The festive season is that time of year when some people get to try wine for the first time, especially when dining out. That’s when they come to realise that wine drunk at the restaurant table is a unique beverage having a set of manners all its own.
Take the ritual of approval. Once you’ve navigated the wine list and made your choice, one final challenge awaits. The waiter or sommelier presents the bottle for you to examine.
But is this procedure merely ceremonial etiquette or rather a sensible precaution before drinking it? Why are you being shown the bottle anyway? Should you sniff the cork and what do you look for in that all-important first sip?
Many diners have little or no clue. The offer can embarrass but it shouldn’t. It’s a chance to establish that the wine is correct and being served at an appropriate temperature.
The customer is usually first shown the label. This is not a hollow gesture of good manners but an opportunity for both the restaurant staff and you, the person who ordered it, to establish that the bottle that’s about to be opened is in fact the chosen one.
One should check that the wine is the one from the right producer and that it’s of the correct vintage year. While the establishment has no excuse for opening the wrong wine, neither do you for confirming it to be the right bottle – and you will be expected to pay for it.
At this point it’s advisable to make sure that the glass in which the waiter is about to pour a small taster is clean and free from any unpleasant odours. I personally always sniff the empty glass and discreetly breathe out in it so as to neutralise any stale air.
Next the wine in the glass is given a visual check to see if the liquid is clear and still (assuming you haven’t asked for sparkling). If so, continue and take a good sniff which should testify to the wine’s cleanliness, and its freshness in the case of a young wine.
If there’s a smell of cork (cork taint) or sherry (oxidation), or presence or fizziness or haziness (refermentation), which are all telltales that the wine is technically faulty, ask for the bottle to be replaced.
A ‘corked’ or ‘corky’ bottle is a wine that smells mouldy and dank. This problem is caused by a faulty cork altering the aroma and flavour of the wine. Cork particles floating in a wine does not mean that the wine is corked. They may be removed by the waiter and the wine consumed.
Like corked wine, accidentally oxidised wine should not be served. A wine becomes oxidised when it has been affected by the exposure to oxygen in the air. The wine loses its freshness and fruitiness and often takes on a brownish colour and an aroma similar to sherry.
Unintended refermentation by stray yeasts in bottle as well as deposits of tartrate crystals are rare occurrences nowadays. The latter resemble glass shards and could form if the wine is subjected to very cold temperatures such as in a very cool refrigerator. These untidy ‘wine diamonds’ are harmless but they should ideally be removed before pouring.
This is also the right time to make sure the wine is at the right serving temperature. Do so not by feeling the outside of the glass bottle but by actually tasting the beverage.
If you’re satisfied with the quality and the temperature of your wine, then and only then give the all-important nod of approval for the wine steward to proceed and, if you wish, call for a toast. So, together with you, I raise my glass to a vigorous, fruitful and cheery 2018. May it be filled with sound bottles of your favourite wines. Enjoy sensibly and never drink and drive.
This article by Georges Meekers first appeared in the Times of Malta on Friday 22 December 2017.