How do I prepare my wine?

Most wine will taste great poured straight into the wine glass. Some wines, however, will benefit from being decanted – poured from the bottle into a carafe or special wine decanter. There are two reasons for decanting: one is that it allows you to get rid of any sediment, the dregs that you can see at the bottom of a bottle, that has appeared as the wine aged. The second is that it lets a more full-bodied wine ‘breathe’ by exposing it to oxygen, which can soften it and release its flavours.

You don't need a fancy decanter to decant wine into. A basic carafe or even a glass water jug will have the same effect.

What’s the right temperature for wine?

As a rule, reds taste best at cool room temperature – from 16-18°C – and rosés and whites taste best served chilled. But there’s no hard and fast rule. Some lighter reds and sherries work well slightly chilled, and some reds can work well if they’re reasonably warm.

To chill white or rosé, pop it in the fridge for a couple of hours, rather than days – don’t serve it too cold or you might lose some of its subtleties of flavour. If you need to cool white wine fast, put it in a bucket of ice and water for about 20 minutes. Don’t try to cool wine in the freezer; if you forget about it, the bottle may explode, as the wine turns to ice and forces out the cork.

Do I need to drink wine out of fancy glasses?

All wines taste fine in a basic shape of wine glass – from posh crystal glasses to plastic picnic cups, though sparkling wine and champagne will keep its fizz longer if you serve it in tall, thin glasses or flutes. Some wines will work nicely if you give them more room to breathe by only pouring a half-glass. If you enjoy the ritual of swirling and smelling your red wine before you slurp it, you might like to stick to tradition with a large glass.

More importantly is to keep your glasses clean and scent-free, so you can fully enjoy their flavour. Give them a wipe with a clean cloth after you’ve cleaned them to get rid of any detergent residue that would interfere with the taste of the wine. Store them the right way up in your cupboard to let them aerate, rather than upside down, where they might trap a whiff of shelving.

What’s the classy way to pour Champagne?

It may look exciting when Lewis Hamilton pops the cork of a magnum of Champagne on the podium after winning an F1 race, but what a waste of precious bubbles!

The best way to pour Champagne with style is to do it slowly. Tilt the bottle at a 45-degree angle, making sure the neck of the bottle is pointing away from you or anyone else. Hold the cork in one hand with your thumb over the end so you can control how fast it comes out. Hold the body of the bottle in the other hand and twist it slowly; the pressure inside the bottle will help you ease the cork out. You won’t get the dramatic pop, but you’ll have more bubbly to serve round to your appreciative friends. Hold your champagne flute at an angle as you pour out the champagne and you’ll keep it fizzing for longer.

How long will my wine keep once it’s open?

Stick the cork back in or screw the cap back on a half-finished bottle of wine and it should be fine for a day or two. The amount of oxygen left in a half-empty bottle can have a big effect on its taste, so you could pour your wine into a smaller bottle or use the special rubber stopper that comes with a vacuum pump. Pop your leftover bottle in the fridge, where the low temperatures will slow down the deterioration process. On the other hand, you might find that some wines taste even better if they’re left to breathe for a day or so.

If you find that you are often left with half-drunk bottles, you might consider buying a box of wine. They last for a few weeks and you can serve your wine by the glass.

How should I store my wine?

Not many of us live in a mansion with its own underground wine cellar, but that doesn’t mean we can’t store wine. The key thing is to keep the wine lying still, on its side, in a dark, cool – ideally damp – place that stays at the same temperature all year round. You might have a cellar, or you could even just stick your bottles in a rack under the stairs. Just be sure that you don’t leave it for ages on a windowsill, next to the boiler or even in the fridge.

Don’t assume that the older a wine is, the better it is. Most wine made today is meant to be drunk within a couple of years. Inexpensive whites should be drunk within a year, though cheap reds can last a bit longer. Most non-vintage Champagne should be drunk about six months after you bought it. It’s mainly fine wines that will benefit from a few years lying in your cellar, where its flavours will develop and become more sophisticated.

Is my wine corked?

If there are tiny bits of cork floating on the top of your wine, that doesn't mean your wine is ‘corked’. Just fish them out and it will taste fine.

'Corked' wine doesn’t actually taste like cork. It has more of a musty, damp-cardboard sort of smell and a bitter aftertaste. It can be hard to tell if a wine is corked rather than just not very nice - and not everybody has the same experience of the wine. 'Cork taint', as it’s called, is usually caused by a compound called TCA (trichloroanisole). This can develop when corks are washed in chlorine or if chlorine is used in the winery. A wine could also be affected by bacteria in a barrel, so you can also get 'corked' wine from a bottle with a screw-top.

In general, you’re the best judge of whether you think a wine smells or tastes 'off' and you won’t enjoy drinking it. There are a few other signs that a wine is faulty: if it's fizzy when it isn’t meant to be, then it is trying to ferment again, which it shouldn't. If it's gone brown and smells a bit like sherry, then it could be oxidized and wrongly exposed to too much oxygen during the winemaking process or has a faulty stopper.

What’s that stuff at the bottom of the bottle?

Don’t be alarmed if there are some sludgy bits at the bottom of your wine. Sediment is often something found in fine wines after the wine has spent a number of years lying still. A wine can also form crystals that you find on the cork or at the bottom of the bottle; they are completely harmless. Just pour the wine into a carafe or glass jug and leave the very last drops with the sediment in them in the bottom of the bottle.

Is a cork a better wine-stopper than a screw cap?

These days, wines come with all types of stoppers, from natural and plastic corks to screw caps. While cork is the traditional wine-stopper of choice for winemakers, more and more wineries are choosing to use screw caps. So which is better?
Well, there are advantages and disadvantages to both. Corks are natural, allowing the wine to breathe, which helps good wines mature and develop. They’re also relatively easy to get back into the neck of the bottle if you don’t drink it all it in one sitting. They're also the most environmentally sustainable stoppers. On the other hand, natural cork can occasionally be tainted and give you 'corked' wine – but so can screw caps.

Plastic and rubber corks can be hard to get back in the bottle, though screw caps make a bottle really easy to reseal, so it can stay fresher for longer. Producers in New Zealand and Australia are particularly keen on screw caps because they allow a wine to be totally sealed.

Ten facts about wine and wine tasting

  1. Humans can distinguish 10,000 different smells – useful when it comes to wine tasting.
  2. Spain has the largest area of land dedicated to vineyards in the world – 120,000 hectares at last count.
  3. People have been making wine since 1100BC, namely the Phoenicians and Greeks around the Mediterranean.
  4. The ancient Romans’ famous Opimian wine, which originated in 121BC, was being drunk at 125 years old.
  5. Vines are at their most productive when they are between three and 25 years old.
  6. Despite its golden colour, Champagne is made primarily from red grapes: the Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier varieties. They’re often blended with Chardonnay for a dash of elegance.
  7. The dimple at the bottom of a wine bottle is called a punt – and no one really knows why it’s there. Some think it’s to encourage the sediment to settle, while others believe it to be a legacy from when bottles were blown using a blowpipe and pontil – the rod that glassblowers use to hold a vessel.
  8. With age, red wines become paler in colour, while white wines become deeper and richer. After 40 years, it’s hard to tell what colour a wine is.
  9. The musty smell of corked wine is caused by trichloroanisole, or TCA, a compound that is formed when a cork comes into contact with both chlorine and mould.
  10. Bern’s Steak House in Tampa, Florida, claims to have the world’s biggest wine cellar. It carries more than 6,800 different types of wine, totalling half a million bottles.

From grape to glass

Gone are the days of winemakers stomping on grapes with their bare feet. Every winery – and type of wine – has its own technique, but there are generally four steps to a top tipple.

Crushing

After picking, the grapes are crushed without breaking the pips, which can make the wine bitter. For some less tannic varieties, such as Pinot Noir, some of the stems are retained, but mostly they’re removed to keep the wine smooth.

Pressing

These days, most grapes are juiced using pneumatic presses, which allow the winemaker to control the pressure and stop the pips being crushed.

Fermenting

This is the bit that makes wine alcoholic. The grape juice is combined with yeast and left to ferment in giant tanks that are usually made of stainless steel, but sometimes lined with fibreglass or concrete. Some premium red and white wines are fermented or matured in oak barrels – the younger the barrel, the ‘oakier’ the finished wine.

Filtering

After the wine has been fermented and stored for the ideal length of time, it is filtered to remove sediment and bacteria and stabilise the wine until it is bottled.