To Decant Or Not To Decant?

Roberto Viernes
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Wednesday - September 12, 2007
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Among wine geeks there are fewer subjects that solicit more rigorous debate than decanting. When should you decant a wine? Why do we decant wines? I have my own personal views on decanting, and I’m sure that if you ask 10 other sommeliers they will tell you something different.

Decanting is the process of separating liquid from solid. We do this to wines that over time have formed deposits in the bottle, mostly “old” wines. The sediment is made up mostly of long-chain tannins and proteins that are left over in the wine after the winemaking process. The sediment is not very pleasant as it gets in your teeth and can actually make the wine taste bitter. They are not harmful to those that drink it. Still, no one wants to have solids floating in the wine they’re drinking - although I do have a friend who likes to say, “That’s why we have teeth!”

When a wine is decanted, it is obvious that as the wine is poured from the bottle it is exposed to air at an accelerated rate. This oxygenation changes the make up of the wine. It softens the tannin. And it also oxidizes the wine, changing the fruitiness of it. Depending on the age and level of quality of the wine, the fruitiness can come forward and become more intense or it can actually dissipate and weaken.

Here is where I have the trouble with decanting: Theoretically, decanting a young, high-quality wine that is in a “dumb” stage, or whose fruitiness is closed down, would be advisable. However, for older wines that are at their peak or may even be in decline, one would normally want to retain the fruitiness in the wine to enjoy it while drinking. In addition decanting is supposed to take the wine up the bell-shaped pleasure graph to its peak. But no one truly knows when the wine will hit its peak. On top of that, whose peak are you aiming for? Some people like their wines more fruity, but some like them really aged and tasting more of earth rather than fruit. And if the wine peaks, it can certainly drop off the peak quickly as well.

Let me throw one more curve into it. There is no amount of oxygenation that decanting a whole bottle of wine can do that swirling a small amount of wine in the glass cannot do. For me, I enjoy seeing the wine evolve in the glass rather than having it shocked into skipping all these little dips and curves that make wine such a fascinating beverage. There are even glasses that promote aeration of a wine just as a decanter. The only problem is when does it turn off? How do you tell the decanter or the aerating glass to stop? The next thing you know, the wine is beyond the point that you want to drink it. I hate when I taste a wine immediately from the bottle and I can see that it will drink well over the next hour, then it gets decanted and tastes like a shell of what I anticipated, and is no longer pleasurable to drink.

Certainly there are wines that require decanting. Old wines with a large amount of sediment, certainly, but these wines are often quite fragile and should be decanted only right before serving. Young top-notch wines that are thick with tannin and are known to have plenty of fruit can also benefit from decanting. And wines that are in a dumb stage that need to be awoken from their slumber. Then again I would rather be coaxed gently from my rest like in a single glass of wine rather than shaken from it and thrown to the ground like wine into a decanter.

No need to decant: 2004 Chateau La Roque ‘Cupa Numismae’ $20 - This southern French wine is made of 60 percent Syrah and 40 percent Mourvedre and has all the guts and richness of wines at twice the price. It is a wine that I buy for my own home consumption. 2005 Keller Estate Chardonnay ‘Oro de Plata’ $25 - Truly impressive, with the frame of a tri-athlete; superbly balanced and lingering finish of spice and clean orchard fruits and flowers.

Roberto Viernes is a master sommelier. E-mail .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
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