To decant, or not to decant
It may at times be misunderstood as snobbery, haughtiness or the hallmark of pretention, but the practice of decanting a bottle of wine really can be an important speed bump between cork removal and pouring a glass. Sure, it can be somewhat of an inconvenience to have to find the crystal vessel you inherited from grandma and spend half an hour searching the cupboards as you mutter under your breath about someone moving things around without telling you – but if you want your older wines to show themselves at their very best, I reckon it’s a bother that’s worth the effort.
If you ask the experts, the advantages of decanting are threefold:
- It enhances the flavours and aromatics of the wine by exposing it to oxygen;
- It decants the sediments and enables them to be largely removed from the wine; and
- It enables any cork particles to be removed (obviously this is less of an issue if your wine is closed with a screwcap!).
One of the most common problems encountered with older bottles of red wine is an aroma of rotten eggs or struck match that can be encountered when first opened. This unpleasant smell is a sign of the presence of hydrogen sulphide, but the intensity will reduce significantly if given time to mix with oxygen. The smelly saddlebag problem is most commonly encountered in red wines that have dominant tannins, so decanting those wines will be beneficial.
Swirling the wine in a decanter can help to speed up exposure to oxygen, but it also stirs up the sediment which can be damaging to delicate wines like pinot noir or lighter reds. Sediment can dull or deaden the flavours and the expression of the wine’s character, so mixing the sediment through the settled wine is suboptimal. If your old bottle of red has a lot of sediment, I’d suggest decanting twice – the first time by slowly pouring the wine into a decanter while being careful not to pour in the sediment from the bottom of the bottle. If you then allow time to settle, the solids can later be slowly poured off into a second decanter to try and remove more sediment before any swirling takes place. I would only take this approach with robust reds as you can lose some of the aromatics and fruit if too aggressive with the swirling.
There’s certainly no reason why white wines can’t also be decanted, but care is required as the carbon dioxide can actually help to lift flavours. So too much oxygen contact can make it less aromatic and flavoursome. I wouldn’t suggest decanting champagne as it can destroy the fine bead of the most elegant bottles.
These days most wines are closed with screwcaps, so cork removal is less of a reason to decant. But if you plan on opening a special old bottle from the darkest and most cobwebbed corner of your under-staircase cellar, it would be a good idea to always allow it to stand upright for a day or two beforehand, so you are better able to remove sediment when decanting. It goes without saying that it wouldn’t be a good idea to shake up an old sediment-laden bottle in the course of transport to your dinner party or BYO restaurant venue, as the idea is to minimise sediment contact and remove it to improve the wine’s best features.
But decanting is not limited to old red wines as young headstrong wines with intense tannins will also undoubtedly improve after an hour or two in a decanter. I’d strongly recommend decanting youthful malbec, barolo, rioja, cabernet, shiraz or other reds based on the Nebbiolo grape – the astringency of the tannins will fall away remarkably and make for a softer, “smoother” and more palatable style of wine.
So you’ve decided to invest in a new crystal vessel; which ones are best? Well there’s really no right answer as everyone will have a personal preference. The only thing that really matters is the width of the base. If you plan to decant a delicate pinot noir, Beaujolais or primativo, then a smaller vessel will do less damage to the fruit characters, while a highly tannic full-bodied wine like tempranillo or cabernet sauvignon will do better in a decanter with a wide base, as it allows for more oxygen contact. As for the style, just buy what strikes your fancy.
My personal preference is for the artisan works by Riedel that look as much like a glassblower’s work of art as they do a wine storage vessel. They’re not cheap but are sure to become a topic of conversation when they land on the dining room table. But don’t forget that they need to be cleaned, and if they’re too space-age and funky, that might become quite a challenge!