Regardless of anything else you might hear, keep this one idea in mind: it is best not to reject the rules but rather to prove them for yourself and to test them against your own experiments. The most important rule, when choosing a wine for any purpose is to pick one that will please you! This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t take into account the specifics of any given time and place (a fine Cabernet Sauvignon might be out of place on a sunny day’s light picnic table – a young Sauvignon Blanc might not fit with a heavily seasoned Rack of Lamb). The reality is that some wines don’t mix well with some foods and vice-versa (stay away from vinegar, kippers and anchovies as they tend to make any wine taste bad – this is the Editor’s opinion only), while others meld in the moment and transform both food and wine into something greater, a fine meal worth remembering. So, having said this, here we go with some non-specific and non-binding rules for the wine road.
According to Alexis Lichine, “Wine is a good value when you find the right bottle for the right purpose, and at the right price.”
Don’t let yourself be hypnotized by vintage charts, a producer’s reputation, or ratings by experts. Just because a year was supposed to be a good or great one doesn’t mean all the wines produced in that year were good or great. As a corollary, there are some great wines which have been produced in otherwise mediocre or poor vintage years. Great wine houses can produce great wines, or not so great wines. Don’t be blinded by the name on the bottle. What’s more important is what’s in the bottle. Fancy, well-known labels do not necessarily always mean great wine. The experts have their areas of expertise, their blind spots, preferences and agendas. Use them as sign posts, as indicators, but not as life and death arbiters. In the end you have to let your experience be your guide. Until you have enough experience to rely on it, be an explorer, which is to say, keep your mind, heart, eyes, nose, and mouth open to new tastes, sights, and smells.
In general it is best to serve most, but not all, white wines chilled (personally I like my Chardonnays at room temperature) and red wines at room temperature. A great Montrachet might not need to be chilled while a young Gamay or other Beaujolais could benefit from a slight chilling. In general, the sweeter the wine, the more it can be chilled. But don’t make the mistake of chilling it too much. Doing so will result in a wine that lacks aroma and flavor. Red wine bottles should be brought into the serving room several hours before the meal so that they can come up to room temperature.
Serve rosé (pink) wines chilled.
Serve better red wines after those of lesser quality.
Serve younger wines before older.
Some authorities say that you should avoid curries, mustard, and such pungent things as onions, garlic and fish-based hors d’oeuvres as these can spoil your palate. Personally, we’re not sure about any of that – we can think of too many foods we like that have either onions or garlic in them. And a good Gewürztraminer goes so well with Oriental and Cajun cuisine that it is an experience not to be missed. Come to think of it, that recommendation comes from a French critic. We doubt an Italian would make such a comment.
Regarding Champagne – there are those who say that Champagne is appropriate at all times and in all circumstances. As this borders on the area of religion, we will withhold our comments and simply state that Champagne is appropriate at any time you want it. There is no doubt that for welcoming in the New Year, toasting a special occasion or anniversary, or launching a new ship, quaffing a flute of fine champagne is a welcome experience.
You should drink most White wines while they are still young and retain their fruit. After about five years many white wines will begin to oxidize and lose that freshness. Corollary: there are some white wines that benefit from extended bottle aging.
Allowing a fine red wine to breathe for several hours prior to imbibing is a good idea. The amount of time can vary from with two hours being the norm for a fine Burgundy or Bordeaux. Very old wines don’t require and don’t benefit from an extended breathing time while younger wines can stand even more time. If it is a very old wine, even the time between the first and second glass can reveal a discernible decline in quality. Younger wines can grow, as it were, before your very nose and mouth, as they breathe.
Plain crystal glasses which display the wine’s own sparkle are preferable. Make sure the glass is large enough to allow the wine to be swirled around and breathe in order to reveal its bouquet. Different shapes can be used for different wines but, aside from Champagne which is best served in the narrow and tall Champagne “flute,” the typical Burgundy or Bordeaux style glasses should suffice.
Don’t drink and smoke. Keep your cigarettes, cigars, and pipes away from the table when drinking good wine.