article and photographs by Richard Carleton Hacker
Pity the bottle of vintage wine. It spends years gracefully growing old in a dark cellar, constantly chilled at 55 degrees, and then is brought out, uncorked and immediately starts gasping for air. But to the rescue comes the decanter, a crystal knight errant to breathe new life into the wine, reviving and enhancing its innermost qualities.
Aha! Here is my wine, ready for decanting. In this case, it happens to be a 1984 Duckhorn Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, a bottle that I had been aging in my cellar for just such an occasion. Yes, that is a Riedel Utlra handblown crystal decanter topped off with a Spiegelau perforated funnel (you’ll see how it works to aeriate the wine in the next photograph). For you sharp-eyed sleuths, the brandy snifter in the background has the remnants of a 25 Year Old Bowmore, my pre-dinner libation for this particular evening.
But there is more to it than that. Wines are decanted for three reasons. First and foremost is to aerate the wine, thus opening its flavors and bouquet. In the case of unfiltered or very old vintages, decanting is also necessary to keep sediment out of the glass. And finally - and perhaps most important to romantics like me - is the esthetics: decanting heightens the anticipation of the wine and adds to the elegance of an evening by virtue of the decanting ceremony itself.
But proper decanting involves more than simply pouring wine from one container into another and then into a glass. There are varying views on the decanting ritual, and, although the basics remain the same, most sommeliers have a preferred style. One of the most practiced purveyors of the decanting art is Robert Smith, Master Sommelier at Picasso, the celebrated AAA 5 Diamond, Mobil 5 Star French Mediterranean restaurant at Bellagio in Las Vegas. Smith caught my attention earlier this year when my wife and I ordered from Picasso’s wine-pairing tasting menu, but with my challenge that all of the matching wines had to be red. Where other sommeliers might have balked, Smith succeeded in making the pairing selections admirably. This skill carried over into his decanting technique.
“First, the bottle is brought to the table in a wine basket or cradle and presented to the guest,” he said. “The wine basket is used to move the bottle in a somewhat horizontal position from where it was stored to where it will be decanted. This keeps the sediment from disseminating throughout the wine. After uncorking the wine, I wipe the mouth of the bottle with a cloth napkin and then gently and slowly begin to pour the wine into the decanter.”
Pouring the wine – gently, as it is old – and watching the succulent tannin-soaked juice spew out from the perforated sides of the funnel and gently flow down the sides of the decanter. The wide base maximizes the wine’s exposure to air. Oh yes, that wrapped bit of bird on the left it a just-cooked Heritage turkey – the best you can get. Sorry I didn’t think to show more of it, but I was concentrating on the wine. Pity my poor wife – she was dying to eat, but here I was taking photos of me decanting wine, so you could see how it was done. No wonder they call her “Saint Joan.”
William Sherer, Master Sommelier and Wine Director at the Ritz-Carlton New York, Central Park, expands upon this procedure. “Let the wine roll down the side and give it the surface to breath - otherwise it becomes too frothy and bubbly,” says Sherer, who presides over the extensive wine cellar at the Ritz-Carlton’s French-American restaurant, Atelier. “When you decant, pour slowly and steadily in one smooth motion, twisting the bottle gradually so that any sediment is caught in the shoulder of the bottle.”
But pouring techniques differ, depending on what wine is being decanted.
“For a young wine, turn the bottle upside down and pour with gusto. Let it splash!” enthuses David Rosoff, Managing Partner of Opaline, one of the trendiest Beverly Boulevard restaurants in Los Angeles and creator of its celebrated wine list; the wines are categorized by strength and flavor, rather than vintage. “For older wines, the bottle must be poured slowly.”
The splashing, of course, maximizes air contact with the wine. It also tames some pungent varietals. I have even seen sommeliers shake certain Burgundian wines in the decanter to help release their sulphides. “But,” cautions Sherer, “there is always the danger of beating the flavor out of the wine.” Prior to uncorking and decanting older wines, they should be stood upright for at least 3 to 4 hours in order to settle the sediment. However, it should be noted that even young wines can carry sediment.
Alison Junker, Wine Director of Jer-ne Restaurant & Bar at The Ritz-Carlton Marina del Rey - Los Angeles' only AAA Five-Diamond waterfront hotel - offers an additional hint when decanting. “One needs to see the sediment as it starts to enter the neck of the bottle,” she says. “Traditionally, a candle is used. When decanting, the bottle is held horizontally over the candle, and the decanter at an angle to that. Be careful not to 'cook' or heat the wine by holding the bottle too close to the flame. All one needs to do is be able to see into the neck of the bottle - so a candle may not even be necessary.”
Smith advocates the use of a strong light under the neck of the bottle in lieu of a candle. “When the first sight of sediment begins to appear,” he says, “pull back the bottle to stop the pour.”
Generally speaking, white wines are less likely to be decanted than reds. That is because they typically have little or no sediment. But there are some whites, most notably young white Burgundies and Rhônes, that can benefit by being decanted.
“When I decant whites, they are often European whites with firm acidity and sulfide characteristics from fermentation,” says Sherer. “Also some white wines have so much tightly wound flavor and acidity packed into them that they need some air to evolve flavor-wise.”
“There is hardly a young wine that couldn't use a bit of air after being trapped inside that reductive environment,” says Rosoff. “However,” he cautions, “some highly aromatic whites may lose their 'nose' more rapidly in a decanter.”
Moreover, there are some wines that should never be decanted, even if they have sediment. Older, fragile vintages often “break up” when shocked by too much air. I have had some pre-war wines peak and then fade after just a few minutes in the glass. Red burgundies are especially susceptible to this. On the older hand, heavier, more complex reds, such as Bordeaux, Brunellos, and Cabernet Sauvignons, can be improved immensely by decanting, which not only magnifies their flavors, but softens their tannins. No one knows this better than Tom Mackey, winemaker at St. Francis Winery in Sonoma, California. Under Mackey’s guidance, St. Francis has become renowned for producing big, bold reds. Mackey cites a principle of decanting as part of the winemaking process.
“Wine aeration is done during fermentation and barrel aging,” he notes. “The tannic nature of the wine determines how much aeration is done, with the goal of both softening the tannins and adding complexity to the wine.
“Most of my red wines, especially when young, would benefit from decanting,” says Mackey. “Our Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Pagani Old Vine Zinfandel, Zichichi Petite Sirah and Nunns Canyon Syrah come to mind. However, as a wine ages, decanting often becomes less necessary, as the aroma and bouquet attributes are more readily apparent right out of the bottle.”
That can also be true of a young wine. At a dinner recently, my host poured a newly-imported 2001 Hercules Paragon Shiraz from South Africa without decanting it. As we sipped and talked, the thick, sweet berries of the Shiraz gradually became infused with a peppery spice as the wine aerated. In essence, the glass acted as a mini-decanter.
To be sure, not everyone wants their wine decanted, fearing it will detract from the “natural” taste or damage the wine’s structure. Some even feel the entire process is an affectation, tantamount to sniffing the cork. But for those who want to enjoy their wine to the fullest, decanting is part of the experience. I even ask the sommelier to leave the emptied bottle on the table, so that I may study the label or simply enjoy the graphics as I drink the wine.
“As with most aspects of wine,” says Junker, “all that really matters is what you prefer. So I always ask the guest if they would like me to decant. It is very subjective, but barring some really old, fragile wines, I think everything appears more elegant in a beautiful decanter - so why not decant?”
|This is the filter screen of the funnel, after the bottle has been emptied, showing the sediment that accumulated in the bottle and which has now been trapped by the filter. Better there than in your glass!