To Decant, Or Not To Decant
Remember back in Before Times, when we could go to a restaurant and—enter it and sit down, actually sit down, and enjoy not only the food and drinks but the full dining-out experience? The way the hostess pulls out the chair to seat us, the way the server rattles off vivid menu descriptions, the torching of the Baked Alaska. Ah, fond memories.
The touches of hospitality and showmanship that create a stellar restaurant experience are, ahem, a bit difficult to replicate at home. Surely this is one of the main reasons we all have missed restaurants so much this past year.
The hospitality industry has been resilient and creative, devising remarkable ways to supply us with some of our favorite restaurant dishes in the comfort and safety of our own homes. I hope we all can return to bustling restaurants in the not-too-distant future, and when that time comes, it will certainly be crucial that we support these vital community businesses. Still, many folks will continue to dine at home more than before. I have a few suggestions about how to heighten the dining-at-home experience.
The decanting of your wine by a sommelier is always an impressive scene in a restaurant setting. During my time as a restaurant sommelier, I could use decanting to show the guest the level of care with which we were treating their bottle. We also knew that it made an impression on nearby diners who might have been wavering when considering whether to order wine. While these factors do not matter when enjoying wine at home, there are still several practical reasons to decant your wine and thus raise your level of enjoyment.
This reason can actually apply to both white and red wines. Many of the great white wines of the world, including high-end German Riesling and White Burgundy, are bottled with slightly elevated levels of sulphites. While these compounds aren’t harmful to your health and allow a white wine to age over a longer period of time, their presence can be a little distracting in a young wine. Decanting vigorously allows the aromas of “struck match” and of smoke to “blow off,” revealing more fruity and mineral characteristics.
More often, we decant young red wines. It is sometimes thought that decanting a young red will help soften the tannins, or the group of phenolic compounds responsible for the slightly astringent sensation that claws at your tongue or gums after taking a sip. However, oxygen cannot affect tannins this quickly. By vigorously decanting a young red, like with the white we start a process of rapid evaporation, where some harsh unpleasant compounds are released, making juicier, fruitier compounds more free to interact with oxygen and thus render them more easily sensed by us. So, while the actual chemical structure of the tannins hasn’t changed after a quick decant, the wine will still display a smoother texture.
For this, I recommend a wide-bottomed decanter that will allow you to splash the wine around a little bit after you dump it in. There is no need to be gentle as you help the wine shed some unwanted layers, revealing more sumptuous flavors and textures.
Although oxygen may not have an immediate effect on tannins in red wines, over time it will fundamentally change their chemical composition. With the help of tiny amounts of oxygen that are allowed in through the cork, tannins form bigger chains over time. Eventually the tannins become too big and heavy to stay suspended and will fall out of the liquid in the form of sediment. These solid chunks are harmless, but can be messy and gritty if consumed, so we often will decant an older red with the goal of separating the beautifully aged wine from the sediment.
In these situations, decanting requires a little bit more equipment and care. In addition to a decanter, you will also need a lit candle (a smartphone flashlight works too).
If your bottle has been stored on its side for an extended period, make sure to stand it upright for a day or two prior to decanting. After removing the cork, gently pour the wine into the decanter while holding the bottle so that its shoulders hover above the flame. By looking down, through the bottle and into the light shining up from below, you should be able to see most of the liquid go into the decanter and then the solids will start to arrive at the neck of the bottle. This is when you will stop decanting, leaving about an ounce of wine and sediment in the bottle.
The ageability of red wine is a separate topic worthy of its own blog post, but do be careful when decanting “really old” bottles. The evaporative effects of decanting discussed earlier can cause the delicate aromas of older vintages to vanish quickly, risking a disappointing wine experience after waiting so patiently for so long.
When decanting to remove sediment, perform the task just prior to when the wine is to be enjoyed.
This is a rarely talked about, but in my opinion highly underrated, use of a decanter, which is suitable for both whites and reds. Let’s say you have a bottle of red that you accidentally put in the refrigerator. Your friends are about to arrive and you know they will want to start drinking red wine immediately. By pouring the wine out of the cold bottle into a room-temperature decanter, you’ve jump-started the process of getting the wine to the desired temperature.
Have a bottle of white that needs to get chilled ASAP? Many decanters are made of very thin glass. Pouring the white wine into a decanter, then placing the decanter in a mixture of water and ice, will get the wine chilled much faster than if it had stayed in its thick glass bottle.