To Decant or Not AKA My most controversial post yet 3…2…1…
There have been many articles written about decanting, some are firmly in the you must decant everything camp. Others are a little more flexible on the topic. I guess we really need to start with the question “What is decanting?” Basically it’s the transfer of wine from the original bottle to another vessel. This begs the question why would need to do it? There are a variety of thoughts on this, ranging from the premise that it softens tannin, to the process allowing more aromatics to be released and finally the decanting allows you to remove the wine from any sediment occurring as a result of aging. In a restaurant setting it is also done (in my view) for aesthetic reasons. It looks good and can result in the possibility of an increased gratuity for a server as they have “done” more for you.
My view on when to decant is a lot narrower. After many years of retail and thousands of bottles opened and consumed I have realized that getting the timing right for decanting is so random that it’s generally better to open and pour and try to get as much air into the wine in the glass in front of you. What if you decant the wine at noon and it’s great at 3 but dinner isn’t till 730pm? You missed your window. I have seen more wines fall apart before service than I have seen wines that benefit from the practice. In many cases I believe that wine changing/improving in the decanter is a placebo effect. I feel the changes in the wine are more likely a result of changes in the tasting environment, IE your mouth. As your drink wine and eat proteins that act as a buffer to tannin and alcohol are constantly being denatured and replaced by food and the process of wine tasting/drinking. This results in a far greater variability of flavours and aromas being detected in the wine than could ever be revealed by the decanting process. I will only decant older wine right before service to get it off the sediment or if the wine is fundamentally flawed IE a lot of sulphur on the nose (IE burnt matchstick). Presumably you will know ahead of time if either of these conditions exists in the wine before planning to decant. You are planning ahead, right? I ask the question because if you decide to decant it’s best to stand up the bottle the day before to allow the sediment to settle to the bottom of the bottle. This makes it easier when you start to decant. Some collectors think you need to turn bottles in your collection. My view is that this practice disturbs sediment and makes it harder to decant when the time comes. If the bottle remains undisturbed there is a much better opportunity for the sediment to remain affixed to the side of the bottle. This will make your job much easier. Here is a link to visually explain the process of decanting. Click here
Choosing a decanter is a fairly simple process. I have two criteria, easy to handle and aesthetics. If a decanter is difficult to handle/pour from you are less likely to use it. If it’s too big or awkwardly shaped it’s not very nice on your table either. Your local wine retailer will likely have a nice selection of decanters, particularly around Christmas time as they make great gifts.
While I’m not fundamentally opposed to decanting I believe it needs to be used sparingly and with a light touch. There is a great New York Times article that also discusses the concepts I touch on in my post. Click here
Remember Spit Happens, tell your friends, drink great wine and eat great food.