Red Wine at Christmas – get the best out of it!

Glade jul - Viggo Johansen (1811)

Glade jul – Viggo Johansen (1811)

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In past times, even say 40 years ago, glass wine bottle closures were made of natural cork (preferred), but occasionally a synthetic cork (cheaper) came into use, and the really rubbish bottles of wine by a screw cap – the latter was a sign that the wine had been treated/sterilised to prevent the possibility of a secondary fermentation (normal wine presented a risk that there could be sugar and yeast still present so the conversion to alcohol would start-up again – producing CO2 gas which would blow the glass bottles to smitherins when the pressure builds to a high level – if there wasn’t a cork that could be blown out instead! In a sparkling wine like Champaign there is a measured amount of sugar added to produce a controlled second fermentation within the bottle (in the winery BEFORE shipping to YOU!) so the wine has gas in it (sparkles!) and the bottles are stronger with the cork held in with a wired cage.

What happened then was that the ‘New World’ started producing wine (Australia, USA California, South Africa, Argentina, South Africa, New Zealand, Chile), but they didn’t have the history of the old established wine producing countries (such as France, Spain, North Africa, Portugal, Italy , Germany, Austria, Romania), and didn’t have their historic vines and years of self acquired ‘know-how’. However, the new boys turned to science and were quickly able to start growing suitable varieties of grapes and fermenting them under strict scientific conditions such as temperature, so ending up with quality wine, a real match for any from their traditional competitors (and often with a higher alcoholic content and stronger taste). Wines were called by their grape type (like Shiraz, Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, etc) rather than a region of the country – like in France (other old producers were forced down that road as well to compete).

That done these new producers turned their attention to the bottle closures – they could guarantee that there wouldn’t be a second fermentation, so they started to use screw top bottles as this was the best way to ensure that air couldn’t enter the wine through a cork that was drying out, and so allow bacteria in also which would spoilt the wine – making it bitter and undrinkable! Screw top bottles also preserve cork (a limited natural substance) and importantly allowed the amateur wine drinker to never have to search again for a corkscrew (or lose sanity when one isn’t available!), or even sprain a wrist trying to extract a dried-in cork! The screw top has become the standard accepted closure these days.

That being said, this change has lead the average wine drinker unsure about needing to let wine (particularly red wine) ‘breath’ – this was traditonally done by removing the cork a little time before serving the wine. Did this still apply to a screw top bottle red wine? In short YES! The question arises because most drinkers didn’t really understand about the need for wine to breath! Red wine (and a few whites) need to be a little bit oxygenated before drinking to improve quality. An ‘old’ red wine often throws a sediment and has to be ‘decanted’ into another container to pour off the wine and avoid the sediment getting mixed up – this procedure oxygenates the wine. Really this is the best procedure for all red wines whether they have a sediment or not! It is simply a waste of time to take the cork out or undo the screw cap – there is quite insufficient surface area for the wine to breath! If you don’t have a carafe to pour the bottle of wine into then at least pour it into a wide rimmed glass and let it breath before drinking it! Then enjoy.

[Enjoy your red wine at Christmas, but drink responsibly, after a couple of glasses you are simply getting drunk – and there is no way you can enjoy more of the wine you have selected!]

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