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Enjoy a special bottle of wine but first handle with caution

With New Year’s Eve bearing down on us, it is a good time to ask yourself, “Do I have any special occasion wines tucked away in my wine cabinet?”

If the answer is yes, then your next question must be, “What the heck am I waiting for?”

I’ve lost count of how many times someone has approached me and said something like, “When should I drink this bottle of Chateau Cache-Fleau that I’ve been saving since (insert ancient date here). I’ve been waiting for the right occasion.”

This is the right occasion! It’s New Year’s Eve. So it’s not your anniversary or birthday or the date of your first child’s birth – it’s special enough.

Open the Wine That Hurts. The one you don’t want to open because the time is not right. Yes, that one.

The fact of the matter is that a wine that is special to you, for whatever reason, will make any occasion special all by itself.

To be special it need not be expensive. Some of the most special bottles I have enjoyed (and remembered long after they were consumed) were special because of who gave them to me, who I shared them with, where and when they were purchased.

But if they just sit in a closet somewhere, gathering dust, that magic will never have a chance to express itself.

Wine, like music, has a special ability to tap directly into your emotional memory. You hear a song from long ago and it can transport you to a very specific time and place.

You pull out a bottle that was gifted by a person very important to you, or purchased on a memorable occasion, and you will almost certainly remember all the details, no matter how long that bottle has been resting in the cupboard.

If you are fortunate enough to purchase wines by the case, or even the half case, don’t keep waiting for the “right time” to start drinking them. Drink them!

As any winemaker will tell you, they make more wine every year. You won’t run out, but your special bottle may run out of time, and that would be too bad.

So please, this New Year’s, make a resolution not to allow the special occasions in your life slip by without opening at least one of your special bottles.

How do you ensure that an old bottle will show its best? You open it very carefully and decant it properly.

Here are some guidelines:

• First, pull the bottle out of storage and stand it up somewhere that is reasonably cool, dark and free of all vibration. It needs a few hours – perhaps a full day – to let the sediment settle to the bottom.

Once it has rested comfortably, move it as little as possible and do not stir up the sediment.

• Before opening it, take a wet cloth and wipe off any dust or goo around the top. Check the fill level; if it has fallen below the shoulder, your wine, sadly, may be toast.

Look to see if there has been any leakage, which could indicate either a failed cork or a wine that has been exposed to heat.

• Old corks (more than 20 years old) are fragile and crumble easily. You will need a good corkscrew with a double hinge and a Teflon worm (the screw part) and you will have to use a very gentle touch. Try to insert the screw at a diagonal; this will help with the extraction.

If the cork breaks or crumbles, try to avoid pushing it down into the bottle. It requires some patience, but you can often pick out or blow out most of the crumbled bits, then try re-inserting the corkscrew to get the rest. If you must push the cork into the bottle, decant immediately.

• Any clean carafe can serve as a decanter. Rinse thoroughly with hot water and do not use detergent.

Hold the decanter firmly in one hand, tipping it about 45 degrees and resting its bottom edge on a solid surface. Then gently and evenly pour the wine into it, disturbing it as little as possible, letting the liquid run down the throat of the decanter.

• Note the color; the tawnier it is, the more quickly you will want to begin serving it. You may also find that the bouquet immediately fills the room – always a good sign.

When you get about three quarters of the way through the bottle, slow down and look for “smoke” – threads of sediment running through the pouring wine. Stop there before actual chunks of sediment can get into the decanter.

Timing is guesswork, but really old wines are best opened just a few minutes before you start to pour.

I do hope you’ll find a special bottle to celebrate the New Year, and get 2011 off to the best possible start.

Paul Gregutt is a freelance wine writer based in Washington state. His column appears in The Spokesman-Review on the last Wednesday of each month. He can be reached at Visit for Gregutt’s daily blog and other commentary.