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Gambling Decanters

Posted: Aug 13, 2007 7:11am ET

The odds can be difficult in getting it perfect in decanting wines, especially with very old and rare ones. It was more than evident this weekend when I went to Macao with some friends and we brought some magnums in our suitcases to go with our tempura dinner at Crown Casino. By the way, if you get to the area, Crown is definitely worth going to, and the Japanese restaurant is fabulous. It’s called Tenmasa, which is under the wings of one of Tokyo’s great restaurants, Masaji Hashi.

Anyway, we had magnums of 1989 L’Eglise Clinet, 1981 Lafleur, 1971 Cheval-Blanc, and 1961 Pavie. It was the last wine that reminded me how difficult it can be getting it right decanting.

With the wine being from the great 1961 vintage, most of us thought that decanting two or three hours before drinking would be right to “open” the wine up. But we didn’t have time, so it was decanted about a half an hour after we arrived at the restaurant, and served it about an hour after.

When it was first served in our big Riedel glasses, the Pavie 1961 was nectar. It had fabulous aromas of blackberries, cedar, sandalwood, dried flowers, and tried tarragon. The palate was full and sweet with ultra-fine tannins. It felt like Burgundy in a way, but it was full of glycerin, making it smooth and caressing. My jaw dropped when I tasted it. "This is awesome,” I said to my friend Thomas Bohrer, who brought the wine.

It was a classic wine with the character and texture of a lovely 1961. I swear I first scored it 98 points, non-blind. Maybe I was being a little generous. The atmosphere, food and friendship around the table were influencing me. But then I slowly watched the wine transform and within 30 minutes, it had lost some of its luster, even body. It was down to 91 points. It was outstanding but not the spellbinder of half an hour before.

“It's so hard to know when to decant these old wines,” said Leo Kung, a banker buddy and serious wine connoisseur. He brought the 1971 Cheval Blanc to dinner, which was the best wine of the night. “You almost have to live with them so you know just the right time to drink them.”

His Cheval, however, needed no cohabitation. The wine was even better than I remember it. The red showed wonderful ripe plum, tobacco and berry character with hints of sweet tobacco and cedar. It was full and soft with refined tannins. It was the ripeness yet finesse I loved with the wine. This wine seems to be getting better with age. 96 points, non-blind.

The 1981 Lafleur was leaner and not as generous as the Cheval. But 1981 is a weak vintage and most bottles are past their prime. The nose was outstanding with blackberries and black chocolate. Some thought the palate would open with time in the glass but it became short and a little dry with the berry and fresh mushroom character diminishing. 89 points, non-blind. Hendra Anwar, a big-time lover of Lafleur, brought the wine. He looked a little distressed but knew that the 1981 was never a great Lafleur. "Still very good, though!” he said.

The 1989 L’Eglise Clinet was a close second to the Cheval. This is a wine that I have always enjoyed. It shows intense smoky, berry, and blackberry character that turns to mint and meat. It’s full and soft with almost a jammy character with dried mushrooms and berry underneath. Big wine. Just coming around now. 95, non-blind.

It was certainly a memorable wine night and the food was equally outstanding. The tempura at Tenmasa was light and delicate, with a crunching coating that seemed to enhance the ultra-fresh ingredients, from sweet prawns and urchin to succulent eel and long-neck clams. The food had a wonderful intensity and clarity.

But, again, the transforming Pavie and changing Lafleur made me think that it might have been easier getting it right on the tables in the casino than in the restaurant that night with the decanted wines. I didn’t gamble that night to find out if it were true!

Roberto Cassis Phillips
August 13, 2007 4:35pm ET
Hello James!Can you tell us what rules did you follow to decant this wines?Example: 1961 Pavie
John Poggemeyer
Cleveland, OH —  August 13, 2007 4:36pm ET
I have found the same to be the case when decanting older wines as you found, James. I had the pleasure of opening a 1982 Pichon Lalande for my 5 year anniversary a few years back, and having removed the cork, we debated: to decant or not to decant? We took a preliminary sip, and being a lover of wines with a bit more tannin and structure, and considering the lamb saddle I had roasted for dinner, we opted to decant JUST prior to dinner, rather than several hours as thought would dictate. What a beautiful choice!! It was a blockbuster, and continued to evolve and change for the 2 hour dinner; the last sip was as marvelous as the first. I would hate to think that it may have fallen off prematurely if I had decanted several hours earlier. The choice to decant just before service was the right one.
Jack Bulkin
August 13, 2007 5:38pm ET
As I am certain you know James, decanting older wines is always a crapshoot. It seems apropos that you decanted them in a casino.
James Suckling
 —  August 14, 2007 6:03am ET
Roberto: What do you mean by rules?
Ken Koonce
Dallas, Texas —  August 14, 2007 12:55pm ET
In my admittedly limited experience with older wines, I find them a crap shoot right from the start. Unless you have the space and budget for wines by the case, opening your single bottle of a great older wine at anywhere close to the best possible time is difficult enough, nevermind decanting.
Roberto Cassis Phillips
August 14, 2007 2:24pm ET
Hello JamesI mean if you have a limit of time of decanting with those older wines?

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