Even before you pour L'Ortolan
Whether it's that wine you've taken a punt on, that special bottle you've been saving, or that mystery bottle brought by a well-meaning guest, how do you make sure that the bottle you have for Christmas Dinner is healthy and worth drinking?
If you haven't got an expert to talk to, and don't have time to spend hours researching, there are ways, upon opening a bottle to make some fairly quick judgements as to whether it is going to be drinkable or not.
In this blog series L'Ortolan Sommelier Stephen Nisbet explores the faults that wine can develop and offers his expert advice on how to avoid serving a bottle that will make your guests cringe.
Getting off to a flying start
The best way to avoid problems with wine is to remember that prevention is always better than any attempted cure.
The first thing to consider when buying a bottle is how the wine is sealed.
When you wander into a wine shop, you are often presented with lots of different bottle closures, some will be cork, others glass, plastic, or even screw cap and because the closure is the number one cause of any fault, if you can eliminate as much of that as possible, then you can be much more certain that your dinner party wine will not be an embarrassment.
As contentious as this might sound the best closures to go for are the artificial ones. The great thing about artificial closures like screw caps is that they are food-safe, where as cork is not - a cork, ultimately, is just a piece of wood. Corks are cleaned, but they can never achieve the same level of hygiene that can be acquired with sterilised food packaging. Screw caps are consistent; they are a manufactured fixed unit and are designed to be hygienic and air tight - all of which corks can never be.
Screw caps are obvious to see, but other closures may be difficult to determine - so make sure you ask as it is often better to avoid cork all together.
Traditional is not always best
The traditional view is that wine comes with a cork, but cork is beset with problems. Even with significant advances in technology and hygiene there are still between 5 - 10% of corks that are faulty. Although you can go through cases of wine without a problem, all it needs is one batch of faulty cork which can lead to the ruin of even the best Bordeaux.
Corks are known for allowing the wine to breathe and age, however the reality is that wine will still age under screw cap, but actually that's not really all that important. Although wine does age better for longer under a cork, this is really only important when deliberately aged for more than five years. So when you consider that this Christmas most people will consume whites from about 2007 to 2009, and reds from between 2005 to 2008 there is no perceptible benefit for going for the cork!
In fact, around 95% of wine is never intended to see its first birthday. So the more air-tight and the more sealed in it is, the better. That way you can be sure that you have it at its ultimate freshness and the wine is reaching you in just the way the wine maker intended.
Don't risk it
For me there shouldn't be an element of risk in any aspect of a dinner party. Wine is no different from when you are buying your turkey or your Christmas pudding, and you have all your ingredients coming from your favourite shops - you want to enjoy them as they were intended, you don't want to have the worry at the back of your mind that that product might not come out as you wanted - so it should be the same as wine.
So, if you are entertaining it is best to avoid a cork. Firstly there is high chance of corkage, and secondly if I was watering ten/twenty people, I wouldn't want to be messing around with thirty bottles and a corkscrew! Go for the screw cap - it may be less elegant, but it is eminently more practical!
Next Time: Stephen explores one of the most common cause of wine faults; The Corked Bottle.