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Aug 26, 2006 01:11 PM

Decant or not decant

I know decanting is one of the more traditional elements of formal wine service, and also one of the most controversial. I always assumed that decanting improves reds by softening tannins, especially with the Nebbiolo-based wines that we love so much; my wisdom is that young, brawny reds, such Barbarescos and Barolos, benefit most from air exposure; creating sort of a sweet spot, a time during which these wines can display added intensity and fragrance.. Aside the aesthetic upside -- nearly any wine looks more enticing in stylish crystal, what do you prefer? And also, do you do whites?

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  1. There are almost no wines that decanting would damage, so it's a pretty safe call if it floats your boat. Plenty of everyday drinkers wouldn't likely improve much and may not be worth the fuss, but it won't hurt them.

    While I've never done it, I'd imagine some whites could be improved. To begin with, it would help warm them up quickly which is not a bad thing if the wine came straight from the fridge. Also, if it's an age worthy wine like a riesling or white burg, it could help open them up a bit.

    Ironically, the only wines that one needs to be careful of are fragile old wines which might be on the verge of turning. Of course, many of these need to be decanted off their sediment anyway. You just need to be sure to drink them up quickly. 1/2 hour later and you could be looking at vinegar.

    1. We have several decanters (three port, two for reds with a wide neck and bellish body for extra air, and a tall slender one for whites). I love using them and will do so even with Two-Buck.

      1. Fundamentally, the question of when, or if, decanting is justified depends on how the wine reacts to aeration.
        From a chemical standpoint, decanting exposes a wine to air, triggering oxidation and evaporation.
        Whilst I advocate for decanting wine, prolonged aeration can adversely affect oaky, tannic young reds.
        In general, the tannins seemed to grow greener and less supple with aeration, while the fruit lost vibrancy. I sometimes observed that the cedar and vanilla notes from new oak barrels grew progressively more dominant. Although oak tends to integrate with bottle age, aeration magnifies it in young wines as oxidation reduces fruit character. My advice is to be conservative when decanting young red wines, tasting frequently so as not to miss their sweet spot.
        For older reds with sediment, decanting is advisable. Although sediment, which is comprised mostly of color and tannin molecules precipitated out of the wine, forms naturally during maturation and poses no health dangers, it should be removed before serving. Otherwise it clouds appearance and can impart bitter flavors and a gritty texture.
        It's difficult to predict how much sediment an older wine will contain. While it's sometimes possible to inspect a wine with a strong light, it's wise to assume that reds start accumulating sediment with five to 10 years in bottle. Some wine types, such as Vintage Port, generate significantly more sediment than others, such as red Burgundy. White wines rarely develop sediment.
        Proper decanting requires forethought and a steady hand. Ideally, the wine should stand upright for three or four days to allow any sediment to settle. Some particles can be fine as dust and need several days to collect on the bottom of the bottle. Decanting older wines is a simple process, though exacting. After the bottle is gently uncorked, the capsule should be removed and the neck wiped clean. A bright light, such as a flashlight beam, should be positioned under the neck of the bottle. Then, the wine should be poured slowly and steadily into the decanter, until sediment reaches the neck. The remaining ounce or two of wine, with sediment, should be discarded.
        Wines should be served sediment free. But mature bottles sometimes lack the fruit to withstand aeration, so I prefer a cautious approach. Once they really develop bottle bouquet, I think it's very possible you'll miss something in that first hour.
        Generally speaking, discretion is the better part of valor for bottles 15 or more years old. So gauge a wine's condition before decanting. Pour a small taste (carefully, though, so that the sediment isn't disturbed). If the wine shows well, decant just before service. But if it seems closed and unexpressive, moderate aeration in a decanter might bring about a memorable transformation.

        1 Reply
        1. re: foodnwineandy

          While there may be many reasons one chooses to decant a wine (tradition, show, removal of sediment, holding more than one bottle worth of wine, allowing excess CO2 or SO2 to more quickly exit the wine and "blow off" before its poured in a glass), and with the exeception of old/mature wines (15+ years of bottle age) there is simply no scientific basis for claims that short term aeration can induce the chemical reactions that polymerize tannins and other phenolic components of young red wine, which is what the "softening" of tannic reds is usually attributed to. Instead, any "evolution" in the glass or decanter of a young red wine is more likely the result of it warming from storage temperature to room temperature, which changes the rate of evaporation of various aromatics and changes the way that acidity, alchohol, fruit and oak flavors are perceived in the mouth.

        2. The original comment has been removed
          1. Thank you for this question and the answers. I have been wondering about whether there is a reason to decant other than to remove sediment. It seems that it is a controversial question. Furthermore, I once read about a tasting of a very old wine in which swirling in the sediment imparted significant flavor and aroma that was gone from the decanted wine!

            I like the experimental approach. With an older bottle of red I will try decanting half and leave half in the bottle and compare glasses poured from each.

            3 Replies
            1. re: kenito799

              Decanting a wine, beyond the separation of sediment, is a personal matter, and as foodnwineandy, so eloquently put it, can possibly break an otherwise good wine. If I am doing the decanting for aeration purposes, I'll usually pour a taste for myself (and maybe for any with a real interest) and watch the development in the glass, as I swirl. To just blindly decant, to open up a young red, might not give the desired results. Often, when decanting for separation, I'll cap the decanter for an older wine, so as to not let it die in the vessel. Again, a glass poured before decanting, can help you determine what's really happening in the decanter. I have many wine-savy friends, who blindly decant every red, regardless of what that wine might really need.

              Thank you foodnwineandy for a very nice article on decanting.


              1. re: Bill Hunt

                it seems that the article is gone...can someone provide a link to it? Its take-home message seemed (to me) to be that wine doesn't develop in the glass and that it is always best just out of the bottle...not sure I agree with that!

                1. re: kenito799

                  Hello Kenito799,

                  The article that I was referring to was the thrid reply to this thread. It's still showing on my browser. Basically, he states that decanting should be based on "how the [particular] wine responds to aeration." I think that I may have misled you a bit. Winenfoodandy's post (by my reading) indicated only that all wines do not benefit from aeration/decanting. A lot of the "to benefit" relies on one's personal taste. If one does not like older Bdx., for instance, they might rather prefer the wine from the bottle, rather than one having been aerated, either by swirling, or decanting. Same thing for some whites - some folk do not appreciate an aged Montrachet, but like their Chards young, fruity and very forward. It's all very personal. The reason that I try and retain a small portion of wine, prior to decanting it, is not that I like it better, only that I want to monitor the changes and experience the wine at several stages. It's like having a red in your glass for a while, swirling, sniffing, and tasting. You get to experience the evolution. Then, when your back is turned, the waitstaff "tops up" your glass, and you start from almost zero!

                  If you cannot see his article in reply to your initial question, let me know, and I will copy it from the board and e-mail it to you.

                  As for "swirling in" the sediment, I'd be very hesitant. There is usually a noticeable "bitterness" in the sediment of red wines. Maybe it's just my palete, but additonal bitterness is not a characteristic that I appreciate. However, some folk like to spread the sediment from Vintage Port onto crackers, but that is their choice and not one that I would make.