Decanting = Wine - Grit + Air

Donald Dibbern

We've just come through the holiday season, a time when more wine than usual is opened and poured for guests. Especially in more formal settings, one is often faced with that vexing bit of pomp and circumstance known as decanting. For this month's column, I thought it would be useful to address decanting; specifically, the how and the why.

The mechanics of the process are fairly simple, but it does depend somewhat on why you are decanting a particular wine. Although we will discuss this later in greater detail, the two primary reasons are either it is a young wine and needs aeration, or an old wine with substantial sediment.

I find that these significant differences in purpose and technique confuse many who are relatively new to wine. Either process can be done rather simply, with a minimum of equipment and fuss.

Since most new wine aficionados first encounter decanting with wine service at fancy restaurants, the usual ostentatious and baroque ceremony - "The Decanting of the Wine" - can appear intimidating. Rest assured that you neither need, nor want, a candle, flashlight, wicker basket, funnel, filter paper, magnifying glass, or any other bizarre and cumbersome contraption.

The candle tradition in particular must stem from the days before the invention of the electric lightbulb. I'd rather not have my wine heated by flame just before consumption, let alone watch the server nearly catch his sleeve on fire.

Not to get lost on a tangent here, but I have always wondered why, in restaurants, it seems that the wine is almost invariably set down on the table right next to a candle. Moving it to the other end of the table usually lasts just until they return to top up your glasses.

In any case, if the wine is being decanted to "breathe," just pop the cork and splash the wine into the biggest decanter available. Seriously, none of this gentle pouring and other nonsense, as long as you don't expect sediment, you want the wine to have as much contact with air as possible.

Splashing and swirling work to get the oxygen into the wine. Although this doesn't look too classy, I've even seen wine educators, lacking a decanter, put a thumb over the end of the bottle and shake it vigorously. It's good to try to keep most of the wine in the decanter however, not all over the guests. This is the type of decanting that benefits from those super-wide decanters that maximize the surface area of exposed wine (but from which it is ridiculously difficult to pour).

If you are decanting an aged wine and expect it to have sediment, this is a completely different process, only slightly more complicated. The wine-savvy French use an entirely separate word for this latter technique, thereby avoiding confusion. They call the aeration of young wines carafer, but when they separate sediment from wine, they use the term décanter.

This is when you must have a steady hand for gentle pouring. If the wine has been properly cellared, on its side, without having been moved for quite some time, the sediment will line the lower side of the bottle. Ideally, the bottle will then have been carefully stood upright for a day or so, allowing gravity to bring all of the loose particles to the bottom of the bottle.

Handling the bottle gently, so as not to mix the sediment back into the wine, uncork and pour, slowly and smoothly, into the decanter. It goes without saying that the decanter should be clean, dry, and free of any odors of soap or detergent. The size and shape of the decanter is less important.

Keep the decanter at an angle and watch closely for the first signs of cloudiness or visible bits of sediment to appear as the wine passes through the bottle neck and pours into the decanter. When you see these appear, stop pouring. There is, of course, a trade-off between how much of this you let through and how much wine you "waste." The square shoulder of the Bordeaux-style bottles often used for wines intended to age many years, helps to hold back this sediment. If done properly, this usually results in less wasted wine in comparison to Burgundy-style bottles with their smooth slope, though lighter reds like pinot tend to drop lesser amounts of sediment than the Bordeaux varieties.

Having dealt with the "How," let's turn to the "Why." Of the two major categories discussed above, the most straightforward is removing sediment in older wines. Vintage Port represents this case in the extreme. Since most people enjoy drinking their wine without seeing, tasting, or chewing large chunks of bitter tannic residue that has precipitated out of the wine over years, or decades, removing this efficiently improves the pleasure of drinking these wines.

There has been an increasing trend in winemaking to limit the use of fining and filtration, or even avoid it entirely. This minimizes losses in flavor and quality, but often results in wines with more sediment. It is now not uncommon to find rather substantial sediment in even young wines, especially big reds like Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz.

The other reason for decanting is the effect of oxygen on the wine itself. Anyone who ever had to struggle through Organic Chemistry knows of the central and fundamental roles played by oxygen and oxidation in myriad chemical processes.

Not surprisingly, chemical reactions involving oxygen markedly affect the taste and smell of wine. As extreme examples, certain wines are made in an oxidized style, such as Madeira and some Sherries. The intentional exposure to air and/or heat in their production results in "cooked" flavors of caramel, toast, roasted nuts, and similar flavors. In another example, oxygen also accounts for much the eventual loss of flavor in an open bottle of wine, over the course of a few days.

Some winemakers have been shifting towards more reductive winemaking processes, intentionally minimizing and limiting the exposure to oxygen during wine production, to better preserve the fresh fruit flavors of the resulting wine. These wines, especially if opened quite young, can often have a rather muted nose and palate, until sufficient contact with oxygen occurs. Tasters often use terms like "closed" or "tight" in describing this situation.

Many of you may be familiar with the phenomenon common to big young red wines wherein the last glass, savored perhaps an hour or two after the bottle was first opened, is dramatically tastier than those that came before. This aeration also appears to soften the effect of relatively high levels of tannins in these wines, thereby improving their texture.

At the other end of the spectrum, overly reduced wines can have sulfurous "reductive" odors and flavors, such as rubber, cooked cabbage, burnt match, or spoiled eggs. Sometimes, with vigorous aeration and time, these will "blow off" and leave the wine otherwise intact. Certain prestigious producers of German Riesling tend to heavily sulfur their wines, to protect the fruit flavors of this delicate grape over their lengthy intended cellaring times, which can often be measured in decades.

Having dealt with "How" and "Why," we now turn to "What" and "When." Although you may certainly raise eyebrows if you ask to decant a white wine (let alone ask for a chiller for a "room temperature" red at 80F on a hot summer day), there are occasionally quite valid reasons for this, as discussed above.

Riesling is a good example, both for reasons of sulfur and reduction in young wines, as well as tartrate crystal deposition in older bottles. The latter are different in composition than the sediment seen in red wines, although the concept of removing the gritty bits is not.

I also find that Chardonnays with extended lees contact (sur lie) seem to benefit from an hour or two of decanting, with a significant blossoming of flavor, richness, and complexity. We have already discussed reasons for decanting both some young and most old red wines above. Vintage Port actually combines both reasons (effects of oxygen on flavor, and removal of large amounts of sediment), and thus is the wine most associated with the need for decanting.

Finally, we come to the $64,000 question - how long before serving should the wine be decanted? You will have to settle for just my 2 cents' worth, since it really is a matter of preference, although certain principles are useful to keep in mind.

Obviously, once the sediment is gone, that issue becomes moot and we turn to the effects of aeration. In general, the younger and sturdier the wine (e.g., three-year-old red Bordeaux), the longer I would decant, while older wines and those from more delicate grape varieties (e.g., 15-year-old Pinot Noir) should usually be served immediately after decanting.

Given the many variables involved, however, there is no substitute for taste and experience. By simply focusing attention on how your wines evolve over time, sitting in your glass or decanter, you will soon develop a sense for this that can be extrapolated and later applied to other wines. Getting a wine with which you are very familiar, tasting it, decanting it, and then returning for a taste hourly over a long evening can be a useful exercise in this regard.

I'll provide a few examples here from my personal experience. Immediately after opening a 10-year-old 1994 Viader Proprietary Blend and gently decanting it off its sediment, a beautiful floral nose redolent of violets was evident, with a wonderful elegant medium to light-bodied palate showing cherries and currants. It was a really lovely wine, which slowly and gently faded over the course of an hour's meal.

Contrast this with a 2002 Kongsgaard Syrah opened just three years after the vintage. I decanted it one full day in advance. This massive, ink-dark, smoky, meaty wine with flavors of plums and perhaps even notes of bittersweet chocolate or fudge, was still improving at the 24-hour mark. Saving a bit in the decanter to follow, it seemed to peak by sometime the second day.

For the ultimate in my personal decanting experience, an ancient Madeira over a century old, I turned to the advice of an expert on Portuguese wine, Roy Hersh, who also offers extensive decanting advice on his excellent website The wine was "double-decanted," first into a wide-bodied decanter for 48 hours of exposure to air, then back into the cleaned and dried original bottle, just prior to serving. It certainly seemed to benefit from this process and turned out to be a majestic wine.

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