To decant or not to decant is always the question. And there are no hard lines drawn. There are those who believe every bottle of wine deserves and benefits from decanting. Others decant only wines that are showing, or are suspicious of throwing off, a lot of sediment. And some believe only young wines benefit. I believe there is a crooked line here with no definitive direction.
The idea surrounding decanting wine is threefold — to aerate the wine and coax it toward more optimum drinkability, to separate an older wine from bitter sediment and to loosen up tightly-wound young wines full of tannins and/or spiciness that haven’t yet developed finesse and elegance. The first question you have to pose is “Is this wine delicate or more muscular and aggressive?” A properly stored wine from or prior to a vintage decade has had time to develop and mature in the bottle and is likely to be more delicate. That is, once opened and exposed to oxygen, it is likely to change quite quickly in the decanter or glass, possibly even passing through the optimum drinking stage before it is completely consumed. These wines are likely to show more sediment. A very gentle decanting of these wines can separate the wine from the sediment, making for a cleaner wine flavor unaffected by possible sedimentary bitterness.
For an older wine, it is important to be careful removing the cork as it might have become brittle or soft. Breaking the cork does not mean the wine is bad. Look for a clean color line of the wine near the wine end of the cork. A cleanly defined wine line indicates the cork seal has been good. A blurry wine line or a cork that is wine-stained through much of it indicates the seal might have been breached and the wine is probably showing signs of vinegar. Once opened, I like to pour this older wine very gently against the inside of a decanter. Look for the sediment on the low side of the bottle and leave this in the bottle or filter it off into a separate glass. The wine does not need much oxygenation at this point and a gurgling pour into the decanter or the glass will accelerate and shorten the delightful metamorphosis you are likely to encounter. This morphing of the wine is one of the true wonders of opening something well-made and properly aged. The flavors and layers will move and change in the glass. Initial flavors of earthy mushrooms move toward a fruitiness, tempered with licorice, pepper, anise, leather or unlit tobacco flavors.
A young wine, especially a red Zinfandel, a Malbec, Syrah or Tannat can show lots of tannins and taste stringent or constricted, bound up and not giving of itself. For this type of tightly wound wine there are many methods of fast-forwarding the aeration and aging process, which will allow for a more proper expression and experience of the wine. I will decant it but will do it rather aggressively, essentially upending the bottle and dumping the wine into the decanter. This quickly oxygenates the wine and pushes it forward possibly the equivalent of a few vintage years. There are aerators available (vinturi.com) to pour the wine through, which actually draws air into the wine helping with the opening up process. These are easily found in stores or online. They work. I have even taken two wine glasses and dumped the wine back and forth a few times, glass to glass, for the same effect.
So what shape decanter is the best? There are so many different shapes and sizes available at The Wine Enthusiast (wineenthusiast.com), Bed Bath & Beyond (bedbathandbeyond.com) and Williams-Sonoma(williams-sonoma.com), among others. Clear glass is key but shape is essentially aesthetic. There are lovely decanters shaped like swans, doves, ducks, teardrops, snakes and dragons. There are aerating decanters and the classic upside-down mushroom cloud-shaped decanter. I’m a fan of decanters without handles or with fancy appendages, because they are more likely to break. Decanters can cost anywhere between $45 and $150 with some costing much more. I found a perfectly good and elegant decanter at Costco a couple of years ago for less than $15.
There is a certain pageantry to employing a decanter for your wine presentation. The ceremony and ritual gets everyone’s attention. It tells your guests you are opening something special for them. And it tells your guests they are worthy of bit of pomp and elegance. Proper decanting will wake up your wine for immediate benefit and best enjoyment. Cheers!
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