We’ve all seen it happening in a restaurant, the slightly chuffed smile of the diner whose wine is being decanted with precision by the waiter and the admiring glances of their dining companions. It’s romantic (there’s that word again!), it’s impressive, we watch and think ‘that must be a very special wine’ and crane our necks to get a look at the label. The myth seems to be that if it’s old – or expensive – you decant it, but is this really true, and are there exceptions to this rule?
I once worked with a waiter, Dave, the real old-school, career-waiter, who was (probably still is) the most decanter-happy person I’ve ever met. If he felt it necessary, he would decant it, regardless of its age or expense (there was a rather comic wrestle for the last decanter in the establishment between us once, I won, but that’s another story). And do you know what? The diners treated to his service consistently raved about their wines, and after experiencing this myself once I realised it wasn’t only because of his brilliant service, the wine actually tasted better!
So – if it’s not just for the old & expensive wines when do you use a decanter?
Historically, the decanter was a necessary part of all wine service, helping to remove the unsightly and unpalatable sediment found in wines which weren’t routinely fined or filtered. This was also the time when wine would be stored not in a bottle, but in the estate’s barrels, the decanter providing a suitably ‘resplendent receptacle’ in which to bring it to the table.
Although most wines now are filtered, older, or natural wines can still develop a ‘crust’ and benefit from a gentle decant. This is probably the most common reason for decanting, and results in the ego-boosting event seen in restaurants, complete with candlelight. The candle isn’t there just for romantic purposes, it illuminates the neck of the bottle, making it easier to see when the first, clean run of wine is over and the sediment begins. Try not to mourn the inch or so at the bottom of the bottle you won’t get to enjoy, in this case, less is definitely more. If you’re at home, use the rest of it in your cooking, there the sediment works some real magic – trust me!
Consideration and care must be taken with older wines, however, as some very old, delicate wines need to be handled with the kid-gloves and poured directly into the glass. The rapid exposure to oxygen that decanting provides can effectively ‘kill’ that old wine you have been caring for all these years, going from elegant and balanced to dull & flat. Take it easy here, if it’s at the far end of its recommended ‘drinking years’ – pour yourself a little & taste before committing.
The second reason for decanting wines is to open up a younger, bolder, tannic wine. In this case, decanting needs to be hard and fast, the more air that gets into the wine, the better. There have been many studies recently on the effectiveness of the aerator type pourers, or even the blender (!), but most agree, the wine out of a decanter comes up trumps (check this out. )
At Turkey Flat we often utilise the softening powers of a decanter, especially when serving our bolder reds, such as our Shiraz - or even the Grenache -for tasting. These reds are designed to be put down in the cellar for at least 8-10 years before they reach their potential, making them tricky to appreciate in youth. Once decanted, the youthful, grippy, powerfully tannic wine becomes balanced, bringing the nuances of fruit and spice the winemaker agonised over alive. The transformation is impressive. I hasten to add however, that nothing will ever compare to the depths of development that occurs in the bottle, if you have patience, let it be, and be thoroughly rewarded. The same ‘opening up’ transformation occurs throughout the gamut of young reds and can yield quite surprising results.
In short, like everything in the tricky world of wine, there are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to decanting. I do encourage you, though, to experiment with your favourite young red and experience for yourself the greater levels of complexity and enjoyment. And let’s be honest, serving wine from a decanter always makes the day feel a little less ordinary.