The Great Decanting Dilemma

How did something so simple get so complicated?
Oct 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.

Serving Wine Decanting Opinion

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