The myths, fallacies, and improper methods of decanting wine abound. When should I decant? What should I decant? How should I decant? There is no shortage of wine experts who agree that decanting a wine provides beneficial effects. However, those who hold the opposite opinion are anything but rare. Both camps have solid arguments.
Why decant wine?
The two main reasons for decanting a wine are to allow the wine to breathe and to remove sediment that may have collected in the bottle. Decanting a wine exposes it oxygen, which, without getting too scientific, releases the flavors inherent in the wine. The sulfur compounds added for preservation during the winemaking process evaporate, leaving a clearer expression of the wine’s fruit. The same process happens in a swirled wine glass, just on a slower time scale. Sediment is a natural process that occurs in wine when it ages- tannins bind into chains and fall to the bottom of the bottle. Sediment is often bitter, chewy, and unpleasant enough to encourage their removal. The pro-argument of decanting wine cites both flavor improvements and sediment removal as the main pillars of their opinion.
Why not decant wine?
The danger, as noted by the non-decanters, is improper decantation and over-aerating a wine. Think of wine like a Lifetime biography (but much more interesting). The process of decanting is the same as pressing the fast forward button. If you start in the beginning (young wine), you will experience most of the wine’s life, but you will miss the subtle changes. If you start towards the end of the biography (old wine), it is likely you will miss the entire show. As a wine ages the fruit becomes much more subtle and delicate, and if decanted, the fruit may likely be gone by the time the wine reaches your lips. This is called a “dead wine”. “Dead wines” cannot be brought back to life. There is no rewind button for this biography.
Are you decanting properly?
The non-decanters also cite the argument that, “the risk isn’t worth the benefit”. This statement is in regard to both the chance for a “dead wine” and the likelihood of improper decantation, which is notably higher in restaurants. While I typically don’t deal with wine cradles or bottles older then 20 years, I am very conscious of how I decant a wine. Go slow! And be gentle with the bottle throughout the entire process, otherwise the sediment will be disturbed and you will have failed before you’ve even begun. Ideally, a light-source should be behind the bottle. I use a candle, which are in plethora on the tables at Il Posto. The idea is to illuminate the neck of the bottle so that the sediment is visible. Stop pouring once the sediment approaches the neck. A properly decanted wine is not easy, but when done well it always prompts a slight smile of rewarding self-satisfaction.
Should I or should I not decant?
So, did you note the catch 22 in this whole process? An aged wine throws sediment, which, ideally, should be removed through decantation. However, an aged wine also has extremely delicate fruit, which can be destroyed through decantation. The answer comes down to personal preference. Understand the advantages and the risks, weigh them, and decant or not decant accordingly. Personally, I will deal with the sediment and allow the wine to evolve in my glass. However, as a sommelier, I leave it up to the purchaser’s preference. Often times, a decanted wine is aesthetically pleasing, viewed as added value, and something that is seen as deserved, especially when the wine is expensive.
The wines that I choose to decant are the young, tight ones, with immature harsh tannins. Think of youthful cabernets or nebbiolos. Additionally, I try to encourage my patrons (all at the table) to try the wine before it is decanted. Part of the enjoyment of wine is following its progression and evolution through time. Not many biographies start at adulthood!
To decant or not to decant? It is completely up to you and depends on how you find enjoyment in your wine. Those in the pro-decanting camp appreciate wine as much as those who adamantly stay in the other corner. Both place their values in different aspects of what they appreciate in a wine. It is your wine and completely up to you regarding the nature of the journey that wine will take you on.