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stirring the lees with james molesworth

To Decant, or Not to Decant

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jun 18, 2007 10:14am ET

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.

Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  June 18, 2007 1:07pm ET
I think the industry needs to distinguish between decanting for sediment's sake and decanting for aeration's sake. For reds, I almost always do it for sediment's sake (even on young wines), but I may also do it gently so as not to introduce much air and also use a narrow decanter to limit the aeration. If I really want to pump the air up I splash decant into a wide-mouthed magnum decanter and let it sit. As part of my tasting notes I always indicate if/how I decanted and what stemware I used.
James Molesworth
June 18, 2007 1:11pm ET
Troy: I actually never concern myself with the sediment - it's just protein isn't it? ;-).

I try to always pour myself the last glass if there is any, though Nancy will always claim she gets the lion's share of it.
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  June 18, 2007 5:33pm ET
Oh yuck James! Haven't you ever forgotten that you poured yourself the last glass of a CDP, can't see the sediment that made it to the bottom of your glass, and then your very last sip is like a mouthful of soggy, bitter sand? Man, that bums me out when it happens! I call it "wine smog" and will continue to decant nearly all my reds to eliminate it, thank you very much! Hey, have you ever opened a Macphail Pinot? I've had full on stems floating in them!
Lars Jorgensen
Switzerland —  June 19, 2007 7:33am ET
I think decanting is a topic that wine lovers will continue to discuss FOREVER and NEVER agree on.

Decanting for sediment may make sense, but in general I only decant for aeration - must admit though that my funnel has one of these little filters to hold back sediment :o)

Normally I would never decant a Pinot Noir, but recently I had very good experience decanting a Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir 2005 (South Africa, Walker Bay).
James Molesworth
June 19, 2007 9:27am ET
Troy: Yeah, I really don't mind the sediment so much. Just extra terroir to me ;-).

Lars: Yes, Hamilton Russell is another Pinot that does nicely with air. I think the '05 is their best yet...
Ken Koonce
Dallas, Texas —  June 19, 2007 3:07pm ET
I have to agree with Troy about sediment. It's like getting mud in your mouth. It's why I, too, always decant reds over about 4 years old. But I agree with James that I generally like noticing the differences in a wine as it unfolds in the glass. But having said that, decanting can quickly add "age" to, say, a 6 year old Bordeaux that you want to taste but strongly suspect will be even better in a couple of years. On the other hand ...
Matthew Lynch
chicago IL —  June 26, 2007 6:31pm ET
If I decant a wine with sediment and it really knocks it out of the park, I'll go back and pour the dregs, trying to squeze every last drop out.
Gordon Joachim
Portland, OR —  December 20, 2007 11:49pm ET
James -- Pleased to hear that you have no problem pouring the dregs for your own 'consumption' -- as I have always done the same. I find something special about munching and sucking on the stems, seeds, dross, etc., of grapes that were crushed 30-40 years ago. Quite frankly, I find it a rather tasty experience.

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