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Drinking Out Loud

The Great Decanting Dilemma

How did something so simple get so complicated?

Matt Kramer
Posted: October 1, 2013

The recent thread on the WineSpectator.com Forums titled Burgundy Aeration? caught my eye. The author of the thread offered a list of issues that apparently puzzled him, citing such decanting concerns as:

• Why or why not?

• When and when not?

• For older vs. younger wines?

• Better or worse for certain Burgundies (such as grand cru vs. premier cru or village; or appellations or communes)?

• Double decant?

• Size and shape of decanter?

• How long?

• Other forms of aeration?

I looked at this list and couldn't help but think, "Oh lordy, how did we get ourselves into such a mess?"

Of course, all of this has little or nothing to do with Burgundy. Ironically, the Burgundians traditionally and to this day do not decant their wines.

They don't decant because they feel that their wines trade on their glorious, magical scents and that decanting would dissipate—I imagine that they might actually say "squander"—that precious perfume. Burgundy has long performed that most modern practice: "pop 'n pour.”

So who does decant? And why do they do it? Here again, it's a matter of tradition, which in turn evolved out of a necessity.

Once past the ancient origins of decanting—when wines were drawn off from a barrel and carried to the table in a pitcher—the more conventional image of decanting emerged when wines began to be aged in bottle.

Typically, sediment remained in the bottle, whether right from the start, because the wine was not clear in the barrel, or over decades from the precipitation of tartrates and tannins in the finished wine. Until very recently, most wines received only a coarse filtration before bottling, if that. Consequently, there was often a lot of sediment in the bottle, especially after extended aging.

So decanting was practical. You separated the clear wine from the sediment, which made a lot of sense.

But there was another reason. Many wines—most, even—were less than perfectly made. (Some still are.) They often had unpleasant odors caused by bacterial growths, unwanted yeast cultures (brettanomyces), unpleasant sulfides (a rotten egg note), a stink from dirty barrels, or any number of other defects. Wine is a vulnerable thing.

So, it was discovered that often—though not always—if you exposed a bottled wine to oxygen by pouring it into an open container, these malodorous defects were encouraged to "blow off." Also, wines sometimes seemed rounder and even richer for being exposed to air before being consumed.

Inevitably, what was once straightforwardly practical soon became endowed with ritual. As with all rituals, a certain incense began to swirl around the event. Was it good for all wines? Did the shape of the decanter matter? And above all, how long prior to its service should a wine be decanted? Soon, the only thing missing was New Guinea–style masks and anthropologists watching closely and taking notes.

So-called wine authorities prescribed astonishingly precise timings for particular wines, down to the minute. (I'm not making this up.)

Yet others prescribed not decanting but, rather, pulling the cork and leaving a bottle open for many hours or even days ahead of time.

And then there's double decanting, where one good sloshing turn deserves another, i.e., you decant an already decanted wine yet again, the better to give it that much more air.

Not a sufficiently extreme sport, you say? You might then prefer what Nathan Myhrvold, the former chief technology officer of Microsoft and author of the high-tech, five-volume cookbook Modernist Cuisine, advocates: "hyperdecanting." And what is that, you ask? It's putting your wine in a blender and letting it rip for 30 to 60 seconds.

So is there a definitive "truth" about decanting wine? Nah. Like raising children, you size 'em up as they come along and decide what you think will work best.

Here's one man's take after nearly four decades of pulling corks:

• Very few wines are worse for being decanted. Most wines today, of all kinds, are drunk when very young. And all such young wines benefit from being exposed to air.

• The rare handful of wines that probably are better off not being decanted are old wines whose fragrance is both delicate and evanescent. Decanting such wines and leaving them exposed to air for hours is as risky as taking grandma skydiving. "The air will do her good," you say. Right.

• All wines change with exposure to air. But not all wines change for the better, especially over a long period. So common sense should prevail. Most wines benefit from, say, 15 or 20 minutes of exposure to air before serving. After that, the "grandma rule" kicks in.

• With today's large-scale wineglasses, decanting is less of an issue than ever before. The cup sizes of the best wineglasses commonly used now are so generous that, really, with a few swirls, it takes no time at all to get the wine in your glass exposed to a vortex of air unseen outside of Tornado Alley.

• Apart from separating a wine from any sediment (which is pretty rare these days), the only compelling reason to decant is that wine in a beautiful decanter is a lovely sight. And that's surely a good enough reason right there.

• Not least, using a decanter eliminates what might be called "label hypnosis." Too many wine lovers have the deer-in-the-headlights syndrome. They are transfixed by the sight of the label. They can't take their eyes—and their palates—-off it.

My advice? Decant the wine, red or white, 15 minutes before serving, announce the wine to your guests and show them the bottle, and then get it away from the table.

Your wine will never taste better, I promise.

Bill Matarese
Florida, USA —  October 1, 2013 1:02pm ET
I agree that the vast majority of wines made today - in the "New World" or "Modern" style - require minimal (if any) decanting.

But in my experience, decanting is an absolute MUST for Italian wines - particularly the Tuscans. And I am talking about 3 hours minimum. It can mean the difference between a wine being almost undrinkable and it being absolutely fantastic. The most extreme example I can recall involved the 2005 Tenimenti Luigi d'Alessandro (Manzano) Syrah Cortona Migliara. This wine received a Wine Spectator score of 98 points, so you can imagine my shock when, even after a 2-3 hour decanting, it was barely drinkable. Almost tempted to pour it down the drain (suspecting it was a flawed bottle), I left it overnight in a decanter. The next day, it was absolutely gorgeous.
Erik Janners
Milwaukee, WI, USA —  October 1, 2013 2:28pm ET
So far, in my love affair with wine, which only recently started after a honeymoon trip to Napa/Sonoma, I have had 5 or 6 wines that were quite "closed" upon the first pour and "opened" nicely with exposure to air, and I have had 1 or 2 Napa Cabs which really didn't have much going on until they had been aerated for a good chunk of time. Most whites I have experienced - again, so far - seem to not need decanting, or derive minimal benefit from it.
Bill Matarese
Florida, USA —  October 1, 2013 2:53pm ET
Correction: The wine I referred to in my prior comment was actually the 2006, not the 2005.
Peter Meltzer
New York NY —  October 1, 2013 5:49pm ET
Matt,
I thoroughly enjoyed your blog on decanting. As always, very entertaining and informative.
I have another take on why Burgundians don’t decant. About 30 years ago, as a young wine writer, I was having lunch at Bouchard Ainé et Fils . I noticed the lack of decanters and asked why. Mr. Bouchard replied that a generation ago, his father was entertaining some important clients from Belgium. They noticed the decanters on the table and huffed, “What are they serving us, vins de carafe?” Decanters were henceforth banished from the table.
Paul Paradis
Montréal,QC —  October 2, 2013 10:12am ET
To decant or not to decant!
An almost shakespearian dilemma.
I agree that common sense should prevail and I love your «grandma rule».
Scott Mitchell
Toronton, Ontario, Canada —  October 2, 2013 11:09am ET
Matt, you may want to take a look at the forum again. Quite the firestorm this started...
George Gonzalez
San juan usa —  October 2, 2013 8:34pm ET
Wow I usually decant as the wines are served blind. But my two cents are as Mr. Cantinflas from mexico said I do not agree or desagree with decanting, but totally the opposite.

Mike Olszewski
Newcastle, WA —  October 2, 2013 10:38pm ET
Matt, the decanting debate seems to be an equation with two very different, unbalanced sides. I guess that means it does not equate. Yes, I agree that decanting a young wine offers little above simply pouring the wine into a large-bowl wine glass to air while waiting to finish your pre-prandial cocktail before diving in.

Alas, with older wines (and a smattering of young, non-filtered wines) the story is different. It is all about separating the good juice from the detritus lurking in the wine. Very few wines, Burgundies included, do not discharge some sediment while aging. For full enjoyment it is best to decant the wine, isolate the sediment and pour the “angel’s share” into a separate glass (always fun to try the next morning).

I can remember a large, vertical tasting of Caymus Special Select a few years back where the decision was made not to decant. Because the bottles had not been allowed to sit and settle, everyone had chunks floating in free suspension that mostly destroyed the appreciation of some great wine.

A final thought on decanters: What is wrong with the old style, bowling-pin, carafes we used to see in many Italian restaurants? Most decanters these days are totally impractical from a pouring standpoint and look like a melting clock in a Salvador Dali painting.
Carmen A Policy
Yountville, CA —  October 3, 2013 9:55am ET
Matt,
I not only learn from your wonderfully entertaining articles but I love your presentation and writing style. You actually do present worthy issues and questions in a manner that allows the reader to understand and grasp the subject. You bring approachability to wine and its enjoyment. Loved the way you handled the history and program of decanting. Also,your wine tasting suggestions are the best I have ever read.
Carmen Policy, Yountville
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  October 3, 2013 9:59pm ET
It's very difficult to know when any wine's "dumb phase" will set in. So we need to be flexible and allow for decanting. Have a backup bottle or two on hand! If TCA doesn't kill one of them, a closed personality might kill the other. I have experienced wines needing from 5-7 days up to two full weeks to open and express fully, and the two week bottle was (of all things) a California ZINFANDEL. Some people need warmups before stretching; others need to stretch before warmups. Wine lives and breathes and we need to simply allow for the differences. It's not a science, and therefore I reject any notion of a "golden period" of time during which any wine will open. To do so is reductive. I love decanting, because it reveals the wine's changes and evolution in a kind of microcosm.
Anne-marie Deslongchamps
Montreal, Quebec, Canada —  October 4, 2013 3:15pm ET
Being the owner of an import company, ensuring that the wines we showcase are looking their best is a big thing for me! So I've done a lot of tests with decanters over the years.

I fully agree with Matt: decanting won't hurt a wine most of the time, but my experiments told me that:

-Indeed, 15-20 minutes is enough, and if you do not drink it all, don't leave the leftover wine in the decanter for too long (pour it back into the bottle and remove the air). We've found that after a few hours, many wines will fade (especially reds) and will loose what made them special. It happened to me this week with a Bierzo: the floral notes disappeared after 2 hours, and instead, some vanilla and toasted notes appeared...! Quite funny because at first, you could not "feel" the wood at all...and here it was after 2 hours in the decanter!!!

-Top Napa Cabernets: Many losse their complex notes of Moka/Expresso/Dark chocolate notes if decanted, so it is a "case by case" scenario here, and I encourage you to actually pour some into a glass and taste it before you decant it. If it is complex and very satisfying, then don't decant it just for the sake of it, even if it is a very expensive bottle!

-Decanting for a longer time can be useful for wines that show empyreumatic notes that are too strong, like many South African Pinotage for example. An hour of 2 in the decanter reduces those notes without ruining the fruit flavours. Same thing apply for wines with some "solvent" notes. Those are usually quite volatile and disappear after 15-20 minutes in a carafe.

-As for Burgundy: Here in Quebec we actually decant top Burgundy wines(both reds and whites), as it tends to help reveals more complexity and depths(especially for Grand Cru wines). But using a proper Burgundy glass is even more important: Pinot Noir definitely needs a different type of glass than, let's say 100% Cab-Sauv or Australian Shiraz!!!

If given the choice, I'd put more money into proper glassware and less into fancy decanters...But if you can afford 2 decanters, get a smaller one that contains only a bout 1l(for old wines) and a much bigger one that contains at least 3L(for New World wines such as Barossa reds / Priorats, etc.).

At the end of the day, open the bottle and taste the wine, then remember what they say in the music industry: "If it ain't broken, don't fix it"!!!

Cheers!

François Blouin
Vintrinsec
Anne-marie Deslongchamps
Montreal, Quebec, Canada —  October 4, 2013 3:21pm ET
One last thing I forgot to mention: I was with Raul Perez a few years ago at Alimentaria in Barcelona, and he just brought 2 of his wines from his car and opened them on the corner of a table(as he had no stand at the fair). Although the wines were still young and very concentrated, he din't asks for a carafe nor did he complained about the need for them to "breath".
He was very satisfied in showing them as is...

I do believe that we often try to "complexity" something that was made for pure pleasure...

Francois Blouin
Jerry Rosenblatt
Montreal, Canada —  October 4, 2013 4:41pm ET
Bill:

I had the exact same experience with the 2006 Cortona Migliara Syrah. Totally undrinkable for at least 3-4 hours, and then it started to change. We left it over night and had it for lunch the following day - it had transformed to a magical beautiful wine.

Matt, if you're reading this, do you think you can explain why drinkers of this one wine have this consistent experience (based on Cellartracker comments)?
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  October 4, 2013 6:46pm ET
Mr. Rosenblatt (and also Mr. Matarese): Although I am familiar with Tenimenti Luigi d'Alessandro Syrah Cortona Migliara--and a very impressive wine it is--I cannot recall having tasted the 2006.

Mr. Rosenblatt you ask, "Matt...can explain why drinkers of this one wine have this consistent experience?"

Of course I am in no position to explain the particularities of the 2006 Tenimenti Luigi d'Alessandro Syrah Cortona Migliara. However, I have experienced wines that upon first opening seemed undrinkable--or at least unpalatable--and then somehow miraculously transformed after being left open to the air in a decanter for 12 to 24 hours.

Sometimes, in the case of older-style Italian wines, an unappealing smell of dirty barrels or casks manages to "blow off" after prolonged exposure to air, leaving a lovely fruit emerging like an old painting cleaned of an obscuring, dark varnish.

I've seen this numerous times with old, i.e., pre-1980s, Barolos and Barbarescos. Such essential exposure to air is one reason why the traditional "decanter" used in the Langhe (and you still see it today, if less frequently) was a wide-mouthed pitcher. It gave the wine a lot of surface area exposed to the air.

This, however, is undoubtedly not the case with the Syrahs from Tenimenti Luigi d'Alessandro. They are always reliably clean, modern wines aged in equally clean (and often new) small oak barrels. The old-style "merdino", as the dirty barrel smell is colorfully called in Italian (do not use this term in polite company!) is very far removed from the sparkling clean likes of Tenimenti Luigi d'Alessandro wines.

Here's my bet: I'm willing to wager that the apparently problematic 2006 Syrah Cortona Migliara is suffering from a classic challenge found among Syrahs the world over, namely reduction.

More than any other grape variety in my experience, Syrah is exceptionally susceptible to reduction which, very simply put, is a condition which appears when a wine does not receive a sufficient amount of oxygen while still in barrel.

If Syrah is bottled without having the full measure of oxygen that it needs, then the already-existing reduction can magnify in bottle. A reduced wine can have an odor of cabbage or garlic (technically from mercaptans). It can smell "dirty". Or it can just give you a sense of being "pinched" and inaccessible.

This very subject came up when I did a tasting with Tom Dehlinger of Dehlinger Winery in Sonoma County's Russian River Valley. Mr. Dehlinger makes one of California's finest Syrahs (in my opinion, anyway) and he is a meticulous winemaker.

He said about Syrah: "The wines get stinky in the winemaking due to low nitrogen concentrations. Pinot Noir, for example, has 350 parts per million nitrogen in the juice. But Syrah has only 100 parts per million. You've got to deal with that. Syrah needs more racking."

Very often, bottled wines that are reduced can be "liberated" from the effects of reduction by prolonged exposure to oxygen. This is especially true with Syrah, which offers a powerful fruitiness that seems barely, if at all, diminished by prolonged exposure to air. (Pinot Noir, especially an older bottle, is less sturdy than Syrah and can easily lose its more delicate fruitiness from the same treatment.)

Anyway, that's my guess. But let's find out, shall we? I'll send an e-mail to Massimo d'Alessandro, the co-owner of Tenimenti Luigi d'Alessandro and ask him his opinion about the 2006 Syrah Cortona Migliara. Why not go to the source?

Stay tuned.
Dennis D Bishop
Southeast Michigan, USA —  October 5, 2013 6:18pm ET
I look at decanting in the same way that I look at screw caps and special glasses for each type of wine. All tend to improve the product... but at the cost of getting my Italian mama upset. She is a pop and pour into a juice glass kind of gal. The less air the better for her.
Michael Henderson
San Francisco —  October 6, 2013 10:20pm ET
Why do we forget wine is just a beverage. Decant if you like, don't if you like. Just drink the damn wine and enjoy it for what it is.
Robert P Wakeman
Ann Arbor, Michigan —  October 7, 2013 1:49pm ET
Seemingly not mentioned is that older Vintage Ports require decanting because of their considerable sediment.
David Gigante
Anchorage, AK —  October 7, 2013 5:55pm ET
With most of the reds I drink (Napa Reds and Australian Shiraz), I don't decant - take a few sips - then vacuum close the bottle and in the next few days it will open up beautifully.
John Moore
NY, NY —  October 8, 2013 12:23pm ET
I am aware of the controversy in old/new decant/don't 15 minutes/4 hours and I admit it is driving me crazy. I decanted a 1982 Cos D'Estournel for 3 hours. I swirled it repeatedly. My friends and I relished it. Smooth, polished, wonderful earthy and excellent fruit. Then I read somewhere about old wines and don't decant. I call one of my wine dealers. He says don't decant. I don't decant the next bottle of the same wine and I get alcohol, rough tannins and less flavor. Same experiment on a 1989 Clinet, same outcome. Last sip of the last glass of the bottle was way better than the first sip.

Result of experiment: I will decant all wines. It helps develop the flavor.

Has anyone actually had a wine not improve or get worse from decanting? Is it just the wines I have selected? Are you sure the wine would have been better undecanted?
Signed - Puzzled but resolute
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  October 8, 2013 5:41pm ET
Folks,

I received a reply from Tenimenti d'Alessandro regarding my inquiry about the apparent need for extended aeration of their 2006 Migliara Syrah. The reply, as follows, is from Filippo Calabresi, whose family is a co-owner of Tenimenti d'Alessandro:

"I'm writing to you concerning the comments about Migliara 2006 that followed your article.

Discussing with Luca Currado, consultant/winemaker at the winery [Luca Currado is also the winemaker of Vietti, his family's well-known winery in Piedmont's Barolo zone. MK], as well as strong believer in creating Migliara, we've shared the same thoughts about the decanting matter.

In short, while still giving a chance to the reduction hypothesis, we believe that the 2006 vintage--which produced an impressively (even too) concentrated Syrah--is now in the "inactive" aging phase: it's neither young nor mature enough.

This, in our opinion, the primary cause of the "undrinkability", whether decanting the wine or not, of the bottles referred above.

Anyway, enjoying the wine after a few more hours of decanting, as experienced by the two gentlemen, can be a temporary solution for both the reduction issue and the not-readiness. That said, I suggest to be patient a little bit more for enjoying the outcome of such a grand vintage in all its potential.

Hoping to have been helpful,

Cordially,

Filippo Calabresi"

Andrew Archambault
Kennebunkport, ME —  October 10, 2013 1:41pm ET
I like this article for calling out wine buyers/sellers/drinkers for complicating the practice of decanting. Like a lot of things - Keep it simple!

1. Decanting is usually beneficial: never experienced it make a wine worse.
2. I've never decanted a white. For whites, I drink white Burgundy almost exclusively and it opens very quickly.
3. I often decant reds, but not all of them. In my experience, the wines that benefit most from decanting are my Bordeaux:
Young ones, (3 to 7 yrs old) most of them don't improve much with decanting.
Middle age (8 to 15 yrs) absolutely benefit the most and do so very consistently bottle in and bottle out. An hour is fine. Period.
Older (16+ years) I am very careful with and mainly decant to properly separate the sediment, leaving it in the bottle.
4. I've tried many many decanters, and I love the taller/thinner bowling pin shaped decanters often found in the bistros and brasseries of Paris. The big flat bottomed decanters are fine (def. harder to pour), but they were only made that way originally to keep from tipping over on ships dining tables. So I'm told.

And cudos to Mr. Matarese above who says that decanting is a must for Italian wines, notably the Tuscans. Agreed.

AA
Jerry Rosenblatt
Montreal, Canada —  October 10, 2013 9:10pm ET
Matt / Filippo:

Thank you both for your incredibly thoughtful and detailed response to the comments on the 2006 Migliara Syrah. My plan is to cellar the wine for a few years and certainly try again. I was fortunate enough to have purchased 4 bottles, so I have three more to go.

Matt, your effort here has been amazing! Filippo, I'm sure this wine will be a standout in a few years, without making us wait 12-24 hours to consume.

I look forward to seeing everyone in New York October 24-26!

Cheers,
Jerry Rosenblatt
Bill Matarese
Florida, USA —  October 11, 2013 2:13pm ET
Matt, Filippo and Jerry,

Thanks to all of you for your thoughts and efforts concerning the 2006 Migliara Syrah. It makes perfect sense that the wine has entered a "dumb" phase, and can only be coaxed out of it with an extremely long decanting. It is indeed an amazing wine, and I am so glad that I still have two bottles to enjoy several years from now when it is truly ready.
Amedeus Dascanio
Maple, Ontario ,Canada —  October 18, 2013 6:34pm ET
Matt, most comments in this forum are sensible. But I will add that temperature rise is also a HUGE factor in the extended decant of a big wine. I think that's why most believe 20-30 minutes is the max time discussed by many. I also think the real big wines need more time, but watch that temperature! Cheers

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