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  • Writer's pictureJoanneFoodTsang

Demystifying 3 fancy wine practices

Updated: Apr 9

Glass bottles image by Max Anderson

When people talk about wine, there always seems to be a lot of glamour associated with it. Yet, information about the fermented grape is not common knowledge, and wine is always imbued with a mysterious sense of prestige. Many social practices involving wine are simply accepted, and we never question why we do what we do with wine in fear of a faux pas. So, we simply swirl our glasses, stick our pinkies out, get momentarily drunk on this sophisticated image of ourselves, and then get absolutely pissed.

To clear away some mystique that wine has built up over the years, here are 3 seemingly snobbish wine practices explained.

I. What's with that serving ritual in restaurants when we order a bottle?

You know that ritual that happens when you order a bottle at a restaurant, and the server comes over, presents the bottle and its label, opens it and serves you a small taste of wine whilst everyone on the table stares expectantly at you as you try to seem poised, swirl the glass a couple times, take a small sipe, and no matter what you taste, give that perfunctory nod to the server to confirm that yes you want this bottle to be served to the 4 other individuals who have been staring at you for the past 2 minutes? Yes, that ritual.

No one on the table has a clue why this is happening, but we do it because it's a social norm, an axiomatic practice that no one questions. Just thinking about that unnecessarily sombre practice gives me goosebumps.

Though, there is actually a reason for this seemingly excessive ritual. The small taste of wine you get before it is served is to make sure that the wine is not contaminated by 'cork taint', i.e. the wine has not gone off. Cork taint was a common issue in the 1980s-90s when bad quality corks affected by a compound called 'TCA' were used to seal off wine, causing contaminated wines to smell unpleasantly like wet cardboard. Since then, cork taint has been aggressively tackled by the cork production and wine industries, and is less of an issue these days.

Unless you are drinking a very old bottle of wine, anything above 10 years of age, it is unlikely to be a problem for you unless you are very very lucky.

Where does this leave us then? Next time a bottle is served at a restaurant and you get volunteered as tribute for the small tasting, grab the glass, give it a couple swirls and see if you can catch a whiff of wet cardboard. If not, this bottle is good to go. Give the waiter your confident nod. Cheers!

Fun fact: in the off-chance that the bottle was in fact affected by cork taint, and you couldn't tell the difference, don't worry TCA is not a harmful compound anyways...

II. Why must wines be stored horizontally and not vertically?

When you see a wine rack, it is always for wines to be stored sideways. The fact that wine should be kept lying around rather than standing adds to its image of being seductively graceful, delicate, and refined.

Its laid-back form whispers "draw me like one of your French girls."

And yes, there is a reason for why wines should be on their sides - it's also because of corks. When bottles are kept upright, the cork has no contact with the bottled liquid which can cause the porous material to dry out quickly. A dried cork would be even more porous, which would lead to the unintentional and unwanted aeration of wine. It is like leaving your 1L coke bottle unscrewed in the fridge, which means that the next time you reach for it to pour yourself a glass, it would be unpleasantly flat. It is the same idea for wines with dried-out corks.

All the fruity flavours that you'd want in your wine would be gone. Whilst it would take more than a few weeks or couple months for your corked bottle to suffer from standing upright, it's good practice to store it on its side if you can help it. In the case of a very good bottle of wine that is suitable for ageing and is sealed by a cork, you'll definitely want to store it on its side in a cool, dark location.

If you have wines that are sealed by a twist cap, this is not an issue at all. Store it sideways, upright, whichever way you fancy.

III. The right way to open up a bottle of fizz, with a loud pop and plenty of flourish?

Opening up a bottle of bubbly can be daunting. Sparkling wine is usually served on special occasions so the last thing anyone wants is a bottle of exploding Champagne with a loose bullet of a cork flying around like an eye-destroyer.

How to protect everyone's eyes and your dignity you ask? First step is to make sure the bottle is properly chilled before you open it. A reason why you may have experienced a flying bottle of sparkling, even if you have not shaken it, is because you've left it out of the fridge for too long and the chilled pressurised air within the bottle has warmed up and expanded. The pressure within the bottle is at least 2 to 3 times the pressure in car tires, so an expansion of that pressure would set the bottle up for an explosive pop. Ouch.

Now that you're sure the bottle is properly chilled, the next thing to remember is to never remove the wire caging around the cork. Loosen it yes, but do not remove it.

Removing it will be like cancelling your insurance policy right before you go bungee jumping... Not the best move.

All that's left is to hold the bottle at an angle from its base whilst you grasp the cork and the loosened wire cage in your other hand. Slowly twist the bottle whilst holding the cork still, and let the pressure within the bottle (a double decker bus tire's worth) push the cork out gradually for you. A soft 'phut' marks the successful opening of the bottle, and hip hip hooray! No flying corks and injuries on a big day.

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