Serious Grape: Decanting Demystified

On Fridays, Deb Harkness of Good Wine Under $20 drops by with Serious Grape.

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[Photograph: Deb Harkness]

The idea of decanting a wine—pouring the contents of a bottle into another vessel—may strike you as fussy and pretentious act, conjuring up images of white-gloved butlers and wine snobs. People have been decanting wine since at least Roman times because until recently, wine was not filtered and clarified as part of the wine-making process.

Even with modern wine-making, there are two excellent reasons to decant wine: it removes the sediment in older wine and it aerates younger wines, which can make a difference in how they taste.

In the case of older wine, sediments can form as part of the aging process. These sediments cloud the wine and if you get a chunk in your mouth, they can be unpleasantly bitter and drying.

Decanting an older bottle of wine slowly into another vessel enables you to keep the sediments (and a little bit of the wine) in the bottle. It takes some practice so I always use a fine mesh filter to catch the solids. With old wines experts recommend decanting immediately before serving—too much exposure to air can deaden flavors and aromas.

In the case of younger wine—particularly tannic reds like Cabernet Sauvignon and Italian Barolos—some people feel that decanting increases the aeration of a wine and leads to a smoother, more developed taste in the mouth. This has been scientifically challenged, but as in all matters of taste the important thing to follow is your own taste buds and decide what you prefer.

For me, I find that big, bold red that cause mouth puckering and seem raspy at first do smooth out after they've "breathed" in a decanter for 10 to 20 minutes. You get the same effect by vigorously swirling your wine glass before taking a sip.

When I tasted the 2007 Clos LaChance Meritage "Crimson Topaz" ($18; find this wine) I could tell from the oak and strong tannins that it might improve after being poured into a decanter. Sure enough, the aromas of smoke and cherry that I initially detected picked up some more minty, herbal notes. And in the flavor department, the wine went from oak and cherry to smooth layers of strawberry, cherry, raspberry, and herbs.

If you're reluctant to decant because it reminds you of that dusty, broad-bottomed decanter that sat on your parents' sideboard year in and year out, know that there are stylish options in the market. This Spiegelau Siena decanter (suggested retail $99, but you can find deals online for $70 to 85) looks more like a piece of sculpture than a decanter. I wouldn't mind having it on my dining room table whether or not it was in use. And unlike many older decanters, new decanters (such as this one) are often dishwasher-safe.

Of course any vessel will do. Using glass—such as an old mayonnaise jar, your Sangria pitcher, a water jug—is often preferable with older wines if you are trying to avoid sediment. Give decanting a try with your next bottle of red and see what you think. Does decanting make a difference to your tastebuds?

Full disclosure: Spiegelau loaned me a decanter for this experiment, and I received the Clos LaChance Meritage as a sample.