To Decant or not to Decant, that is the Question

People often ask me about the necessity of decanting, especially around the holidays.  Everyone has a relative who is particular about his wine; you know, the one who cradles his bottle like he’s brought the Messiah himself and looks over your shoulder as you gingerly place it on the counter.  He’s the one who took a couple of wine education classes after graduate school and is pretty sure that if he only had the time, he’d be the 181st person to hold the title of Master Sommelier.

Let me start by saying, I’m no pro in this department.  All I can do is give you a little background, then share my personal thoughts about the subject – tell you what I do when I drink wine.  Decanting originated as a means of clarifying wine – particularly older wine.  It was meant to remove the sediment that can occur in wine over time.  Modern wines that are intended to be imbibed within a few years generally will be sediment free due to modern filtration processes.  Wines that are prepared with aging in mind, will eventually show sediment in the form of tartrates and pigmented tannins resulting from phenolic polymerization (red wines)1.

When you go to a fancy restaurant and order an expensive bottle of wine, there’s no option for requesting that it be decanted; the sommelier will do it as a matter of course.  He (or she) will bring a candle to provide pure light through the bottle, and as he or she pours, the moment sediment becomes visible in the neck of the bottle, the pouring stops.  Though there may be a meaningful percentage of your pricey wine left in the bottle, it is considered contaminated by the sediment and will not be poured.

Decanting is thought by some to have the added benefit of introducing oxygen into the wine.  The act of pouring the wine from the bottle to the decanter aerates the wine.  The big broad base of the decanter is designed to optimize surface area.  In other words, it optimizes the volume of wine that comes in contact with the air.  Why do we care about aerating the wine?  Aerating is thought to develop the bouquet of the wine.  The great French oenology professor, Emile Peynaud from the University of Bordeaux, felt the exact opposite: to aerate a bottle of wine is to lose the concentrated aromas – in effect to dilute the sensorial experience.  Besides, one can always aerate the wine by swirling it in one’s glass.

Vinturi Wine Aerator & Decanter

So, do I decant my own wines?  No, I don’t.  Should I?  Perhaps, but I drink wine in a manner that works for me.  The screw top is such a reliable device that it only allows a very limited amount of oxygen into the bottle.  This makes our wines age in a slow, controlled manner, with little opportunity for generating a flaw in the wine.  In addition, our careful, minimalistic winemaking approach results in limited sediment.  My issue with decanting is that it’s a fatal process.  Once you’ve decanted an entire bottle of wine, you’d better be prepared to drink the whole thing – there’s no going back.  A few new products have hit the market which allow you to decant a glass at a time.  The Vinturi is one of them.  Incidentally, for those of you who are less geeky than I am, Vinturi is a nice play on words…a merge of ‘vin’ for wine, and ‘Venturi’ which is a fluid dynamics/physics term.  But again, after a long day in the winery, I’m not likely to fool with a gadget.

My advice is that if you have a wonderful bottle of aged wine, decant it to ensure that you eliminate the sediment.  If you can truly taste a difference in newer wines due to the aeration, then aerate them.  If you can’t, then don’t bother.  If your brother-in-law wants you to decant his wine, indulge him.  It’s the season for giving and you can save the arguing for something more interesting like politics or religion.

Cheers!

Andrew

1 – As I was writing this, I did reference Jancis Robinson’s excellent tome, “The Oxford Companion to Wine”, and specifically her entries on ‘Decanting’ and ‘Sediment’.

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4 Responses to To Decant or not to Decant, that is the Question

  1. Steve says:

    Great piece, Andrew. You hit the nail on the head by sticking to your own approach: drinking wine in a manner that works for you.

    Personally, I decant pretty much every red wine I open. First, there’s little danger in our household of there being much in the way of leftovers! For some wines, decanting has no appreciable effect, though most enjoy at least a little of what I’ve heard described as “…an unwinding of the long strands of molecules that make wines taste smooth.”

    But there are a couple of more immediate benefits to decanting even younger wines beyond just texture. First, many modern wines are getting up there in terms of alcohol content. Nothing wrong with that, but letting some of that heat blow off can really help make them more approachable on opening. The other, more compelling reason I’ve found is the effect oxygen has on facilitating the evolution and revelation of flavor dimensions. This seems to be especially true for Pinot Noir, but also for other wines with serious concentration and/or higher volatile acidity.

    My current favorite example of a wine that changes dramatically in the decanter? Esperance.

    Cheers!

    • Great points Steve. And yes, I agree that with younger, bolder wines, decanting can have the effect of simulating aging… Again, and as you noted, I think that people need to do what works for them and not cower under the cloud of ‘what they’re supposed to do.’

      I did find it interesting that the whole ‘aerating’ and ‘breathing’ thing is a matter of scientific and/or philosophical debate from rather renowned experts (e.g. Emile Peynaud)…which of course circles back to ‘do what works for you’ – something you and I both believe in.

      Thanks for jumping into the conversation and I’m of course stoked that you enjoy our Esperance either way!

      Andrew

  2. There’s also the issue of decanting to avoid the presence of ugly labels at your dining table: a matter of appearances – http://sedimentblog.blogspot.com/2011/11/decanting-wine-for-appearances-sake.html

    But yours appear rather elegant, so that’s not an issue with you!

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