Wine accoutrements enrich our drinking experience

The old saying “perception is reality” preceded current understanding of how we taste. Sensory cues seemingly unconnected to our senses of smell and taste affect not just our perceptions and the psychology of taste, but how we physically taste. It seems that when we expect something to taste a certain way, it will.

If we’re to squeeze the greatest amount of pleasure from the wines we drink, it therefore makes sense to build a rich sensory experience even before we reach for the bottle. Hence this little guide to wine gifts leans as much to the aesthetic as the practical.

The setting includes dazzling cutlery, fine bone or porcelain crockery, crisp, clean tablecloths, perhaps a brightly coloured French one – all terrific, enduring gifts in their own rights, though not covered here.

A wonderful quality of good wine accoutrements is their durability. Crystal decanters and glassware, for example, survive the generations. Some of the decanters mentioned may still be used exactly as previous owners did over the last 200 years.

Wine decanters
There’s little practical reason to decant young modern wines. In the old days, less precise winemaking meant many wines contained traces of hydrogen sulphide, a by-product of winemaking, or free sulphur dioxide that tended to dissipate with a good splash of air.

That’s seldom the case these days, though very young, cellarable whites often contain noticeable levels of sulphur dioxide; and some modern chardonnays retain traces of various sulphur compounds, deliberately built in for complexity. Decanting tends to take the edge of these, too.

However, some young reds seem to release more aroma and flavour after a good splash into a decanter and an hour or two’s exposure to air. Old reds, on the other hand, should be decanted to separate the clear wine from the harmless sediment deposited during years of maturation.

That’s the practical side of decanting. But crystal decanters add hugely to wine’s visual appeal. Smooth-sided decanters allow the wine’s colour to shimmer and sparkle; those with intricately-cut patterns, offer an additional dimension – rainbows of light refractions twinkling through the various angles and shapes, made even more appealing with the flickering, yellow light of candles.

Decent crystal decanters begin at around $50, and come in sufficient shapes, sizes, brands and prices to satisfy most of us.

Even the darling of the wine world, Riedel, offers decanters on its website from $64.95, moving steadily through the price ranges and peaking at $900 for its quirky Twenty Twelve model.

But for that price, or anyway near it, Santa might bring a glorious old antique – perhaps a George III-era (circa 1815) with its “wide comb fluting body, plain neck rings and mushroom stopper”, currently selling at $785 in Hartley Cook’s Grafton Galleries (Shop 1, 15 Boundary Street, Rushcutters Bay).

Cook, a wine lover and glassware expert, always carries a range of old decanters (about twenty at present, he says), a specialty for a few decades now. He owns about 30 personally, including a rare 1810 magnum decanter. He says unlike other delicate antiques that might sit in a glass cabinet, “we can use an old decanter in the same way it was used 200 years ago”.

Wine glasses
We possess only one nose, albeit with two inlets, and one tongue, quickly inundated by the smallest sip of wine. But if we believe Riedel, every wine deserves a unique glass shaped to deliver aroma and flavour to just the right places in these two esteemed organs. Unlikely as that proposition seems, Riedel wows the crowds in its master classes by harnessing the power of suggestion – a potent technique when teamed with the company’s elegant, functional stemware. Which takes us back to perception being reality.

Beautiful wine glasses deliver drinking pleasure by creating a sense of anticipation, displaying a wine in its best light and capturing its full spectrum of aromas. In August at a Quay Restaurant degustation lunch, a unique wine glass arrived with each of eight food courses

The wine service lock-stepped with the overall precise theatre of the food service: waiters arriving on time to remove crockery, cutlery and glassware; more waiters bringing new glasses and crockery; food arriving and a new wine being poured.

Small volumes of wines partly filled brilliantly polished glasses. The low fill allowed light to flood through, revealing vivid colours against the crisp, white table cloth, and sufficient room to swirl the liquid, releasing the aromas – nicely trapped for our noses by the tapering tops.

The pleasure peaked with Phillip Jones’s magnificent 2010 Bass Phillip Gippsland Pinot Noir – a highly aromatic, shimmering, limpid, delicious pool of red-purple sloshing leisurely around the base of a huge, fine, crystal glass.

Riedel remains the hot wine glass, if expensive, though the company also owns the Spiegelau and Nachtmann brands. Indicative of Riedel’s combined functionality and aesthetics, most Australian wine shows and many wineries and restaurants now use the company’s Ouverture Magnum glass, which is not offered at retail. However, the Ouverture red wine glass, offered on the company’s website (riedel.com.au) at $39.95 a pair appears to be the same product.

The glasses are widely distributed at retail, including in fine wine stores, and appear occasionally as well-priced job lots at Costco.

Good stem ware of whatever make should be of a fine, even thickness through the bowl, with no bubbles or swirls, sparklingly clear, with a rim tapering towards the top to capture aroma. Glasses come in all shapes and sizes, of course, so chose ones that make your mouth water in anticipation.

Cork pullers
“It’s good seventeenth century technology”, said one Australian winemaker. But cork lingers on – a fringe dweller in Australia and New Zealand, though the dominant seal in some countries, including Italy, France and the United States.

If you buy wine as the need arises and drink only Australian and New Zealand wine, there’s no need ever to own a cork puller again. But if you drink imports or have a cellar with older vintages under cork, you still need a device of some kind to rip or push the cork out.

Corkscrews and parallel, metal-prong devices both pull corks out from above. A needle and pump, on the other hand, pushes corks out with compressed air.  All of these devices do the job. However, after plunging a needle into my hand some years ago, I’m wary of them and absolutely happy with the more traditional devices.

Metal prong cork pullers
Metal prongs, like the German made Monopol Ah So cork puller, work easily and well once you get the knack. They’re particularly handy for extracting old corks that might crumble using a corkscrew. Even better, they’re perfect for an old dinner party trick. With practice you can whip the corks out of cheap and expensive wines before the guests arrive, swap the contents, replace the corks intact, and no one’s the wiser.

Amazon offer the Ah So at $19.50, though one Australian retailer charges $49.50,
Peters of Kensington and Ultimo Wine Centre websites offer it, but both were sold out in mid November.

Corkscrews
The metal in the screw should be of a narrow gauge, so it worms easily through the cork, with wide loops (at least five of them) to give purchase, and of high tensile strength so it doesn’t straighten out under tension. Corkscrews should also provide leverage – a metal extension that rests on the collar of the neck in the old waiters-friend styles (these require considerable strength); or the more highly levered versions like the Analon Sure Grip ($24.95 at Kitchenware Direct) or the Starin Elegant ($30.19 at Shopbot.com.au).

These are only a few examples. There are dozens of good corkscrews online and in stores.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2012
First published 5 December 2012 in The Canberra Times

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