Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Decant or Not to Decant

Decant or not to decant, that is the question.

In our wine reviews, I often mention if a red wine should be decanted or not and for how long. How can a person tell if a wine needs to sit for a while?

Let’s start with when not to decant.

Fruity, lighter bodied, sweeter wines that are meant to be drunk young and lightly chilled are never decanted. Some examples are Sangria, Beaujolais, Hazilit Red Cat, and Raspberry Ripple.

So how do you tell when a red needs air?

Often younger wines are sold before their prime. This is where adding air (instant age) can turn a so-so wine into a really good or great wine. If the wine is tight, acidic, angular or sharp, it will benefit from some air. The tighter the wine, the longer it needs to sit.

Tight: when all the flavors seem coiled together and competing for attention. Decanting allows the flavors to relax and soften. A friend of mine calls wines like this ‘monsters’. The bigger the monster, the longer it needs to sit. We’ve found that some Italian reds fall into this category. If they’re allowed to decant for at least an hour they blossom into something grand and the beast totally disappears.

Acidic: some acidity is necessary to give a wine lift. Too much makes the wine tart or sour. If the problem is only acidity, fully decanting the wine can leave it flat and boring. For this reason, we just open the bottle and let it sit for a few minutes. This is what we call airing.

Angular/Sharp: is a combination of tight and acidic. Simply put, it tastes harsh in the mouth. Decanting can take care of this.

How long? Well, that depends upon the severity of the problem. The harsher the wine, the longer it needs to sit. Sometimes just pouring the wine in the decanter gives it enough air to soften it. With some bolder reds, hours are necessary to release the wine’s full potential.

Is there a difference in decanters? The more the wine is exposed to air, the quicker it ‘ages’. We use a Captain’s style decanter with a diffuser. This gives maximum exposure in a minimum amount of time. All the decanting times listed in our reviews are timed this way. If a narrow bottom decanter is used, more time may be necessary.

Weather or not the wine has been decanted, notice the subtle changes in taste from the first to the last pour. Paying special attention to the changes as it’s exposed to air is an excellent way to get a handle on this. Some reds will change dramatically and others will change subtly. Trial and error is really the best teacher. Of course, keeping notes helps too.

When it comes to old or expensive or collector type wines, I give no advice on those. They’re out of my league. Contact a real expert.

Simple red wine advice from Eclectic Dilettante: the non-expert, budding wine snob.


NWJR said...

Wouldn't it suck to open up a bottle of obscenely expensive collector wine and find it went bad?

I'd cry. Hard.

Eclectic Dilettante said...

Ah yes...like that bottle of corked 1980 Chateau Mouton Rothschild that still sits on my counter.