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Decanting: Is your carafe half full or half empty?

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Although things like appellation boundaries and production rules are finite and not flexible (unless you are in Burgundy), the appreciation of wine, i.e. drinking & enjoying it, is entirely subjective. Wine Geek has read of or witnessed the entire spectrum of opinions and practices on this subject. His kitchen looks a bit like a vinous ‘Dexter’s Laboratory’ from subjecting bottles to strange experiments and various forms of torture, hence he is frequently asked his opinion on the same, so herewith is a missive to separate the facts from the dregs.

Indeed, there are varied opinions on the subject of decanting, even among noted experts: from the opinion of never (for old wines) by former WSJ wine columnists Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher to a recent article in Wines & Spirits magazine by Peter Liem that opines one should decant Champagne (yes, Champagne). Though this broad range of opinions serves to confirm that this is all subjective (if the WSJ couple want to drink wine with sediment in it, that’s up to them we guess), some of it truly is not (if you don’t want bubbles in your Champagne, buy white Burgundy).

First, all agree that decanting a wine changes it; whether for better or worse is the question. The two reasons for decanting wine are either to remove the wine from its sediment (usually a consideration with older wines) or to let the wine ‘breathe’ and force some oxygen into the wine, which can ‘soften’ or ‘open up’ a younger wine and presumably force it closer to its sweet spot; since the fractional oxidation that takes place as a wine ages in a bottle is one of the biggest contributors to its ageing to perfection, the logic is that if one opens a wine earlier than is ideal, you can ‘fake’ the ageing process by forcing some air into it. Indeed, at least half of the tasting rooms in the Napa Valley use one of those new ‘aerators’ (such as Vinturi) to progress the baby wines they are releasing to the public a bit ahead of ‘optimum drinking’.

However, there are many questions the previous paragraph begs, first and foremost: what is optimum drinking? Wine Geek likes his steak prepared medium- rare; if you like yours medium-well, who is wrong? (it’s you by the way). Some tasters think if the wine doesn’t make them pucker, it’s ‘light’, and others find tannins bitter and unenjoyable. Go figure. Also, let’s pretend that we can all agree on the exact moment a wine shows its best; the question then is how do we get it there? When Wine Geek was a little Wine Geek, there was a wine writer for Vogue magazine named Martin Gersh. Mr. Gersh wrote eloquent and informed articles on all sorts of wine subjects, usually followed by a list of recommended wines, which always included exactly how long the reader should let the wines breathe: 30 minutes, 1 hour 20 minutes, 50 minutes, et cetera. We envisioned Mr. Gersh sitting in his kitchen with a stopwatch tasting all of the recommended wines every five minutes and noting the changes in each until it reached sybaritic Nirvana. But a reader might get a bottle that was stored differently than Mr. Gersh’s, then what? An algorithm factoring in the temperature of the wine store? And even if he had this divine power to know when the wine was at its best, gee what fun is that? It’s tantamount to just watching the last ten minutes of a movie to see how it ends; who cares how it ends if you didn’t watch the plot develop? By the way, this last reference is in no way an admission that Geek read Vogue magazine in the 80’s.

Switching gears a bit, there is the issue of decanting a wine to remove it from its sediment. Few people think that is a bad idea. But as was alluded to above, it is usually older wines that throw sediment. And in the case of very old wines—usually the ones with a lot of sediment—the wine is already at an advanced stage of development, and perhaps downright frail. Exposing it to the oxygen that impacts wine during decanting can literally push it over the edge. Indeed, Wine Geek has been present on several occasions where an old or very old wine was decanted and immediately served, only to enjoy the first taste, note by the second taste the fruit was gone, and by the third, find he was holding a glass of vinegar. Don’t lose too much sleep over this conundrum however; how often does the reader drink thirty, forty, or fifty year old bottles? (if frequently, please contact us).

Another consideration is what type of wine are we talking about anyway? High tannin-level Cabernets/Bordeaux can almost always benefit from some aeration (details below), but what about Pinot Noir/Burgundy? What about Barolo? White wines? Champagne? On Burgundy, none other than the ‘Grande Dame’ of Burgundy, Becky Wasserman once told Geek that she “never decants Burgundy, or else you lose the puff “. What then to do about sediment in older Burgundies the young Geek asked: “decant directly into the glasses” she answered. Of course, Geek had witnessed his other Burgundy mentor slosh young Burgundy from glass to glass 10, 15, 20 times to help “wake it up”. What is a young pinot-phile to do? Then, on a recent trip to France, Geek and his crew watched as EVERY wine—white and red—was decanted while dining in all of the better restaurants. We thought it just for show, but then visited a domaine in Chablis for whom Max Riedel had designed a decanter specifically for their white wines (we bought one, and use it frequently). And on the subject of decanting Champagne, it happened to us: 6 or 7 years ago. While in Champagne, having a decadent dinner of five courses with five different Champagnes (someone else was paying, boss), when the last wine was about to be served, our Sommelier asked “Monsieur, I recommend we decant the Clos des Goisses.” Geek thought ‘ok, they’re making fun of the Americans in the back room’. Somm could tell we were surprised by the question and assured us that for this particular Champagne, it was recommended; we enjoyed it immensely and subsequently found out the Champagne house itself recommends decanting this particular cuvée. This said, in the referenced article on this subject by the eloquent Peter Liem, half of the experts interviewed liked it, half thought it was stupid.

So, if you are more confused now than before you started reading this, here’s more. Decanter Magazine has run coverage of an ‘experiment’ in the past three month’s issues; several vintages of specific wines —a trio of Vintage Ports (Taylor’s, Graham’s and Quinta Vale Dona Maria), Shafer Hillside vs Lynch Bages, and an M. Chapoutier Hermitage vs a Henschke Barossa Shiraz. The results were inconclusive at best—sometimes the panel thought the wines showed best from the bottle, some of the wines showed best with four hours in a decanter.

Bottom line to this is there is no bottom line. Generally speaking, most high quality younger wines (especially Cabernet and Syrah based wines) can benefit from a bit of aeration. Generally speaking, old to very old wines need to be treated gently and if decanting to remove sediment, get ready to possibly drink it quickly*. And though decanting whites (or Champagnes) is rarely required, indeed there are some great whites that really do show their best after being opened a while; ever notice that your last glass of a Grand Cru Chablis was the best? That’s from exposure to oxygen. The good news is you can feel free to open a wine and watch it evolve in subsequent glasses or tastes over a period of an hour or so…if you can drink it that slowly. Isn’t this what makes wine so fascinating after all?

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*of course there are exceptions and exceptions to exceptions on this. One is Barolo. Traditionally, the local would open (but not decant) a wine 1 hour for each year of age prior to serving, i.e. if one were serving a 30 year old Barolo, they would open it the afternoon the day before the feast; sort of counterintuitive to the parameters above. But we have learned that Baroli do seem to grow in the decanter unlike any other wines—especially the old ones. In Wine Geek’s house, we would typically decant a 15 year old Barolo in the late afternoon for an 8 pm meal. The mystery of wine…

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