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Wine Etiquette

What makes a good wine? Should wine be presented in the bottle or a decanter? When must wine be decanted? At what temperature should it be served? In what order should wines be served? There are plenty of questions but the answers are simpler than people think.

The sommelier’s knowledge and intimidating rituals are part of restaurant service, but wine etiquette for home entertaining is guided by less formal, common sense rules.

The following rules will help hosts and guests discover and appreciate the pleasures of wine.

Opening the Bottle

Wine should be allowed to breathe because contact with the oxygen in the air brings out and deepens the flavour. Red wine should be opened one hour before serving and white wine should be poured into a decanter to release its bouquet.

What Is the Right Temperature for Wine?

White wine should be served at about 6 or 8 C and red wine at 12 to 18 C, depending on its age. Red or white, the younger the wine, the cooler the temperature. To chill a wine, put it in the refrigerator for two to four hours. If rushed, put the wine in an ice bucket filled with cold water and ice. Do not however put wine in the freezer for fear of spoiling its flavour. Keep champagne and white wine on the sideboard in an ice bucket filled one third up with water and ice.

What Makes a Good Wine?

Balance is the hallmark of a good wine. The fruity, flowery or citrus notes of its bouquet, its sweetness and acidity, its astringency and alcoholic strength should all come together to create a distinctive, satisfying flavour. Taste the wine away from your guests before going in to dinner to spot defects (oxidation, cork taste, vinegary taste) and replace the wine quickly. That’s why you should always have a second bottle ready in case of problems, though they occur rarely as winemaking has been increasingly perfected. Older red wines are decanted to remove sediment (the lees).


Traditionally the host serves the wine. The first guest to be served is the one seated on the host’s right. The host then continues clockwise round the table. Glasses should be filled halfway, to just above their widest point, never to the rim.

Glasses for white wine are smaller than those for red wine, and Burgundy glasses are wider round the middle than claret glasses. Champagne is served in flutes. Glasses should be made of thin, clear, smooth glass without a roll rim. Avoid tinted glasses that change the wine’s colour and ornamentation that masks its clarity.

Most of all, glasses must be clean, grease-free and scent-free. Wash them in hot water without any dishwashing liquid. For a clear shine, hold them over steam then dry them with a linen dish towel, holding glasses in both hands and not by the stem to avoid breakage.

Does Wine Have to Mean Stains?

Some people can’t seem to pour wine without spotting the tablecloth. The solution to the problem is both simple and elegant—use a collar that fits round the bottle’s neck or a thin sheet of metal, rolled and inserted in the bottle’s neck that you rinse after using. Silver, pewter or cork bottle holders prevent unsightly rings on the tablecloth.

Is an Unfinished Open Bottle Wasted?

There’s some left? Don’t throw it out—an opened bottle, even of champagne, will keep a few days without loss of taste. Simply close the bottle with an airtight stopper designed to prevent oxidation or spray in a little wine preserver made up of three odourless, tasteless non-inflammable gases.

Do I Have to Serve the Wine My Guests Brought?

Whether it’s a premium or a screw-top wine, you are not obliged to open a gift bottle. Your guest will understand that your menu was planned in advance with specific wines in mind. Thank them, keep the wine and, if you wish, have your friend over some other time to enjoy it.