How to serve wine – top sommelier’s tips

Hosting a dinner party and wondering how to serve your wine(s) in the best possible way? We’ve asked Lucas Reynaud-Paligot, sommelier at Michelin-starred restaurant Hélène Darroze at the Connaught, to help us put together an uncomplicated, straightforward guide with the golden rules of clever, sleek and knowledgeable – but also relaxed – wine service.

Step 1 – Choosing your glassware and making space in the fridge

Make sure you have the right glassware, which will allow you to truly appreciate the wine. Even an undisputedly amazing wine will be less enjoyable if poured in the wrong glass, as the aromas will not be released harmoniously.
A good glass is neither necessarily expensive nor special-purpose. There are plenty of affordable glasses in the market with an ideal, versatile shape, that will work equally well for different styles of wines.

As a general guideline, Lucas recommends having the two shapes below at hand:

a) – for sparkling, white, rosé and light red wines – narrow rims help to keep the aromas inside the glass and are also easier to handle;
b) – for full-bodied whites, aromatic varieties and robust red wines – the wider bowl and rim allows for aromas to release and integrate better.

It’s best to have all your glasses clean and either lined up or placed on the table, ready for the wine to be poured.
Make enough space in the fridge ahead of the big day to cool your bottles and reserve a side table for bottles and glasses – there’s nothing more annoying than a crowded dinner table…

Step 2 – Opening the bottle

You should avoid opening the bottle at the table. At the restaurant Lucas opens them at the sommelier station or, for special requests, single bottles or very old vintages, at a portable wine trolley.
At home, you can just do it in the kitchen. The idea is to avoid mishaps while opening the bottle (maybe the cork is tight or breaks? Or image a slip of the hand causes an unwanted spill?) that might embarrass you in front of guests. Most importantly, it allows you to inspect the wine before pouring it to everyone else. You’ll want to avoid tainting the group’s dining experience by serving a faulty wine…

Step 3 – Inspecting the wine (assessing quality and possible faults)

Once your bottle is open, you’ll need to check whether the wine is in good condition. Pour a small amount into a clean glass to assess it before pouring it to guests.
Smell the wine after swirling your glass (this releases all aromas, good or bad, so you can a full sense of what’s going on) and taste it carefully. You might be able to spot a fault just by smelling the wine but this is not always the case – so make sure you taste as well!
The most common wine faults are:

Oxidation (Volatile acidity) – usually a result of a leaky cork that allowed unwanted contact with oxygen or of unsuitable storage conditions. An oxidated wine will have vinegar-like notes of bruised apple, balsamico and fermented fruit…
Cork taint, also called TCA (Trichloroanisole) – not necessarily a result of a bad cork as TCA can also be present in barrels and other winery equipment – a so-called ‘corked’ wine has characteristic notes of mould, musty basement, wet newspaper and wet cork.
Reduction (Hydrogen sulfide) – usually a product of excessive use of fungicides in the vineyard or of sulphur dioxide during the winemaking process. The wine will have a characteristic smell of rotten eggs or wet dog.

Step 4 – Pouring the wine(s)

Assuming the wine (or wines) you’ve opened are all in good condition, it is now time to pour it and let the party begin. Before you do so, make sure everyone is one the same page. Maybe some would prefer another drink before moving to wine? Or maybe there are some white or red-only drinkers? Ask for people’s preference so that all guests are comfortable, happy and aware of what’s going on before, during and after the meal.
This is also when you might want to present or talk about the wine, the producer, the place you bought it from, etc. But be mindful of the fact that not everyone is necessarily that interested and might just want to enjoy the wine itself, without much ado or explanations.
It’s a fine balance, that sommeliers play with every day. As Lucas says “I am very talkative if the customer is open. We can even show them the cellar, the kitchen, talk about the next wine dinners…” Otherwise, just serve the wine and let the conversation flow naturally. You might also want to refer to the food – i.e. if you’ve chosen the wine because it pairs with the dish you’re serving – and give a bit of context about the pairing, the recipe, the flavours, etc. This can be fun for both wine geeks and foodies.

Step 5 – Topping up and keeping the wine at the right temperature

Throughout your meal, you’ll want to make sure your guests are happy and not low on wine. As a rule, you should offer top-ups if a glass is less than two fingers full. Having said that, it’s good not to be pushy and check whether your guests really want refills. Some people also prefer to top up themselves, even in very formal settings.
On the other hand, if you are the host, it is your task to keep the wines at the right temperature throughout the evening. Have an ice-bucket ready, on the side, for sparkling, whites and rosés, but keep an eye on the reds as well – you don’t want them to get too warm either (most reds are best enjoyed below room temperature).

Step 6 – Dealing with spillages and broken glass

It might sound obvious but the main thing here is to not ignore it! Deal with it promptly without making your guests uncomfortable – it can happen to anyone, anytime. And if you were the one responsible, relax! Use the opportunity to talk about the wine and open another bottle.

Step 7 – Relaxing and having fun

Arguably the most important step. As much as we, Lucas and you might love wine, it should not become the sole focus of your meal or evening. It should be part of a complete, enjoyable experience that allows everyone to relax and enjoy themselves. Remember: you can save an evening with a bad wine if you are in the right company; on the other hand, an evening with amazing wine surrounded by annoying people is, and will always be, a complete wreck.

Next in our expert advice series: Biodynamics – what is biodynamic wine?