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Doctoring Wine for Optimum Drinking

A blast from the past originally published in the PinotFile July 21, 2003


Wine lovers feel guilty about pouring water or ice into wine. Besides the fact that the French do it, there are several good reasons to try it.

A good run or a few sets of tennis can be very dehydrating this time of year. Mix four parts water to one part white wine for a thirst-quenching tonic. It refreshes because of the wine’s acidity, and tastes more interesting than lemonade, particularly if the wine is pretty good. Serve the rest of the wine with dinner. This tip comes from Clos Du Val and French born winemaker, Bernard Portet.

If you are on a picnic at the beach and the white wine is a little too warm, it will taste too sweet. Add some ice cubes to it. Suppose it is sweltering, you are in the backyard pulling some hamburgers off the grill, and the Pinot Noir Rosé is at room temperature. Slip some ice cubes into it.

If your tastes run to fine Cabernet Sauvignon, but the wine in your glass tastes massive and hard, thin it out with water, titrating the water until it tastes perfect. A master sommelier, Rene Chazottes, taught me this trick many years ago when I actually drank Cabernet Sauvignon, and believe me, it works. If the wine cost you a day’s wages and you cannot bear to impugn the pedigree of the wine, use a little Sauvignon Blanc instead of water.

What do you do when you have the a wine that is too cold? Nothing bristles the hair on my neck more than when dining in a restaurant and the fine Chardonnay I have ordered is brought to the table at refrigerator temperature along with an ice bucket. Cold masks the deficiencies of a white wine, accentuating its crispness, but kills the taste of a complex wine. There is a solution if you can get the waiter to do it for you. Ask him or her to put the bottle of wine into that silent chamber called a microwave and 10 seconds later, like a client at a tanning salon that is flush with radiation, the wine will be 4 degrees warmer. The same can be done for a red wine that has a slight chill. The practice is not widespread and most sommeliers won’t admit to doing it.

Nuking your wine will not hurt it as long as it is not overdone. The microwave oven is heating the water that is the main constituent of wine. According to Christian E. Butzke, an associate enologist at the University of California at Davis, exposing the wine to 10 seconds of microwave radiation will not produce any chemical reactions other than warming the water in the wine, and nothing will be harmed. The phenolic structure of the wine is not disturbed. The process is awkward because you associate the microwave with TV dinners. Although most winemakers are reluctant to endorse this technique for fine wines, the objection is mainly philosophical rather than rational.

Before using the microwave, the metal capsule must be removed from the top of the bottle. It is not necessary to remove the cork, since warming the wine a few degrees will not significantly expand the volume of air between the cork and the wine. Set the microwave power on high. Every 5 seconds of microwave warming will elevate the wine’s temperature by two degrees. You may prefer to pour the wine into a glass or small carafe first, especially if the wine is very cold, as the wine will be brought up to room temperature more easily with little microwave exposure. In this case, do not exceed 10 seconds of nuking.

Of course there is a very simple way to bring chilled wine up a few degrees in temperature. Simply let it sit at room temperature for 15 to 20 minutes. This technique, known to the Romans, produces spectacular results with no effort. There are many times, however, when you can’t wait 15 minutes, and that is when the microwave comes in handy.

The recommended serving temperature for fine wine is 55 degrees Fahrenheit for white wines and 65 degrees Fahrenheit for red wines. The temperature you prefer is your own patrimony, and the use of water, ice cubes or a microwave can allow you to reach your comfortable drinking temperature range more quickly.

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