How to Drink Wine Like a Pro
Local wine sellers offer tips on wine storage, serving, pairings and more.
Buying a decent bottle is key, but improper serving and storage techniques can turn that killer Bordeaux into money down the drain. For an optimal tasting experience, heed these pro tips.
“Serving a wine too warm will accentuate the alcohol and the oak. Serving it too cold will dull it down to the point that you aren’t getting the minerality and the mouth feel—which is what you are paying for in a good bottle,” says Doug Rosen, president of Arrowine & Cheese in the Lee Heights Shops. “A good rule of thumb is the 15-minute waiting period. If you’re serving white wine, take it out of the fridge, uncork it and put it on the counter 15 minutes before you drink it. For red wine, do the opposite: Uncork it and put it in fridge for 15 minutes. The ‘optimal’ drinking temperature for both reds and whites is 55 degrees (cellar temperature), although whites show well at 45 degrees and reds up to 65 degrees.”
What if you need to chill wine in a flash? “Don’t throw it in the freezer,” advises Wendy Buckley, owner of Screwtop Wine Bar in Clarendon. “Fill an ice bucket or mixing bowl with ice water and submerge the bottle. In 15 minutes, it will be ready to go.”
Nothing looks prettier than a voluptuous red in an equally voluptuous glass, but there is a rationale beyond the aesthetics. “Choose a wineglass with a relatively generous circumference. This gives the wine more surface area to come in contact with oxygen and allows the wine to breathe,” Rosen says. “The same principle applies to champagne flutes, which have gotten wider as the quality of sparkling wines has improved. Today, people are using white-wine glasses to serve sparkling whites or rosés.”
Do you need a panoply of different glasses for different wines? Not really. “I don’t personally believe in a special glass for every type of wine,” Buckley says. “For everyday, I have an all-purpose Riedel glass with a large, round bowl. For picnics, boating and outdoor parties, I love the Govino stemless glasses. They are shatterproof, recyclable and BPA free.”
Todd Bennett, a sales rep for local wine and beer distributor Virginia Imports, holds a similar view. “Proper glassware really lets the wine open up, but I’m also a fan of keeping it practical,” he says. “I love good stemless crystal that I can wash in the dishwasher, or even just a small juice glass for those weeknight wines. Hey, it’s worked in European cafés and around the family dinner table for generations.”
Think of dishwashing as a chore reserved for the end of the evening? Think again. According to Rosen, it should also be part of your pregame ritual. “Very, very important!” he stresses. “If you take a glass directly out of the cupboard and use it straight away without thoroughly washing it, you can ruin the wine. Especially if your glasses are stored in an antique breakfront, or if they’ve been sitting in the cabinet a long time.
“All cabinets, antique or not, are finished with sealants,” he explains. “The result is that you end up smelling and tasting the cabinet, not the wine. Detergent and chlorinated water aren’t the enemies. It may sound counterintuitive, but you want to wash and rinse each glass thoroughly until it smells like chlorinated water. Then pour the wine into the newly cleaned glass—it will smell like fermented grape juice, fresh and pure.”
Roughly 95 percent of all wine is consumed within one week of purchase, Bennett says, but how and where you stash those bottles prior to consumption makes a difference. “Please don’t store them on top of the fridge or on the kitchen counter,” he pleads.
Why? Because wine is happiest in cave-like conditions, whereas the kitchen is the hottest room in the house. “Unless you are passionate enough to have a climate-controlled wine cellar that’s 55 degrees with 70 percent humidity, your best bet is probably the basement, away from your HVAC unit, which tends to dry the air out,” he says. “Think about the orientation of your home, too, and where the sun hits it. The northeast corner is most likely the coolest spot in the house. Lay bottles on their side for the best aging potential. You can spend thousands on fancy wood racks, but Ikea also makes a very affordable option.”
What if the power goes out and your stockpile is exposed to a prolonged stretch of extreme heat or cold? “That’s the best time to host a wine party and open those bottles,” Buckley says. “The longer they sit around after a radical temperature exposure, the higher the chance the wine will go bad.”
We’ve all heard the old red vs. white adage as it pertains to steak or fish. But which wines go best with foods like Mexican, Chinese or barbecue?
“For spicy cuisine, an off-dry white, rosé or sparkling can be just the ticket,” Buckley recommends. “For Indian and spicy Asian, I typically lean toward Austrian wines. Hillinger Secco [a pinot noir sparkling rosé] is a great choice; the touch of sweetness counteracts any burn of spice, and the bubbles cleanse the palate to prepare your taste buds for the next bite.”
What pairs best with sushi? “Champagne,” Rosen says without hesitation. “Particularly a low-dosage extra brut blanc de blancs. Meaning 100 percent chardonnay with little added sugar—about 3 grams per liter or less.”
Bennett says his pairing decisions often come down to tannins (naturally occurring compounds in grape skins, seeds and stems that add bitterness and complexity to the wine) and acidity (tart and sour attributes).
“Most spicy, smoky or heavily seasoned food doesn’t work well with strong tannins,” he says. “For Meatless Monday or Taco Tuesday, I like popular Old World varietals like barbera, chenin blanc, dolcetto, gamay and riesling, and New World varietals like sauvignon blanc, zinfandel, pinot gris and petite syrah. Now…if I’m grilling up a big rib-eye or porterhouse steak, I’ll go for a cabernet, a syrah or a big Italian red.
Then again, some wines don’t go with food at all, Bennett adds. “Bigger-flavored wines tend to be harder to pair. Most of these new red blends—think wines that are described as dark, smooth or bold—are best served as cocktail wines (aka “porch pounders”) since they are so fruit-forward and jammy. In my opinion, the lower the acidity in the wine, the fewer foods will complement it. On the flip side, high-acid wines (think cooler climate regions like New Zealand, Oregon, Western Australia, Northern Europe and Chile) really benefit from pairing with food.”
Are you buying wine by the case? “Keep in mind that if you buy 12 bottles of the same wine, you will still have 12 different tasting experiences,” Rosen advises. “Changes in the weather—particularly barometric pressure—can cause as much as a 50- to 80-percent swing in the flavor profile, meaning some days the wine will taste better than others. More open and more grapey.
“Conversely,” he continues, “a change in air pressure due to an incoming storm will compress the wine and lock it up so that the fruit is not forward. It’s almost as if the wine gets dumbed down—way down. So if you’re planning to open a particularly special bottle and there’s a storm moving in, my advice is to postpone drinking it until after the first precipitation arrives.”
Not every wine you buy needs to be “vin de garde” (meaning one that demands time to reach its peak). “Don’t get caught up in the idea that you must chase ‘great’ vintages to get excellent quality,” Rosen says. “With today’s advances in viticulture and enology, you have fresher wines, pure and fruit focused. Wines today are far more complex and approachable in their youth, and you can get an impeccably made, delicious wine for as little as ten bucks. Despite bad weather, you don’t get the variations in vintages that we once did.”
A short list of wine retailers in our neck of the woods.
Arrowine & Cheese
Lee Heights Shops; www.arrowine.com
Chain Bridge Cellars
Shirlington, Clarendon and Del Ray; Cheesetique.com
Crystal City Wine Shop
Crystal City; www.crystalcitywineshop.com
Dominion Wine and Beer
Falls Church; dominionwineandbeer.com
Grand Cru Wine Bar & Bistro
The Italian Store
Lyon Village and Westover; Italianstore.com
One More Page Books
East Falls Church; www.onemorepagebooks.com
The Organic Butcher
Del Ray; Planetwineshop.com
Screwtop Wine Bar
Ballston and McLean; www.totalwine.com
Alexandria, just east of Shirlington; www.unwinedva.com