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Chez Thierry, Nassau, Bahamas

10th article

by Thierry Boeuf in The Tribune (June 19, 2001)


Expert advice on opening time


I want to come back to one of wineıs more controversial aspects - the way to serve it. I mentioned in this column in March that one of the tasks a sommelier has to perform is to choose how long the bottle should be opened before serving it. I also wrote that it was very difficult to determine this, except if you had recently tasted the very same wine, meaning same wine and same vintage.

I happened to read last week about something that is going to make life easier for all those who are ready to follow this advice. Its author, of course, spoke of the different things said about pre-serving times. He mentioned some famous wine merchant who was, for example, in favour of opening the wines less than 10 years-old half an hour before serving, with two or three hours for the 20-30 year-old bottles. I said almost exactly the opposite, arguing that old wines are fragile and should be treated very gently, being opened at the last minute because their bouquet is fragile and the flavours can partially disappear very quickly.

The author of the book I am currently reading was simply advising us to open all the wines only when we serve them. Given who the writer is, I have to say that from now on I am going to follow his advice for most wines.

For you to understand why I changed my mind, I am going to introduce to you the Oenologist who impressed me the most. His name is Emile Peynaud and he has written many books for both professionals and wine-lovers. The book that I am currently reading is called "Le gout du vin", meaning the taste of wine.

And, for the French, I can say he is certainly the best reference. Emile Peynaud started working in the wine trade during the 1930ıs but, from 1949 onwards, he was director of the Bordeaux research center in viticulture (grape growing) and Oenology (winemaking). Later, in the 1950ıs, he became deputy-director of the Bordeaux Institute of Oenology, where he stayed until his retirement in 1977. Fortunately for the industry, he then became a consultant for many Chateaux and wine companies.

When I worked in Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, he was an adviser to the winemaking process, and I have participated in several tastings with him. I am very rarely impressed by people, but he is one of the few. He made such a strong impression on me that I regretted not studying with such a Master.

I still remember very clearly the first time we tasted together in the cellar. The must (wines in process) were still at the beginning of the fermentation process, and the question involving each tank was to decide how to handle every step of the process.

Mr Peynaud was sick this day and, for the first five tanks, his judgement was slightly off. As a humble beginner, I felt very frustrated and started to wonder if this manıs immense reputation had prevented him from being accessible.

But I did not want to miss this unique occasion and the chance to ask him why we would oxygenate this tank three times a day for 10 days, and this other one only two times for a week. That day, I received the best Oenology lesson I have ever had, and it was taught in such a clear and scientific way - with a humanistic approach - that it is my most cherished memory in this area.

Two years later, I happened to apply for the job of deputy-technical director in the largest winery in Peru, and the technical director gave me two phone numbers for people who could help me make a decision because they had visited the country. One of them was Mr Peynaud, and I gladly called him. He answered me the same way he had done the first time in Lafite cellar. It gave me the feeling that I was at a lecture with someone who has spent hours preparing his presentation with plenty of details, except that it was a simple phone call on a Sunday night without prior notice.

Coming back to the debate on opening a bottle prior to serving it, what he writes is that in three hours nothing happens physically or chemically to the wine. It is too short to have any evaporation and the oxidation is infinitesimal. Mr Peynaudıs experiences in the research laboratory have proved it is hardly possible to measure the quantity of oxygen dissolved in the wine. His conclusion, then, is that for most wines it is better to open the bottle only before drinking and, especially for a sommelier, always in front of the guests.

The only question left is when to decant a wine. He advises to do so only for bottles presenting some sediment in the bottom and, particularly for old wines, to do it only before serving the wine because they are very delicate, and some flavours disappear after a very short time.

His general advice applies very well to all the wines ready to drink, but with the general new trend to sell wines less than three years-old, I believe that a number of young red wines with strong body benefit from oxygenation. I do it for the Paul Sapin Syrah or Cabernet-Sauvignon from Languedoc, or other young Syrah from Rosemount Australia or red Bordeaux only two years-old.

Considering the ineffectiveness of opening the bottle three hours before drinking, you could open it a couple of days before. However, I am quite satisfied with a transfer of the wine into a decanter an hour before, knowing that if you were able to keep the wine in your glass for a quarter of an hour you would have the same effect, but I usually cannot wait that long. Can you?