In a recent piece on proper wine-pouring technique, we promise to explore the decanter as an object in its own right. That's not because the mechanics of decanting are particularly tricky; rather, it's the reasoning behind the process that can confuse a casual drinker. Knowing why to decant is the better part of knowing how.
Here's your crash course in why you should (or shouldn't) pour one out.
Aeration: It's understandable to assume that you need to let only older, cellared bottles breathe, just like you'd air out clothes long stored in the attic. But in fact, recent vintages are the primary candidates for aeration. The most obvious examples are bigger reds whose tannins haven't yet been mellowed by age; exposure to oxygen helps soften them. Yet less tannic reds and, yes, even whites can benefit as well. Any age-worthy young wine can become more expressive with a bit of time out of bottle.
"A bit" is the operative phrase here. Although a muscular red could conceivably breathe for an hour or more, Lacey Rozinsky, a sommelier at the Four Seasons Hotel New York, thinks most wines don't need to sit longer than a half hour. "You don't want them to become flabby," she says. Remember that decanted wines continue to evolve after they've been poured.
Sediment removal: Sediment, which master sommelier Bobby Stuckey, co-owner of Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, says "clouds what a wine really tastes like," can be found in reds older than about seven years; unfiltered, unfined bottles of any age or color; and vintage Ports. A sediment funnel and/or strainer that fits into the mouth of your decanter will trap the unpleasant particles before they sully your glass.
It's important to note, however, that the older a wine is, the more fragile it becomes—exposure to oxygen can actually harm it. In this case, you might double decant, as Rozinsky suggests: After straining the schmutz, rinse the inside of the empty bottle with water, insert a funnel into the neck and pour the wine from your decanting vessel back into the bottle. (Take care to agitate it as little as possible during this part.) Then again, if you know in advance that you'll be serving a particularly long-aged, delicate wine, both Rozinsky and Stuckey agree that your best bet is not to decant at all but to simply stand the bottle upright for a few days so the sediment settles to the bottom, then pour it slowly and gently.
Aesthetics: Hey, if you really want to pour a $10 porch pounder from a $500 crystal objet d'art at your next barbecue, go for it. As Rozinksy points out, "Everybody loves a show." But rest assured that when decanting is truly beneficial for the reasons above, a show isn't. "I'm that guy who uses a clean coffee pot if I have to," Stuckey promises; likewise, Rozinsky has used coffee filters to strain out sediment in a pinch. In short, the romance of the decanting ritual should come second to the reasons for—or against—it.
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