The Wine Lover’s Dilemma : To Decant or Not to Decant ?

You may think about buying a decanter, a nice “carafe” or an aerator? But should you really decant or aerate every wines ? What are the benefits and the risks of this operation ? 

By Frédéric Arnould (lefred@toutsurlevin.ca)

First, it is important to mention that oxygen can be both the worst and best friend of the wine. The worst, because it can simply « kill » your nectar with the oxidation. And the best, because to evolve in the bottle (while « infiltrating » through the sometimes microscopic pores of the cork for several years for vintage wines) and to fully reveal its aromas, a wine needs oxygen.

photo : torciano.com

photo : torciano.com

Why oxygenate the wine?

As soon as you open a bottle of wine, oxidation begins and will transform irreversibly its aromas and will also soften tannins (the one that gives you that feeling of dryness in the mouth) . The carafe will let go the unwanted smells generated by the sulphur and volatile acidity.

There are varieties that will benefit the most from the aeration process or decanting. For example, grapes with thicker skin and more pronounced tannins such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Nebbiolo, will enjoy a “stay” in a carafe. For grape varieties with thin skin, such as Pinot Noir, which produce less tannic wines, or even for wines made from Grenache, it is not recommended to decant them because they « get tired » too fast.

Not for all wines!

The basic rule is that, in general, we will decant a young wine to help it develop faster and to “calm his enthusiasm” a little, while for an older wine, we’ll settle it in order to get rid of impurities that have accumulated over the years in the bottle. Is it just for red wines? Mostly yes, although some like to decant  white wines such as Chardonnay, Riesling or older whites of the Spanish appellation of Rioja.

it.wikipedia.org

it.wikipedia.org

For the youngest…

A young wine, sometimes a bit « scattered » because of his young age, needs to be “shaken” slightly in order to be more presentable and more pleasant (don’t see any serious analogy with a teenager … although…but I digress !). In this case, we will place the wine in a decanter or a carafe rather flared to facilitate the fullest possible contact of wine with air (oxygen). The best way is still to taste the wine in a glass and let it breathe for 15-20 minutes, and  taste it again. If you feel that the taste and flavors have evolved, so this wine’s worth a stay in a carafe. The duration of the stay can vary between 30 minutes and 2 hours.

photo : passionduvin.over-blog.com

photo : passionduvin.over-blog.com

And for the oldest…

If we proceed with the decanting of wine aged 15 and over,  we must be careful. The idea is rather to separate the sediment that has accumulated over time in the bottle. It is better to conduct this operation shortly before serving the wine because as soon as the wine is poured into the glass, the wine will evolve very quickly. Some purists will decant older wines in the light of a candle placed underneath the bottle so they can see the sediments and thus avoid pouring them into the decanter. The fact remains that sometimes this could lead to a rude awakening for wines that have matured for several years in the bottle should be a matter of caution for all of us because it can sometimes damage their aromatic bouquet. So, in doubt, it is best not to do so. Personally I am not a big fan of this method, because of the risks.

riedel-decanter-palomaIn all shapes…

Carafes and decanters come into all kinds of shapes. Moreover, manufacturers are quick to sell you almost a different shape depending on the grape variety or the type of wine. Does it make a real difference ? Nothing is less certain, in fact, it’s mostly a matter of taste and tolerance on your part when it comes time to clean it. Some decanters, so beautiful and original as they are, are a real pain to wash.

aaeraWhat about the « aerators » ?

In recent years, we see these little gadgets called aerators that abound on the market. They help aerate the wine, according to the designers, to release or « multiply » aromas. Presented in various forms, the principle is the same, the wine is poured passing through this gadget to « land » in your glass. An operation that is usually accompanied by a sometimes “not sexy at all” noise. This is intended again to wines rather young. But do not expect miracles by “stimulate” your $ 10 convenience store wine. It will still taste like a $ 10 convenience store wine after being aerated. Does this really boost the flavors for a little more elaborate wine ? A little, yes, but I’m still trying to convince me to this day … like many other professionals.

A free solution ?

In my youth, my family uncorked a bottle of wine to let it breathe a few hours before serving. The initiative was noble but a bit too minimalist. The « breathing » area being the size of the neck was too small for that oxygen really getting in contact with the nectar. A little trick if you do not have a carafe or decanter at home ? Pour yourself a glass of wine to make room in the bottle to at least its « shoulders ». Thus, the aeration of the content will be very smooth.

blender-philips-HR2084-2Finally, I would like to talk to you about the technique of « hyperdecantation ». Because it is frankly bizarre, grotesque and probably fanciful. Yet it is a technique put forward by Nathan Myhrvold, a former Microsoft executive information systems. He wrote a book on the culinary arts and sciences (Modernist Cuisine). On wine, he had a slightly wacky theory. He thought that putting wine in a blender (ie hyperdecantation) revealed all its splendor. I let you judge the technique but I would say that it lacks subtlety. Do not try this at home with your Dad’s Petrus ! Cheers!