The In-Betweens of Decanting

Printed in the New York Times, this presentation written by offers some good and interesting information on decanting.

The In-Betweens of Decanting


WINE lovers rarely agree on the best methods of serving and drinking. Case in point: decanting, the practice of pouring wine from the bottle into another container before serving.

While the procedure is simple enough, the reasons for decanting, or not decanting, are hotly debated and little understood, even among experts. Proponents of decanting generally cite two benefits: pouring wine off the sediment that develops as some wines age, and exposing younger wines to air to bring out their aromas and flavors.

For most of wine-drinking history, decanting was standard procedure. Until science broke the code of how grape juice becomes wine and technology offered the tools to manage this process, most wines produced sediment or some other deposit as they aged. In order to avoid a mouthful of sludge, wines were habitually decanted, leaving the sediment in the bottle.

Today, most inexpensive mass-market wines are filtered and fined or clarified, before they are bottled. That process eliminates sediment, so decanting is unnecessary. But many good red wines are not fined and filtered, and those intended for aging, like top Bordeaux, Burgundy and Barolo, continue to produce sediment. So once they reach middle age, decanting these wines, very carefully, remains advisable.

Why carefully? The idea is to pour the wine, not the sediment. Assuming the bottle rested horizontally, possibly for years, the sediment will have settled to the bottom side. Stand the bottle upright at this point and what happens? The motion agitates the sediment so that decanting cannot help.

The situation can be remedied in one of two ways. If you’re at home and can plan ahead, set the bottle upright several days before you plan to open it. This allows the sediment to resettle at the bottom of the bottle, though it squelches spontaneity and offers no solution at restaurants.

“There’s no point in decanting a wine for sediment if you just pick up a bottle stored on its side,” said Laura Maniec, proprietor of  a wine bar and wine education center. “It’s important to have a decanting cradle.”

In their daintiness, decanting cradles, usually made of wicker or metal, may confirm the worst stereotype of the persnickety wine snob, but they are essential in restaurants. They permit an older bottle to be kept on its side as it is removed from storage, so it can be transported briefly, opened and poured without stirring up sediment.

Classic age-worthy reds are not the only bottles that develop solid particles.

“Quirky natural wines throw sediment that you wouldn’t expect,” said Juliette Pope, wine director at Gramercy Tavern, who says she often decants these types of wines. “Whites that are unfiltered and unfined can also develop tartrates.”

Wines that age gracefully may eventually reach a point where even careful decanting is too violent. With advanced age, fragile aromas and flavors can shrivel like dried flowers when exposed to air, leaving behind the husk of the wine. In such cases, you can keep the wine in the decanting cradle and pour directly into glasses, taking care not to stir up the sediment. When does a wine reach that point? It’s a judgment call; pour yourself a tiny sip to determine whether it is fragile, or vibrant and healthy.

While most agree on decanting wines to eliminate sediment, no such consensus exists on the question of decanting to give the wine air. Émile Peynaud, the influential Bordeaux enologist who died in 2004, believed that decanting a wine to let it breathe was largely useless and sometimes harmful.

By contrast, Nathan Myhrvold, the former chief technology officer of Microsoft and an author of “Modernist Cuisine,” a detailed examination of the science of cooking, advocates putting even the greatest wines into a blender http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/how-to-decant-wine-with-a-blender-09222011.html and whipping them to a froth. He calls this “hyperdecanting,” which he believes improves the flavor.

Pardon me while I cover my eyes and shout, “No, no, no!” Even his empirical evidence cannot convince me. One of the joys of wine is following its evolution in the glass over time. Each sip reveals a different facet of its overall beauty. To grind it all away in a blender, no matter how pleasing the final picture, robs one of this pleasure.

Yet between the extremes lies an area of common sense. Many sommeliers agree that decanting benefits not only young red wines but also young whites. Paul Grieco, an owner of Hearth and the mini-chain of Terroir wine bars, said that he decants more young whites than reds, especially those with high acidity, like rieslings, chenin blancs and white Burgundies.

“The torqued-up energy in those wines benefits from aeration,” he said. “Reds, unless there is solid sediment, I’ll probably leave it in the bottle and let it aerate in the glass.”

I like to decant young reds that might be tannic or tight, like those made from nebbiolo or cabernet sauvignon. Even young red Burgundies can benefit from decanting, though Burgundians might roll their eyes.

“I think many Burgundians frown on decanting more out of tradition than reason,” said Daniel Johnnes, the wine director for Daniel Boulud’s restaurants. “It doesn’t mean some wines don’t need to be decanted.” He suggests decanting young wines from firm, structured vintages, like 2005.

While Mr. Myhrvold’s blender technique may seem extreme, he is not the first to advocate hyperdecanting. In the 1980s, Martin Gersh, a writer for Vogue, advocated a technique of pouring young cabernets vigorously back and forth between two decanters to soften the wines and bring out the flavors. Methods like “Gershing,” as it was known, and blending reach their logical conclusions in the numerous aeration gadgets that promise to age your wines artificially for a small fee.

“People always want to come up with something novel and new, but simple is best,” Mr. Johnnes said. “I think decanting is a simple, traditional, respectful way to handle wine.”


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