge your waiter's corkscrew through the center of the wax as if it was not there. However, if the wine is sealed in hard wax and of such an age that you need to use an ah-so, you must gently chip away the wax using the end of your corkscrew. 

The Durand corkscrew is another essential tool. Specifically designed with older corks in mind, the Durand essentially combines a longer worm than is normally found on a standard corkscrew with the dual blades of the ah-so, thereby alleviating the ah-so’s tendency to push a loose-fitting cork down the neck. The entire apparatus is then twisted together, removing the cork while preserving its integrity.

An essential selection of wine openers. From left to right: a waiter's corkscrew, an Ah-So and a Durand

No discussion of wine openers today is complete without mentioning the Coravin. This clever device inserts a needle through the cork and capsule, dispensing a few ounces of wine and replacing that volume with inert gas. Ideally, the Coravin allows the consumer to remove wine from the bottle a glass at a time, without oxidizing the contents. While this works brilliantly with young, sturdy wines, one should proceed with caution for older wines, for several reasons—the corks may not survive multiple accessing, the contents might be more prone to oxidation, and the physical act of pouring from the Coravin is very disruptive to the sediment. It is also best effective when the bottle is more than half full; once the wine level reaches less than half, my advice is to just pull the cork and enjoy. In addition, the use of the Coravin makes it difficult to mark a wine’s progression in air, be it over the course of a few hours or several days. Personally, I find watching a wine evolve over time to be one of the supreme pleasures of drinking, so I rarely use the Coravin, although I believe it is a handy tool for wine bars and restaurants.

Dealing with the Unexpected

It happens to all of us. No matter your skill level or experience, something goes wrong and the cork ends up either inside the bottle or crumbled into a million bits. While unfortunate, this predicament is often inevitable, and a few pieces of key equipment can help you remedy the situation quickly and efficiently.

The cork retriever – basically a small carnival prize crane or whisk – is a little-spoken of, but essential, tool. While in most cases, the wine can simply be decanted, leaving the cork to lie harmlessly in the empty bottle, with more fragile wines it is often better to fish out the cork rather than decant. This is especially true for older wines, whose corks may be in a state of decay. If the cork crumbles and falls into the wine, decanting through a screened funnel will catch the pieces and clean up the wine, though placing a double-layer of cheesecloth over the mouth of the decanter is just as effective.

Multimedia: Removing cork fragments from a bottle

One other helpful tip is to use colored dots or labels to mark the base of the glasses when serving multiple wines. Though everyone at your dinner or tasting may be a seasoned pro accustomed to keeping their glasses in the order they were served, why not go the extra mile to be sure you don’t unwittingly pour La Turque into someone’s La Landonne? Labeling all glassware and decanters is an easy way to keep track of wines and enjoy a seamless evening free from second-guessing.

My one last piece of essential equipment is a serviette, or a small napkin. No matter how skilled your wrists, bottles of wine will drip, especially following multiple pours. Wiping the lip of the bottle or decanter after each pour ensures that none of your precious wine ends up on either your tablecloth or your guest’s sleeve. Some prefer to use a black serviette, as that it hides the red wine stains and looks cleaner, longer.

Labels help to keep track of particular vintages in a lineup of multiple wines

Serving Temperature

Temperature is arguably the most frequently misunderstood aspect of wine service, yet, as many connoisseurs know, it can make an enormous difference in the way a wine is perceived and enjoyed. Reds are often served too warm and whites too cold. The truth is, as with glassware, there is an ideal temperature range for each broad type of wine. A general guideline is to serve sparkling wines or crisp whites around 45° (7°C), fuller-bodied whites such as white Burgundy around 50° (10°C), lighter reds between 55-60° (13-16°C), and full-bodied reds between 60-63° (16-18°C). In my personal opinion, these figures represent ideal starting temperatures, as wines warm up slowly once served. Exceptions are, of course, the rule, but one specific special case is Sémillon, which I find shuts down when even slightly too cool. As such, I like to serve Sémillon-rich wines around 55° (13°C).

So what does this mean to readers without a laser thermometer or multiple, temperature-controlled cellars? In practical terms it means—roughly—serving Champagne and crisp whites more or less straight out of the refrigerator, allowing richer whites to come up to temperature a bit before serving them (provided you are storing them in the fridge), serving your lighter reds right out of the cellar, and allowing your heavier reds to come up to temperature a bit once removed from the cellar. If, of course, you don’t have a cellar or specific wine refrigerator that keeps your bottles around 55° (13°C) simply put the red wine you intend to drink in your normal fridge for a brief period before serving. No red should ever be drunk at room temperature (i.e., above 65° (18°C).

Serving Order

The next question is what is the optimal order for serving wines within the context of a meal. The general rule of thumb is to serve wines from youngest to oldest, arguably saving the best for last. Many take issue with this choice however, preferring to enjoy the subtler, nuanced, older wines first rather than have them be overpowered by the younger wines. The oldest-first approach often tends to work better with food, allowing the younger, more intense wines to pair more successfully with the often heavier entrées.

Personally, I prefer a more flexible approach in which numerical age isn’t as important as density and impact. For example, if I was pouring a vertical of Napa Valley Cabernet (say, 1970 – 1980) with a three-course meal, I would select the lighter, simpler wines with the appetizer (1977, 1973, 1972), the most powerful vintages with the entrée (1980, 1979, 1975, 1970), and the subtler, nuanced wines with the cheese (1978, 1976, 1974, 1971). This of course depends on the menu and isn’t necessarily more correct than serving wines according to age; it is simply meant to underscore the fact that, when it comes to wine, rules are simply guidelines. What ultimately counts most are your own preferences.

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--Kelli White