Tag Archives: Tools of the trade

Tools of the Trade: Decanters and Carafes

Decanters and carafes can add another element to your enjoyment of wine. They are nice items of tableware – you can use them to dress up your table or to add a comfy, rustic vibe to a picnic or casual dinner. But they can also be crucial to the chemistry, flavor, and appearance of the wine.

Definitions

Carafes and decanters are both made of clear glass or crystal, and they can be smooth or faceted. And they both look nice on the table. But the similarities end there.

Decanters are designed so that the neck is narrow but the base is very broad. After you’ve poured a standard 750 ml bottle of wine into a decanter, the exposed surface area of the liquid should be very large. They come in various symmetrical or asymmetrical shapes, with or without handles, but they all feature that broad surface area.

Carafes, on the other hand, have a more compact shape, with vertical sides and a smaller cross-section. They are most typically used in restaurants to transfer a few servings of wine to the table; the restaurant can’t just drop off a bottle or half-bottle to your table, since the wine comes to them in bulk.

Use

Young wines, especially those that are high in tannin, are often described as “dumb” or “closed off”. The process of aging involves microscopic amounts of oxygen penetrating the cork, and reacting with the various flavor and aroma elements to create additional notes and soften the wine.

If you haven’t had enough time to age the bottle in your cellar, you can simulate some of that change by pouring the wine into a decanter, giving it some big swirls, and allowing the newly-introduced oxygen to do its thing over the course of 15 minutes to 2 hours. This is the real definition of letting a wine ‘breathe’ – just popping the cork doesn’t expose enough surface area to really get any chemistry going.

Alternatively, old wines may have a lot of loose sediment as the result of aging. This can take the form of big chunks at the bottom of the bottle, or very fine particles suspended through the wine. Vintage ports and well-aged red table wines like Bordeaux and Barolo are the classic examples. In this case, you pour into the decanter very slowly and carefully, and stop when you notice the sediment approaching the neck of the bottle.

But be very careful not to do this decanting in advance! The older wines don’t need to breathe – if you let them sit for any length of time, all the wonderful aromas will tend to waft away and leave you with something that’s flat and tart. You can use a decanter or a carafe for this purpose, although a decanter is more traditional and generally easy to handle during the slow pouring process.

Carafes are also great for serving wine cocktails and punches, like Sangria or Mimosas. It’s faster and easier to mix an entire carafe, rather than trying to make multiple individual servings. And they look much nicer on the table than a pitcher. Check out my ebook on wine cocktails for some other great ideas.

Buying, Gifting, and Cleaning

You can spend anywhere from $10 to $200 on a carafe or decanter, so make some decisions in advance about who you’re buying for, how they are likely to use it, and what your budget is.

There’s no advantage to cut crystal over plain glass in terms of the flavor of the wine; let the taste and decor of the giftee guide your decision here. Make sure that the decanter can be swirled easily – pick it up and mime the action in the store. If it’s unwieldy or asymmetric, it may just sit on the shelf.

Also consider the durability of the glassware, and how active the giftee is likely to be. There’s no point in buying a nice $150 decanter if it’s going to get thrown into a picnic basket and chipped within the first year. Get a plain $10 carafe, dress it up with some ribbons and beads, and throw in a bottle or two of wine to create a complete gift.

It’s important to clean your decanter or carafe well. Don’t put it in the dishwasher, and make sure to at least rinse it out at the end of the evening, if you don’t have the time or energy to clean it fully. The best method for cleaning is just copious warm water; detergents will usually leave a film. If you notice any persistent staining from red wine, then use a little neutral white vinegar and baking soda, and then scrub with a soft wire-handle brush and more water. Be careful not to scratch the glass!

Store it someplace where it won’t collect dust or odd smells; and if you do any frying in the kitchen, make sure that airborne grease won’t settle on it! If it’s been sitting for a long time, do a quick clean before you use it again, just in case it’s accumulated any cruft during storage.

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Tools of the Trade: Chillers

My second posting on wine accessories and gift ideas – also check out Tools of the Trade: Corks, Corkscrews, and Stoppers.

Serving Temperature Guide

Serving your wine at the right temperature is crucial to maximizing your enjoyment. So here’s a quick guide to the correct serving temperature, based on variety and alcohol level. Your individual tastes may vary, but this is what I’ve found works best for the majority of people.

  • Sparkling wines: ice cold
  • Light-bodied whites (Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, dry and off-dry Riesling) and rosés: 42º to 48º F (6º to 9º C)
  • Fuller, richer whites (Chardonnay, Viognier, White Rhone): 46º to 50º F (8º to 10º C)
  • Dessert wines: 36º to 44º F (2º to 7º C)
  • Light-bodied reds (Pinot Noir, Chianti, Barolo, Merlot): 54º to 60º F (12º to 16º C)
  • Full-bodied reds (Cabernet, Zinfandel, Shiraz, Red Rhone, Spanish): 59º to 65º F (15º to 18º C)

Really, really good Chardonnay can be drunk at almost room temperature – if you drink those straight from the refrigerator, you’re losing out on most of the aroma. Pay attention to alcohol level, too – a red that has more than 14% alcohol should be drunk a few degrees colder.

Types of Chillers

There are two reasons to use a chiller. The first is to keep the wine at the right temperature once it’s been brought to the table. The second is to bring a bottle down to serving temperature if it’s been sitting at room temp all day. I highly advise planning ahead, and getting the wines to the correct temperature in advance. Stock the refrigerator with whites in the morning, then bring them out just before the festivities. Keep your reds in a cool, dark spot in the house, and they will almost always be at the right serving temperature; if need be, put them in the refrigerator for 15 minutes before serving to take the edge off.

The good old-fashioned ice bucket can always be put into play. But have a care that you don’t put in too much ice! If the wine starts at the right temperature for service, you don’t want it getting colder and colder as the evening wears on. Often, a simple bucket of water from the tap is enough to do the trick. In the summer – especially if you’re drinking outside – throw in enough ice so that it all melts during the hour or so that the bottle is open.

There are a variety of chillers that are stored in the freezer or refrigerator, which you then use to hold the bottle on the table. These are made from marble, stainless steel, ceramic, or plastic, and may include some freezer gel or other material to help hold the cold better. You can find these at retail for anywhere from $10 to $80, depending on the material and workmanship. My favorite style is shown below – it’s a plastic sleeve with pockets of freezer gel, it lies flat in the freezer, it has some fun decorative art, and it fits around a standard bottle of wine nicely. Just the thing for taking out on the deck.

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You can also find electric chillers. These have a sealed water bath to help conduct the heat away from the wine, and they are powered by a small solid-state chilling device called a Peltier Junction. They can do a great job of bringing a bottle of room-temp Champagne down to serving temperature in 15 minutes, but they are very wasteful of electricity. Not to mention you need to find countertop space to use it, and a spot in the pantry to store it. And they cost $50 or more.

And there’s one way to cheat, as long as it’s not a top-tier bottle of wine. Sneak into the kitchen, open the bottle, and pour it into a zipper-seal baggie – make sure you get all the air out. Then hold the baggie under cold running water from the tap, and when it’s cooled off in 5 minutes, pour it through a funnel back into the bottle.

 

Tools of the Trade: Corks, Corkscrews, and Stoppers

Here’s the Wine Me Up! guide to corks, corkscrews, stoppers, and keeping opened bottles fresh.

Closures

Photo0301First let’s talk about the way the bottle is sealed when you take it off the shelf. You’ll see screwcaps, natural cork (either a solid piece or built up from cork fragments), various types of artificial corks, and even some glass stoppers. You may even be buying wine in a box that has a spigot. The bottom line – unless you are collecting some really expensive stuff, or storing wine for a long time, it doesn’t matter how the bottle was sealed. They all do a good-enough job of keeping the liquid in, and the air out.

Corkscrews

Photo0299There are plenty of choices here, but there are four or five basic styles that are sufficiently powerful, easy to keep in a kitchen drawer, and reliable and fool-proof enough to use every day. Of course, with a screwcap bottle, you don’t need any of these – but check back for a video demonstration on a fun way to open those.

Butterfly: most people are familiar with these. It’s biggest advantage is that you use both hands to pull down on the lever arms to force the cork out – which is a real plus if you’ve got impaired hand strength or stability. This kind of corkscrew is also inexpensive and durable. Unfortunately, the solid metal core of the screw means that the butterfly opener is more likely to destroy the cork; don’t use it on old corks, because quite likely it will leave all sorts of pieces behind in the bottle.

Waiter’s Corkscrew: every bartender’s best friend. This is small enough to keep in your pocket, but has a surprisingly powerful lever action once you know how to use it. This does require practice and technique – I’ll post a quick YouTube video about them sometime – but once you master it, this is quick and easy, it leaves the cork almost entirely intact, and it comes with a small knife for cutting off the capsule. With heavy use, this will eventually break – but even a basic $10 waiter’s corkscrew should be good enough for more than 1000 bottles.

Screwpull™, Rabbit™, and similar lever-action brands: these use a powerful lever and a nonstick screw for extra power and speed. They are fun and elegant, have almost no learning cureve, and are almost sure to get out even stubborn corks – but they cost $50 to $150, won’t fit in your pocket, and require regular maintenance. I have a middle-of-the-road model that I use at home, and it’s opened hundreds of bottles. Just make sure you keep the housing of the screw tightened down, or else it will slip.

Butler’s Friend: you’re looking at that and wondering how on earth that works! This is by far the hardest to learn to use, and it’s totally unsuitable for most artificial corks. But if you have a really ancient, crusty bottle with a soft, crumbling cork, this may be your only hope of opening it without resorting to power tools. If you master this, it’s a real trick to use it in front of your friends. Unless you’ve got a physical condition that makes the butterfly your only real choice, I don’t recommend it. Get a waiter’s corkscrew to take on picnics, and a lever-action opener for home. You’ll get the job done quickly and easily, without risk to the wine or your tablecloth.

Stoppers

Photo0300It’s a good idea to have a nice stopper on hand for resealing a bottle. If the original cork has deteriorated, or it’s one of those artificial corks that needs industrial equipment to shove back into the bottle, you should have a simple stopper that uses a conical cork or rubber element on hand. You can find these accessories online or in wine stores, often with elegant marble, glass, ceramic, or wood decoration. As long as it stays in the bottle, you’re good.

Stoppers for Champagne and other sparkling wines are another matter. Look for a stainless steel and rubber stopper, with two wings that clamp below the flanges around the neck of the bottle. And be careful! A slight slip or bump, and that stopper may go flying out at high speed. Treat those bottles of bubbly carefully, and never point them at a person, a pet, or anything fragile in the house!

Resealing an Open Bottle

You have a couple of choices for tucking away a partially-consumed bottle so you can finish it later on. But regardless of what you do, the refrigerator is your friend! The chemical reactions that cause wine to fade, go sour, or gain off-notes all run faster at higher temperature – so as soon as you know you’r’e not going to finish the bottle, get the rest in the fridge. It only takes 20 minutes for a glass of red to warm from refrigerator temperature to drinking range – and you can always pop the glass in the microwave for 10 seconds to help it along.

Private Preserve™ and other gas systems: these products squirt some Nitrogen, Argon, and other neutral gases into the bottle, displacing the Oxygen – which is the primary driver of spoilage.

Vacuum pumps: these devices – a combination of a rubber stopper and a small piston-driven pump – create a partial vacuum in the bottle in order to reduce the amount of Oxygen.

Half-bottles: whenever you empty a half-sized bottle of wine (375 ml), wash it out and save it. Use a funnel to transfer what’s left of your partially-finished product into the half-bottle, stopper it, and put it in the fridge.  By removing all that head space, you’ve reduced the amount of Oxygen. And a half-bottle is exactly what you’re going to have if you drink two 6-ounce glasses with dinner!

And of course, you can just cork the original bottle without any fuss, and sling it into the refrigerator. Naturally acidic wines take longer to spoil anyway; if you had 2 glasses of Pinot Grigio on Friday night and intend to finish the bottle off Saturday evening, there probably won’t be a noticeable change to the flavor over those 24 hours.

Of the above methods, I prefer to use half-bottles (especially if I won’t finish the wine for 2 or more days) and Private Preserve. I’m not a fan of the vacuum pumps. Stay tuned for another post next week with more details on keeping your wine fresh!