I always have a tough time deciding when to decant a wine. There are no hard and fast rules.
Decanting big, young, tannic reds makes sense on the surface, but I actually prefer to watch a young wine develop in the glass rather than miss out on it while it sits in a decanter.
In contrast, older wines are sometimes too fragile to decant, and can fall apart if given too much air. But then sometimes they can surprise you with their staying power in the glass, and you find yourself wishing you had decanted it since the last glass was the best.
I’ve seen people treat each wine they pull up from their cellar the same, always decanting it, red or white. I’ve seen others debate over each wine as they bring it up—decant or not, big glass or not, and so on.
When it comes to Pinot, all bets are off. The aromatics of Pinot typically don’t do well in a decanter. (Besides, the large bowl-shaped glass that most folks drink their Pinot from is sort of like a mini-decanter anyway.) Yet there are exceptions that really need decanting, such as Beaux Frères, and the 1988 Frederic Esmonin Charmes-Chambertin and 1996 Marquis d’Angerville Volnay Taillepied that Nancy and I shared recently.
The Esmonin, served at Nice Matin on Manhattan's upper West Side, was fully mature, brick-colored, slightly cloudy, with woody, almost musty overtones. The cork smelled downright awful (in fact, the first bottle that was brought to our table was dried out, so Avi, the sommelier, brought up a second bottle). I thought the wine could use some air to stretch out, and after about 30 minutes in a decanter, its supple, crushed cherry fruit and spice notes began to emerge a bit more. Its texture became finer, too, and it delivered that textbook old Burgundy experience—a wine that doesn't blow you away, but really holds your interest.
I decanted the d’Angerville, pulled from my own cellar, ahead of time. I know d’Angerville’s wines well—I was nearly weaned on them from my first gig in the wine business fifteen years ago—and I love them for their taut texture and nearly nervy salinity. (“This is just immensely terroir,” said Nancy as she took her first sip. “I don’t know how else to describe it.”) Even with the 30 minutes of air as a head start, it was still a bit stubborn. But like the Esmonin, the d’Angerville eventually began to show its stuff—dark cherry, floral and spice notes with a super tangy minerality. I grilled some salmon fillets on a cedar plank for dinner, and the wine cut through the succulent fish like a knife—a perfect match.
On the surface, neither wine would seem to be a candidate for decanting—both are older, both are Pinot Noir—but that little extra air helped, proving once again that there are no hard and fast rules to decanting wines.