To Decant, or not to Decant?
By Gianpaolo Paterlini
Decanting, the act of transferring wine from one vessel to another, is a tragically misunderstood ritual with a long history and a simple explanation. There are two main reasons to decant a wine: to separate it from its sediment and to aerate it before drinking. This post will explore the history and culture surrounding both reasons.
For much of wine’s history, it was purchased from the winery by a shipper or merchant who would buy the wine in large containers called demijohns. The most commonly used vessels were clay amphorae, as they could be easily transported to other markets and the wine could be decanted into smaller bottles as demand called for it. During the times of the Greek and Roman Empires, winemaking was a relatively rustic affair, so wine regularly contained sediment that negatively affected the drinking experience. By slowly and gently pouring the wine from a bottle into a decanter, one could ensure the wine that made it into the decanter was clear and clean, while a small amount of cloudy wine and all of the sediment was left in the bottle.
Winemaking standards have improved over the past two thousand years, so most of today’s wine doesn’t contain any sediment upon release. As wine culture has evolved, the appreciation of aged wine has grown exponentially over the past few centuries. The sediment we find in today’s red wine comes primarily from pigmented tannins, so it is most common in highly tannic wines like Bordeaux, Barolo, and Port. As wine ages, the tannins slowly precipitate into sediment, so the older the wine is, the more sediment you can expect. Sediment is not harmful, but while completely safe to consume, it is not a taste or texture that many drinkers enjoy. Decanting the wine will help to avoid any textural unpleasantness and result in the clearest wine possible.
The second main reason to decant a wine is for aeration. Wine is a living, breathing entity, so in the same way an apple will brown after being exposed to oxygen, wine will evolve as well. Wine is exposed to oxygen during the winemaking process, but once it is bottled, this interaction is severely limited. No bottle closure is completely anaerobic, but natural corks allow more oxygen to interact with the wine than synthetic closures or screw caps do, so natural cork wines tend to evolve more quickly in bottle. Once any bottle of wine is opened and poured, the sudden exposure to oxygen sets off a chemical reaction in which ethanol (alcohol) is turned into acetaldehyde (after an extended period of time, acetaldehyde turns into acetic acid, giving us vinegar). In basic terms, the wine’s flavors open up and the texture softens. Encouraging a tannic Cabernet to soften or a floral Nebbiolo to burst out of the glass aromatically can greatly improve the drinking experience.
Decanting to soften a wine’s tannins has become particularly popular among drinkers of New World Cabernet Sauvignon and blends. Rather than cellaring a wine for years to allow it to soften and mellow out naturally, many drinkers open wines that are very young and backward and decant them for hours before drinking to make them more palatable. There are even devices called aerators that accelerate this process. While the vast majority of wine, even aged wines, can easily handle being decanted for a few hours, there are potential risks to decanting a wine. Lighter wines with less tannin can advance very quickly when exposed to too much oxygen. The classic example is aged Pinot Noir. Most collectors of aged red Burgundy are terrified of aerating their wines for fear that they will fall apart in the decanter. They prefer to pour the wine directly from the bottle to their glass, even though the last quarter of the bottle will often be cloudy and contain sediment.
The world is constantly evolving and much of society seems happy with shortcuts that make things easier and faster. While I will reluctantly embrace many technological advances, I have a hard time appreciating a more ‘efficient’ way to drink wine. For me, wine is all about shared experience, and a big part of that is witnessing a wine evolve over time with other passionate oenophiles. Wine should not be a singular destination, but an exciting journey to be enjoyed leisurely over time. I feel that by decanting a wine hours before I drink it, I am missing out on a huge part of that wine’s story. Tasting a wine that has just been opened and feeling it needs to breathe a little is not a bad thing. Rather, experiencing the wine in its initial ‘closed’ phase helps me to better appreciate the other stages of its evolution.
Nebbiolo is a variety that goes through many of these stages over the course of hours or even days, and experiencing this transition is what makes drinking it so exciting. A great Barolo will often start with bright aromatics of roses and red fruit before giving way to deeper notes like tar and balsamic. Eventually, these light and dark attributes will find harmony, combining to create a wine of intensity and elegance all at once. While this may sound like a destination, this stage of its development might only last for 10 minutes before the wine morphs into something else. By decanting the wine in advance, I would be tasting only a snapshot of the wine, rather than experiencing the whole picture.
It might sound like I am presenting a black and white issue, but there is a great middle ground called double decanting. If I am opening a wine I suspect might have some sediment, I will decant it, then rinse out the bottle with water, and pour the clean wine back into the original bottle. Double decanting allows me to decant a wine for sediment without accelerating its development.
At the end of the day, wine will always be a very subjective topic, and I always encourage people to drink wines in whichever way makes them most happy. My hope in writing this blog is that you might think twice before using an aerator on the next bottle you open, and instead of projecting your desires onto the wine, sit back and enjoy the ride as it takes you on a journey.