To Decant or Not to Decant
By Elias Fernandez
You’re at a restaurant and order a special red wine with dinner. The question from your sommelier is, “Would you like me to decant that for you?”
Most people assume you’re supposed to say yes, but aren’t sure why. Personally, my answer is a polite “no, thank you.” You may want to answer the question differently – it all depends on understanding how decanting works.
First, many wine lovers use the term decanting interchangeably with aeration – bringing the wine into contact with oxygen. Some people like to pour a young, tannic red wine out of the bottle and into a separate vessel exposing it to a lot of oxygen, essentially speeding up the aging process.
Here’s an example of what happens: recently as a way to demonstrate aeration for a friend, I opened a bottle of a 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon, recently released by Shafer Vineyards, where I am winemaker.
I opened the bottle and poured a taste into one set of glasses. Then I emptied half the bottle into a blender and turned it on. My friend was a bit stunned, but I explained that this is simply a form of extreme aeration.
I poured a taste of the blenderized Cabernet into a separate set of glassware and then we tried both.
We agreed that the wine that had been poured directly from the bottle was youthful and lively, everything you hope for from a wine of this age. The wine out of the blender, however, simply tasted older and, to me, duller.
I once read that the musician Tom Petty doesn’t like to use the Dolby feature on stereo equipment. As a musician, he said, he wants to hear all those hisses and pops and sounds in the high upper range. Dolby essentially shaves off that upper layer of sound.
As a winemaker I see a corollary with aeration. It can rob the wine of its full range. What I prefer is to allow the wine to change and evolve over time in my glass.
The second meaning of decanting is when you pour an older wine carefully into another vessel for the purpose of separating the wine from the sediment that has collected in the bottle. Many people prefer not to find dark flakes and grains swirling around in their wine. Some people have even asked if sediment poses any health risks.
Quite the opposite. Much of what is heart-healthy in red wine is bound up in the sediment. To me, the sediment is the soul of the wine – the color and tannin that were there in its youth.
With an older wine I prefer to pour it carefully out of the original bottle into the glass. First, because if it’s roughly decanted you’ll lose the delicate beauty that comes with age. And second, maybe I’m weird, but I like to taste the sediment found in those last one or two pours. It tells me something of the growing season that produced the grapes and what the wine was like when it was still young.