The practice of decanting a bottle of wine is a familiar one to those who know and love good wine. For the uninitiated, though, the ritual of decanting seems to be a mystical rite, perhaps rooted in a long-forgotten religion, that brings forth feelings of awe, bewilderment, and sometimes fear. You know, that hush that falls over an entire restaurant as everyone strains to watch the sommelier pay hommage to the wine gods. What exactly is this procedure, practiced by the dim of candlelight, in hushed tones, with gleaming, polished hardware at the ready?
The task of decanting a bottle of wine need not be shrouded in such mystery. It is, after all, only a simple process of pouring a liquid from one container to another. There are two significant reasons for decanting. The first is to expose a wine to air. Young red wines (and whites too, for that matter) will benefit from a good mixing with air. This "breathing" allows the sometimes harsh tannic elements present in a youthful red to soften, making the wine more pleasurable to consume. As red wines age, though, this softening process takes place naturally within the bottle as the wine changes chemically. The result of these molecular changes is the residue or sediment one can observe in a older bottle of red wine. Removing the liquid from the now solid portion of an older wine is the second reason for decanting.
There are many who erroneously believe that the presence of sediment indicates that a wine is somehow flawed. This misconception is so prevalent in this country, even among merchants and restaurateurs who should know better, that winemaking techniques both domestically and abroad have been altered to reduce sediment formation. Many wines are now subjected to unnecessary filtration procedures which do the job of reducing sediment but strip the wine of character in the process. The subject of filtration is a controversial one in the wine trade. There are many who suggest that winemakers refrain entirely from filtration for their better wines. Others ardently believe that a light filtration (there are many degrees of filtration possible, depending on the pore size of the filter) does not diminish a wine in any way and enhances the visual appeal of the finished product. A heavily-filtered wine clearly loses character in the process. Lighter filtrations will likely remain a point of contention for years, as there are too many variables involved and no obvious answer to the question of whether they diminish the wine.
Which young red wines need decanting? Any full-bodied red that is less than 4 years old is a good candidate, such as, Cabernet Sauvignons, Syrah/Shiraz, Merlot and their blended counterparts, plus Italian reds like Barolo, Barbaresco, and Amarone. How do you know which wines contain sediment? Easy - you look at the bottle. Hold it up to the light and you'll see a fine particulate matter settled on the bottom or side of the bottle, depending on the position of the vessel during storage. Red wines over five years old should be examined, and one should expect to see some degree of sediment formation in reds over a decade old. Prior to decanting, the bottle should be placed upright, or set at a sufficient upward angle to let the sediment slowly settle to the bottom of the bottle.
The hardware needed for decanting is a light source and a scrupulously clean vessel in which to pour the wine - which can range from an elegant, cut crystal decanter to something as mundane as an old, but well-washed, mayonnaise jar. While I am in favor of demystifying the decanting ritual, I would rather not give up all the customary and elegant decanting accessories. If I'm about to enjoy a wine that has been resting for 10 or 20 years or more, I like to take a moment to reflect on all that has transpired in my life since that wine was bottled. The use of an elegant decanting vessel gives the event of opening an older bottle a degree of reverence that such an occasion deserves.
Traditionally a candle is used as a light source. A flashlight works as well, but at the expense of the romance of the ritual. One can also simply hold the bottle up beneath a ceiling light fixture. The task is to remove the liquid from the solid - the degree of trappings and ritual is up to you. A steady hand, however, is required for efficient decanting since excessive motion will roil up the fine particulates and undo in an instant what nature has taken years to create. Open the wine with a minimum of movement, then place the candle or other light source where you will be able to pour the wine above it comfortably. Gently pick up the bottle and pour the wine into the decanting vessel with the light source beneath the neck of the wine bottle being careful to not scorch the neck of the bottle. Remember, you are not trying to heat up the wine, the candle is a light source. As you get to the bottom of the bottle you will see a stream of fine sediment come to the neck followed by a more opaque, heavier sediment. The point at which you stop pouring is up to you. It’s ok to let the finest sediment flow into the decanter, it does not alter the taste as much as the larger chunks. Stop pouring just before the heavier sediment reaches the neck of the bottle. If your curious, pour the sediment into a glass and taste the difference between the clear liquid and the cloudy, now you understand the reason why — and you'll enhance your enjoyment and understanding of wine as well.
The key to effective decanting is to move slowly and treat the wine gently. Once you begin pouring the wine into the decanter, do not stop until the process is completed. Otherwise, the movement of the fluid in the bottle will mix the wine with the sediment — exactly what we're trying to avoid. On the other hand, young wines that show no signs of sediment do not require the light source or the gentle handling since you are not going to encounter any solid matter. Just pour the wine from the bottle into the decanter. It’s amazing how much that slight oxygenation can alter the textural sensation of the wine. Decanting is an easy process and should not be the least bit intimidating. A bit of practice with a few inexpensive bottles can make it second nature for you. Once you become comfortable with decanting, you'll be secure in the knowledge that you're treating your fine wines properly