Decanting wine is easy, useful and fun
Decanting wine, especially in fall when we drink heartier fare, helps the wine breathe and exposes the layers of flavor. It's easy to do if you follow a few simple rules. And, decanting allows you to dress up your table.
Special to the Seattle Times
Pick of the week
Dowsett Family 2009 Celilo Vineyard Gewürztraminer; $22
The Celilo Vineyard is arguably the finest location in Washington for growing Gewürztraminer, and over the years quite a few winemakers from both Washington and Oregon have worked with these grapes. No one does a better job than Chris Dowsett, and this new vintage is his finest. A thrilling wine, from the first sniff to the last lingering sip. Lemon peel, sappy citrus fruits, rich minerals, perfect acidity — it's all here in spades. (Cavatappi distributes)
A READER writes: "I would like to learn more about the nuances of decanting. Which wines to decant, when not to, how to pour, how long to let it sit, the difference between decanting and just removing the cork for some period of time, the chemistry of the effect of oxygen on the wine and so forth. This might be a topic for a future article."
This is a very timely query. As we move into colder weather with the holidays upcoming, the wines we drink will be heartier and more complex than the simple sippers of summer. They may also be young wines, as wineries across the state (and beyond) are putting out a blizzard of new releases right now. Decanting these new wines — both red and white — can both enhance their flavors and jazz up the presentation on your holiday table.
Almost any thrift store will have used decanters for sale, and they are often quite inexpensive. When buying used, look carefully to be sure there are no chips or cracks. The glass should be clear and clean. Some come with a glass top, which is not essential but useful and attractive. New decanters need not be costly, but the fancy ones can run into the hundreds of dollars. If you just want something utilitarian to let your wine breathe, keep it simple.
Decanting young wines allows them to breathe, which opens up their scents and flavors. This also helps to dissipate any sulfur odors (from bottling with SO2), smoothes out the mid-palate, softens the tannins and helps to "unpack" the flavor layers of wines that may have only recently been bottled. Wines in screw cap also benefit, as they are more prone to reductive (bottling) odors than wines sealed with natural cork.
Decanting older red wines is done primarily to remove sediment. It calls for a bit of caution, because they may be fragile. For wines at least a decade old, it's helpful to let the bottles stand up for a few hours before decanting so the sediment can settle. Really old wines (20-plus years) may have crumbly corks; the best way to open these is with a two-pronged opener called an ah-so. You will want to practice with this before opening your best old bottles.
Some wine books recommend decanting over a candle, or any bright light, but it's not necessary. Hold the decanter firmly in one hand, tipping it about 45 degrees and resting the bottom edge on a solid surface. Gently and evenly pour the wine into it, letting the liquid run down the throat of the decanter. Note the color: The tawnier it is, the more quickly you will want to begin drinking it. You may also find that the bouquet immediately fills the room — always a good sign! When you get about three-quarters of the way through the bottle, slow down and look for "smoke," threads of sediment running through the pouring wine. Stop there, before actual chunks of sediment flow into the decanter.
The wine that's left in the bottle will have a concentration of sediment. Keep it separate, and when the decanter is empty, pour it through a screen or coffee filter, for a last glass. Timing is guesswork, but for young wines I suggest that you decant an hour or two before you begin serving; older wines are best opened just a few minutes before you start to taste. And the difference between decanting and simply removing the cork? Decanting quickly gets the air mixing through the wine and dramatically accelerates the breathing process. Above all, if you, like me, enjoy wine rituals, decanting is just plain fun.
About Wine Adviser
My column is all about sharing the joy of exploring all the world of wine. I want to guide people to make inspired choices, and encourage them to try as many different styles of wine as they can. I will always seek out the best wines at the best prices. Wine Adviser runs on Sunday in Pacific Northwest Magazine.