SINCE more and more of my friends in Shanghai are going to dinners I thought it would be helpful to provide some tips on organizing and attending wine dinners. As long as you follow a few good rules wine dinners can be remarkably easy and fun.
Successful wine dinners usually have a theme. Maybe it’s the wines and story of a region or variety, or perhaps a competition between similarly styled wines from different regions.
Many wine geeks love to organize vertical wine tasting dinners where different vintages of the same wine are tasted to better understand vintage variations. Also popular are horizontal tastings where different wines from the same vintage and region are tasted in order to experience the different styles of wineries. Wine dinners organized around seasonal dishes are always big fun.
Every autumn in Shanghai I hold at least three or four hairy crab wine dinners where I serve acidic white or Sherry wines. The sequence of wine is also critically important with lighter more simple wines served first followed by more concentrated and complex wines. Many of my wine dinners start with one or two sparkling wines, then white wines, red wines and finally a sweet wine or spirit.
In China and elsewhere there are numerous pitfalls that can adversely affect or even ruin a wine dinner. First check the glasses. Does your home or the venue where the wine dinner will be held have proper wine glasses? If you don’t have adequate glasses the total wine experience will be compromised. If you wish to keep things simple, then any crystal glass of adequate size will do. Just avoid very small glasses that compromise aromatic assessment and colored glasses that don’t allow you to accurately judge the color of the wine. It’s also a good idea to take a sniff of the empty glasses before you pour the wine as many glasses in restaurants and at home have ambient odors due to poor storage or cleaning.
Wine lovers can get very selective about glasses with different varietals having their own glasses of a certain size and shape. This specialization started in the late 19th century and reached new heights in the 20th century with Austrian glass maker Riedel. While a Bordeaux wine does perform best in a tall and generously sized crystal Bordeaux glass, does a Syrah wine taste better in a Syrah glass than it does in a Bordeaux glass? Perhaps not, but it is fun and the more you get into wines the more likely you will also love a great glass.
Breathing time is another issue at wine dinners. How long in advance should wines be opened? In general, red wines need breathing and white wines do not. The exceptions are some top white wines like grand cru Burgundies and top Pessac-Leognan whites from Bordeaux that usually benefit from some breathing time in the glass.
Most whites are ready for drinking as soon as they are poured in the glass, but this is not the case with red wines. In general, higher quality and stronger red wines need more time to breath.
The process of oxidation helps the red wine to open up and become smoother. Great wines at their peak often need an hour or more before they are ready to drink. Most red wines are ready to be enjoyed 10 to 20 minutes after opening. If time is limited you may use a decanter, which basically halves the breathing time. You can also accelerate the oxidation process by pouring the wines into the glasses.
The single biggest mistake at wine dinners is incorrect serving temperature. The common belief that white wines should be chilled and red wines should be served at room temperature is half right. Whites should be served chilled but red wines should not be served at modern room temperatures. The standard for serving wines at room temperature was established in northern Europe over a century ago when room temperatures seldom exceeded 16-18 degrees Celsius.
In Shanghai restaurants and homes the temperature typically ranges from 23 to over 25 degrees. Homes, especially in the summer months, have even higher temperatures. When a red wine is served at such a high temperature the alcohol and tannins in the wine become aggressive and harsh and the wine will taste dull and flat. Don’t be afraid to chill a red wine for a few minutes to bring it to the proper temperature. In general, red wines should never be served over 18 degrees Celsius.
Red wine served too hot is a definite no-no, but serving a white wine that’s too cold is another common problem. Different styles of white wines and sparkling wines should be served at different temperatures. The general rule for dry white wines is the better the wine, the less cold it should be served but no white should be served at over 10-12 degrees Celsius. Serving a wine a little too cold is always better than serving it too warm as the wine will always warm in the glass.
Wine by its nature is cultural, so proper behavior at wine dinners is important. I’m not advocating an overly stuffy code, just a general understanding of good wine behavior. There are several ways you can show respect to your host at a wine dinner. First, look at all the wines you’ll be enjoying and even better, take notes while tasting. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about the winery, variety or style of the wine, region or winemaking process. Being an active and interested taster is always good form at a wine dinner.
Then there’s the sensitive issue of bottoms-up or ganbei as it’s referred to in China.
When you attend a wine dinner with the owner of the winery or winemaker keep in mind that they’re passionate about their wines and guzzling them will most likely horrify them.
You may drink as much wine as you like, but drinking it slowly with reverence is the best way to show respect toward the host.