The world of wine is often divided between the decanters and the anti-decanters, in other words, those who like to decant aggressively and those who prefer to decant only out of necessity.
The great New York wine maven Charles Scicolone has often been overheard lamenting overly aggressive decanting.
"Old wine is like me," he'll say. "It doesn't like to be shaken up."
He has a good point: Wine relishes serenity and tranquility, and when wine is poured into a decanter, the agitation can affect its balance.
This is especially true with older wines that may have sediment in them. Most wine connoisseurs will stand older bottles upright two to three days before they intend to serve them so that the sediment will collect in the bottom of the bottle. If this step is omitted, the solids in the wine will mix in with its liquid when the bottle is moved from a shelf, where it lies horizontally. (Fine wines are stored horizontally so that their corks will stay moist; we'll address wine storage in our next post in the "how-to wine" series.)
It's true that old wines often require decanting because of their sediment. To this day, many fine restaurants will gingerly decant old "lots" (as they are called) from their lists, holding a candle or other source of light under the neck of the bottle to reveal the solids when they begin to appear in the flow.
But since the 1980s, when filtration was introduced more widely in European winemaking (in part thanks to new filtering technology) and was required by many top appellations, decanting for the sake of removing sediment has become more of an affectation than a necessity.
Large-format bottles often require decanting. Take the Jéroboam, for example, a 5-liter bottle (in the Bordeaux classification) containing nearly seven 750 ml-bottles of wine. Its unwieldy nature makes it virtually impossible, even for the most seasoned sommelier, to pour it with precision into a wine glass.
But when's the last time you came home from your favorite wine shop with a Jéroboam, Impériale (6 bottles) or Nebuchadnezzar (20 bottles)?
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The other school of thought -- the aggressive decanters -- holds that wine should be decanted so as to expedite the expression of its flavors and aromas.
In other words, the aggressive decanters believe that aeration during decanting makes the wine more "drinkable" and (in their view) more enjoyable in a shorter time span. There are even those who will "double decant," a process whereby the wine is decanted into another vessel and then poured back into the bottle, thus increasing the wine's "air time."
In my personal view -- and there are many who disagree with me -- this is absolutely detrimental to the wine. Wine, in my opinion, should never be expedited. Part of its sensual reward lies in the way that it evolves in the glass. And the unnecessary agitation of the wine can greatly affect its balance.
To this, many will counter: What if you're opening an extremely tannic bottle of wine that needs aeration to be "drinkable"?
To them, I respond: Drink no wine before its time! If you're opening a bottle that's not ready to drink, then wait.
Of course, many of the aggressive decanters also subscribe to the Napa Valley school. Although things are beginning to change in Napa, the predominant style for Cabernet Sauvignon is overly tannic, overly alcoholic and overly concentrated. Yes, these wines benefit from expedited aeration. But personally, I don't want to drink them -- expedited or not.
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In our home, we often decant wines, but mostly inexpensive, ready-to-drink wines, sturdy enough to withstand the agitation of aeration.
Why do we do it? When we entertain, the decanted wine adds panache to our table setting and we love the beautiful colors of the wine -- especially when pouring Nebbiolo or Pinot Noir. And our classic Burgundian "duck" decanter (second from left in the images above, a cheap knock-off that I picked up for less than $40) makes it easier to pour the wine at a dinner party without spilling a drop.
I am an American and I am an anti-Decanter. But sometimes, even I decant.
Next on deck for our "how-to wine" series: The pitfalls of storage.