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Wine to me is passion. It's family and friends. It's warmth of heart and generosity of spirit. Wine is art. It's culture. It's the essence of civilization and the art of living. - Robert Mondavi

Decant You Can - Like a Pro

Sunday, November 4, 2012
I believe one can never have too many decanters - those funny shaped decorative vessels used primarily to let wine breathe before serving.  Because a decanter is often displayed as a showpiece in addition to providing aeration, people are now purchasing decanters with extravagant shapes and qualities intended to draw attention. They may take the form of a long-necked "swan”, a cobra, or other unmentionable shapes with bulbous round bases and elongated necks that would make your grandmother blush the color of a fine rosé.  I encourage you to use your decanter and not let it collect dust or flowers on the shelf.  Here are three simple rules to have you decanting like a sommelier:

Rule 1: Determine whether the wine needs to be decanted.

The two veritable reasons to decant wine are to remove sediment and allow the wine to breathe. Typically, older, red wines are classic candidates for decanting, while young wines and white wines do not usually require it.  Many older wines will inevitably have sediment* and as anyone who has ever reached the end of their glass only to have the last sip full of a gritty, bluish gunk will tell you, it’s no picnic. However, it’s sometimes an appealing touch as a host/ess to decant a wine for guests and not purely for aesthetic reasons; I’d endorse decanting a younger full-bodied red or white wine to allow oxygen to get into the wine and accelerate the release of its aromatic and flavor compounds.

Rule 2: Learn how to properly decant wine:
The trick to decanting wine like a pro is to pour the wine into the decanter slowly and steadily, keeping the same side of the wine bottle down that was down during the aging process so as not to stir up the sediment. Before you begin, hold the decanter and wine bottle up with a white tablecloth, a light, or if you want to be traditional - a candle - to allow you to see the sediment in the bottle.  Slowly open the wine, and with a cloth, clean the inside and outside of the mouth of the bottle. Next, place either a candle or a light beside the decanter. As you pour the wine into the decanter, allow the light to shine through the the neck and shoulder of the bottle so you will see sediment as it starts to make its way into the neck. If you choose to use a candle, be very careful to not position the flame too closely to the bottle so you don’t warm the wine as it makes its exit. As the sediment starts to approach the neck of the bottle opening, this is your sign to stop pouring the wine into the decanter.  Once this happens, carefully set the bottle down and let it settle for several minutes.  If you’re keen on it, you may then try again, to potentially squeeze a little more clear wine away from the remaining sediment.

Rule 3: Determine when the decanted wine is ready to drink
Now that the wine is safely in the decanter, its rich color can be viewed through the clear glass and its aromas are being generously released into the air. This leads me to the second benefit of decanting wine and back to why these vessels are shaped so strangely. The decanter is shaped specifically to allow the maximum amount of surface area for air to hit the wine. While during the years of aging you don't want the wine exposed to air due to oxidation damage, now that you're ready to drink it, getting oxygen across a good surface area of a wine will draw out its aromas, which enhances your ability to taste the wine completely.  Once in the decanter, you might pour a small amount into your glass and leave the rest, letting it open up for a little longer. Generally a half to one hour is a good amount of time to let the wine fully open up, and you will continue to see the wine flavors change throughout the evening as it continues to breathe. Never let the wine sit out for too long – after a day or so of exposure, most wine will be on its way to becoming expensive vinegar.  Generally speaking, as soon as an older wine is opened there’s a fine timeline between it opening up and losing its character, so leaving it in the decanter for several hours (as you might with a younger vintage) will not benefit the wine or you.

If you ever find yourself in a situation where you are pressed for time and need to quickly decant/aerate a wine, I’ll share a tip I learned from a famous sommelier that you can take with a grain of salt (or sediment).  Take that beautifully decanted wine, and pour it into a clean blender and pulse the “blend” button several times. Believe it or not, this will aid in accelerating the aeration process - and can be a fun way to completely shock and awe your guests while producing a glorious result.  If you’re not sure whether to decant a wine just remember - yes you can.

*Sediment forms in red wine when tannins and anthocyans (wine’s coloring agents) interact, forming large, complex molecules that eventually grow too big to remain soluble and precipitate as sediment. This is why high quality, concentrated red wines with more skin exposure tend to accumulate more sediment.

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