Young Wines -
To Decant to not to Decant?
Some wine lovers maintain that decanting a young wine opens its aromas via aeration, whilst others argue that the difference is imperceptible. On a consensus basis, one could conclude that it probably does neither benefit nor harm to the wine, thus relegating the process of decanting to the realms of ritual.
However, decanting should not be dismissed quite so simply.
In my experience, it is a fact that most wine lovers do indeed perceive a difference in a young decanted wine, as opposed to a young wine poured from a freshly opened bottle. But that difference has more to do with raising the temperature of the wine via decanting rather than the effect of 'aeration'. If one considers the physical process of decanting then this conclusion is self evident. A bottle of wine will leave a good cellar at around 15°-16°C and be brought into a room that is on average 21°C. Decanters are made of glass and have a large exposed surface area, thus the glass more likely approaches the room temperature than the cooler bottle temperature. If you dipped your thermometer into the wine before and after decanting, you would find an instant temperature difference of around 2°C. The warmer wine from the decanter is liberating more aroma molecules, creating the sensation of 'altered' smell. This perception is quite valid and is also experienced when using sizable glassware, but it is not due to air contact, rather temperature. The principle of liberating odour molecules is clearly illustrated by the "Chinese Rice Trick" (see the video demonstration below).
While many commercial wines are stabilised prior to bottling in order to remove tannins, tartrates and other solids, some winemakers maximise flavour retention by minimising the filtration of their wines. Many of Australia's great reds and whites are bottled only after a coarse filtering to remove large solids, leaving the balance suspended in the wine, or without any filtering at all. As such wines age in the bottle, the need to decant becomes one of necessity due to the excessive deposits that often develop during the aging process.
The punt in most wine bottles, apart from reinforcing the base, is designed as a way of consolidating and holding these deposits in a 'block' at the bottom of a bottle*. Over time, deposits also begin to form on the walls of the bottle. This occurs usually around five years after bottling, indicating that some of the tannins have dropped out of the wine and that it is beginning to soften. This self-refining process happens slowly and at different rates for different bottles, for different grape varieties from different vintages and producers. It is also very dependent upon the temperature and humidity in which the wine has been stored.
The Procedure for Decanting an Old Wine
Let's assume we have been cellaring a great bottle of Australian wine for a decade - a special occasion has come up and we decide to drink that bottle. Firstly, we need to bring the bottle up from the cellar at least 48 hours beforehand and let it stand in the room in which we are going to serve the wine. In so doing, particles suspended in the wine will begin to gravitate to the bottom of the bottle and settle in a ring around the punt. Meanwhile, the wine will slowly move from cellar temperature to room temperature.
The bottle should be opened and decanted only at the last minute prior to serving.
There are a couple of different ways of conducting the decanting process, ensuring that the sediment remains at the bottom of the bottle and doesn't end up in your glass. Firstly, by using a candle or a light.
Secondly, by using a pre-measured decanter. We'll examine both methods here.
Opening the Wine
You will need to have on standby a clean cloth, (smell it to make sure that there is no odour taint). There is a good chance that the bottle that you've brought up from your cellar has a lead capsule. Cut the top of the capsule carefully, at the bottom of the top lip of the capsule, keeping the bottle upright and without agitating the wine. There will often be some white powdery sediment which has been deposited on the lead capsule and top of the cork, or even a little mould. Carefully wipe the top of the bottle and cork clean. It may be necessary to use a damp corner of the cloth if the grit refuses to come off dry. The next step is to draw the cork. Because of their nature (i.e. being the bark of a cork tree), corks can vary significantly in their quality. A very old wine may have a very frail cork, or it might just be a dry, crumbly cork. Use a sharp pointed, five spiral corkscrew with a fine worm and very carefully place the sharp point of the spiral at the centre of the cork, then twist ever so gently. Do not twist the corkscrew so far that it goes through the cork to the other side. When the corkscrew is down sufficiently, hold the top of the bottle firmly by the shoulder, making sure that no agitation of the wine occurs, then carefully draw the cork in a slow vertical action and hope for a clean pull. There may be some cork stuck to the inner neck of the bottle so carefully use a corner of the cloth to clean the sides. A 'baby' finger is another way of cleaning the inside neck, but make sure your hands are clean and free of odours (especially those from soaps).
There are many decanter designs on the market, from superb antiques with beautiful etchings and decorative features, to classic crystal decanters and modern works of minimalist style. Then there are unique innovations like the Zerutti Turn decanter, shaped like a spinning ound the table aerating and warming the wine. Which decanter you choose is usually a question of matching decor, or of how much table theatre you feel is appropriate for your guests. Whatever your personal preferences, the problem with any decanter is that unless you use it frequently, it tends to sit in the cupboard, accumulating stale air. So when bringing out a decanter for an occasion, always sniff the air inside - most likely a wash and dry will be required prior to use. After washing, a decanting stick is very useful as it allows the decanter to drip-dry upside down, ensuring that no bad air or unwanted smells are lurking inside that might contaminate the wine.
Match & Candle Method
Many a wine guide recommends the use of a lighted candle for the purpose of decanting an old wine. The process is satisfactory and historically, no doubt, was the only way decanting could be undertaken in the absence of electricity or torches. Matches, burning candles and fine wine are not an ideal partners as the sulphur from match heads and the smoke and melting wax from a candle fill the air with aromas that are in opposition to the wine, and may remain in the room for some time. My preferred option is to use a small pencil-light torch, or even a small desk lamp.
Let's assume we will decant using a candle or small torch. Place the candle under the neck of the bottle near the shoulder, light the candle and then begin to decant the wine, watching the shoulder area for accumulation of sediment. When actually pouring the wine use a very steady hand and endeavor to get an even rather than a bubbly pour (air rushing into fill the space occupied by wine will agitate sediment). A good way to develop a steady flow and sure hand that achieves an even pour is to practise with bottles filled with water. From a 750 ml bottle you can expect to leave behind around 30 ml of wine and sediment which makes a good addition to gravy and the like, should you be decanting the wine as an accompaniment to a roast dinner.
Some wine drinkers like to serve the wine in the original bottle. If you are going to adopt this approach, and frankly, I think the procedure has a number of drawbacks, then a few added words of caution. Firstly, you need to wash the original bottle and then ensure that it is thoroughly dry. The best way that I have found to achieve this is to use super hot water and rinse the bottle a couple of times, allowing the water to pour out and completely evaporate, as well as allowing the bottle to return to room temperature. If you attempt to speed up the process you will likely end up with a cracked bottle caused by pouring cold liquid into warm glass, wasting the wine and years of patient cellaring. The other major drawback with this procedure is that an old wine often cannot stand around for too long - serving immediately after decanting is recommended. Old wines can be quite fragile and the window of opportunity to enjoy them at their best can sometimes be less than twenty minutes after opening. For this reason, old bottles are best enjoyed amongst a small group of friends. Only experience with bottles of the same wine will reveal exactly how much decanting time is required buts it's better for the wine to evolve or 'disappear' in the glass than in the decanter or from a re-poured bottle.
Pre Marked Bottle Method
The second method of decanting wine makes use of a pre-marked decanter which demands less concentration. Carefully empty the contents of the bottle up to the marked line on the decanter - at 720 ml, say, and with 30 ml automatically left in the bottle as sediment. The wine is then served from the decanter, and the original bottle and cork are passed around for inspection by the guests.
* Incidentally, if you've ever purchased a bottle of Portuguese Vintage Port you'll notice a white paint mark at the bottom of the bottle, this indicates the way the bottle was stored in the cellar - white mark up - and the way the bottle should be stored in the cellar at home.