Wines and spirits
Drinking manners are an integral part of table manners. How to hold the cup or glass, when and how much to drink, and how to do so in an appropriate and civilised fashion, is as important as eating food the right way.
The two most basic kinds of glasses are tumblers for water or soft drinks, and wine glasses. These should be on the right-hand side of a place setting and slightly above it, either grouped or lined up. It is usual, when serving both white and red wine, to provide a smaller glass for white and a larger for red.
Champagne is usually served in flutes or narrow glasses. Shallow saucer-shaped glasses were traditional but have fallen out of favour.
Other glasses that may be useful include narrow sherry glasses, brandy balloons and triangular, stemmed glasses for martinis and other cocktails, but it is not incorrect to manage without these. It is more important that glasses should be immaculately clean, plentiful and of as good quality as possible.
What to Serve
If hosting, it is good manners to serve the best wine possible and quality should be as important as quantity. It is important as a host to keep the supplies flowing and not leave empty glasses, but at the same time never force people to drink more than they want. Always provide plenty of water and soft drinks.
How to Serve Wine
A wine glass should be only one third full. It is better to underfill, rather than overfill, a glass. Red wine should be served at the ‘old-fashioned’ pre-central heating room temperature of 17–18°C (63°F) in a larger glass with a bigger bowl, to release the bouquet.
Whites are served in a smaller, narrower glass that should be held by the stem to avoid warming the wine. Fine white wine only needs around 20 minutes in the fridge (including Sauternes); too much chilling will hide the complexity of good wines. It is best, however, to chill cheaper bottles right down. Ice buckets are most effective when filled with a mix of ice and water.
‘Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter, sermons and soda water the day after.’ – Lord Byron
Wait to be served by the host or, if the host has put bottles out and asked people to serve themselves, offer others before helping yourself. Wine is usually served from the right-hand side. Avoid touching the top of the glass with the bottle when you pour.
How to Drink Wine
Take small sips and avoid making noises or ‘wine tasting’ gestures such as ostentatious sniffs or swirls. It is best to confine any remarks to general appreciation unless specifically asked. Opinions are best left to acknowledged experts and, even then, err on the side of politeness over honesty.
Some wines are served in a decanter. The process of decanting a red wine allows it to breathe, separating mature wine from the sediment. It mellows and ‘brings out’ younger reds. Contact with the air livens it and, in a sense, ‘accelerates’ the ageing process.
Decanting should take place a couple of hours before drinking but less, perhaps, for older wines that can fall away through the shock of air contact.
Before decanting, ensure that the glass decanter is clean and soap-free. Pour the bottle at a reasonably rapid rate, being careful towards the end to ensure that any sediment remains in the bottle. Simply removing the cork from the bottle will not have the same (if any) effect; white wines are not usually decanted.
Champagne should be served chilled (optimum temperature is about 7°C), in tulip-shaped flutes that are held by the stem (to avoid the heat of one’s hands warming the champagne through the glass). The sign of a good champagne is a consistent stream of small bubbles that create a light froth on top, which is called the ‘mousse’.
Vintage champagne comes from the crop of a single year so always has a date on its label; non-vintage (nv) champagne is blended from the crop of different years and therefore there will be no date on the label.
An aperitif is a pre-meal drink that stimulates the appetite and palate. Traditional choices include chilled dry sherry, vermouth and Campari. Spirit-based drinks are also suitable; a cocktail, gin and tonic or vodka and a mixer. A simpler, and popular, option is a glass of chilled dry white wine or champagne.
Port is usually served in a decanter and comes at the end of the dinner after pudding. In the days when women withdrew it was served to men only but today it is usually circulated to everyone, while they are still seated, often at about the same time as coffee. Unlike other after-dinner drinks or digestifs such as brandy, it is not normally served away from the table, for instance in a drawing room. If, however, you have been given wonderful port and have not had time to finish, it is fine to carry the glass through with you.
A port decanter will be placed on the table so that people can help themselves and then pass it on. Always pass the port to the left. If the port passes you by without your glass being filled don’t ask for the port and make it change direction. Either send the empty glass after the port decanter and ask for it to be filled or better still wait for it to come round again.
A digestif is drunk to aid digestion after a large meal. They are usually strong and dark coloured spirits, such as brandy, cognac and whisky. Fortified wines, such as port or Madeira, are also traditional options, as well as sweet liqueurs.
Brandy and Whisky
Brandy is served in a bulbous brandy balloon that is cradled in the palm to warm the spirit, intensifying the bouquet and enhancing the flavour.
Whisky is served in a short, heavy-based tumbler. Adding water to a single malt is generally no longer frowned upon, but adding ice is still thought to interfere with the aromas.