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decanting People & Places Articles
  • Wednesday 30 May 2007

To decant or not to decant? How? What? When? There are no hard and fast rules, says STEVEN SPURRIER, but a little decanting never hurt a wine

To decant or not to decant? How? What? When? There are no hard and fast rules, says STEVEN SPURRIER, but a little decanting never hurt a wine

Defined by Jancis Robinson MW in The Oxford Companion to Wine as ‘an optional and controversial step in serving wine, involving pouring wine out of its bottle into another container called a decanter’, there are almost as many theories about decanting as there are styles of decanters themselves.

If the aim is to maximise the visual and sensorial pleasure of wine, it is safe to say that those who always decant, whatever the wine, are never wrong, while those who never decant very often are. The reason is that the decanting process, if done correctly, separates wine from its sediment, so, if you do not want sediment in your glass, you have to decant.

The great Professeur Peynaud, Decanter’s 1990 Man of the Year and the father of modern French winemaking, was formal on the subject in Le Goût du Vin, translated as The Taste of Wine by Michael Schuster (Macdonald Orbis, 1987): ‘Only bottles which have a deposit need to be decanted, whatever the nature of the deposit and whatever the age of the bottle’. But he adds: ‘Consequently, a bottle that has no deposit can be served straight away’. It can, but will it be at its best with no aeration? Peynaud thinks so: ‘If it is necessary to decant, it should be done at the last moment, just before sitting down or just before serving – never in advance’. To judge from dinners I have attended over the years (except the one with Peynaud himself, when I was his student in 1974), many, perhaps most, lovers of fine wine, would disagree.

Decanting, controversial or not, is generally only considered necessary for fine wines. Before winemakers mastered the art of clarification through filtration, all wines threw a natural deposit and were served in decanters, carafes or jugs. Today’s skill in the cellar is matched by demands from supermarkets to ensure that everyday wines, which are generally to be drunk young, will be star-bright. The fashion that began among careful growers in Burgundy and the Rhône Valley to bottle ‘unfined and unfiltered’ has now spread across the world. But these wines are not ‘everyday’, neither are they cheap, so to get the best from them, attention must be paid to how they are served. Filtered or not, many fine wines, especially reds, throw a natural deposit of tannins and colouring pigments that collect on the side of the bottle if stored horizontally, or in the punt if stored vertically. Some white wines shed a crystalline deposit due to a precipitation of tartrates. These are Professeur Peynaud’s candidates for decanting, which in itself is a very simple process (see panel, page 49).

The nitty-gritty

The two main issues in decanting are what to decant and when to decant. The ‘what’ has more options than just wines with sediment, as will be discussed later. The ‘when’ represents a clash between Professeur Peynaud’s scientific fact and endless personal experience and that of others. The accepted rule is that the older the wine, the more dangerous it is to allow long aeration. This was certainly true for the oldest wine I have ever drunk, Château Lafite 1806 (last recorked at the château in 1953), which was chosen by a generous host for five friends in September 1969 at the restaurant Darroze in southwest France. It was decided to pour the wine directly into seven tulip-shaped Bordeaux glasses – one for each of us, and one for the other diners to taste – to be served as the first red wine, not, as age would suppose, the last. The colour was transparent pale red, the nose ethereal with hints of faded roses, the flavours fine, still with a little sweetness of fruit, the experience unforgettable, yet 20 minutes after pouring, the wine had entirely collapsed, becoming dry and decrepit. Ronald Barton, from whose Château Langoa the group had made this trip, always served three clarets at a formal dinner with a decade or more between them, decanting them all around 7pm, stoppering them up, and removing the stopper from each decanter as the previous wine was served. No wine was ever less than perfect. Michael Broadbent uses the same system with similar results, but gives the wine time for maximum aeration and change in the glass. Even the older vintages served at the Taillevent dinner for Anthony Barton (see April issue) were decanted three to four hours before.

I aim to decant at least an hour before serving and, if I have to open a bottle at the last minute, I use a ‘ship’s’ decanter with a very wide base, and swill (without shaking) the wine around the sides for about 30 seconds to make up for lost time. My father used to decant his dinner claret after lunch, but for someone known to ‘vintage’ his grocers’ port by adding a dash of brandy to the decanter, perhaps his claret was ‘portified’ for it never tasted tired. Old-style producers of Barolo and Brunello often decant the evening before, or after breakfast on the same day. Many port lovers say their vintages are better ‘the second night’, perhaps quietly sniffed and sipped with no guests around to spoil the enjoyment. One certainty, however, is that once a wine has ‘gone’, nothing can bring it back to life. To be on the safe side, it’s better to decant late, but serve in glasses large enough to allow for ample aeration.

Double decanting is much practised in Bordeaux as another level of aeration, when many different wines are served and it is necessary to have the château label plainly visible. Since this happens at dinners where many hundreds of people are present, convenience dictates that the wines are ready hours before serving. They have always seemed to me to have risen to the occasion.

The ‘what’ to decant has evolved from the necessity of removing sediment to the pleasure of enhancing the wine, even if the pleasure is purely visual. An accepted tenet is that Burgundy is not decanted, the reasons being that Pinot Noir has less colouring matter and tannins, and so deposes less of them in bottle. Also, the glass for red Burgundy is larger than the classic glass for red Bordeaux, being double the width at the bowl than at the rim. It would be filled no more than one third full, and the exposure to air across the bowl of the glass would be immense. But with many fine Burgundies being bottled unfiltered, decanting is necessary for clarity. Except for minor appellations in light years, 2000 for example, I decant my red Burgundies, giving longer aeration the older they are. Of my last two bottles of Clos de la Roche 1990 Domaine Dujac, one, decanted at Le Gavroche an hour before serving, was very good. The other, decanted in Dorset three hours before serving, was sublime. Similarly, I find it inconceivable not to decant a mature red Rhône, or any mature red, for that matter. I am in total agreement with Professeur Peynaud that virtually nothing happens just by pulling the cork. 

Now for the whites

Before writing this article, I took part in the annual claret tasting arranged by Bill Blatch of Bordeaux’s Vintex, Stephen Browett of Farr Vintners and Rob Chase of the wine merchant Adnams. There were 15 of us there, all male, ranging in seniority of time in the wine trade from Barry Phillips’ 48 years to Neal Martin’s (Robert Parker’s UK contributor) 10. I asked them all to fill in a questionnaire, the results of which showed a high level of white wines that they decant. Of the classic whites, only German and Champagne were preferred from the bottle. I do not decant Champagne, but I love to see it served en carafe as it always was in the late Jacques Manière’s restaurant, Le Dodin Bouffant, in Paris. (Broadbent once suggested to Manière that he might consider spitting during an all-day tasting in Paris in the 1970s. Manière replied: ‘Listen, young man, if I spit, I lose my sense of balance’.) There is a generosity in carafing a Champagne that transcends that of serving it by the bottle, and the wine no more loses its sparkle than does a draught lager. Richard Geoffroy, the chef de cave behind Dom Pérignon, does not decant, but he pours the wine 10 minutes beforehand to give it time to take to the glass.

Old white wines, particularly dry and sweet Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhône, should all be decanted: the golden tint of colour looks superb on the dinner table, and possible faint off-flavours will dissipate. Young white wines, even Muscadet or Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, may be decanted for pleasure. A little aeration helps any wine of quality. Young, tannic reds also benefit, in particular those from the Cabernet, Malbec, Mourvèdre, Syrah and Tannat grapes. While it would be odd to decant Beaujolais, much is served locally in 50cl ‘pots’ without harming its freshness. Wine aficionados swirl the wine before each sip to ‘wake it up’: decanting does the same.

Mechanical decanting aids were deemed unnecessary by my fellow tasters. Barry Phillips relied on the ‘Ah-so’ cork-puller, whose flanged sides grip an old cork much better than a corkscrew, as well as a decanting funnel to ensure the wine didn’t splash into the decanter. There are many fanciful aids on the market, most of them useless. Yet here the useful human element, so integral to the decanting of wine, was mentioned. For Neal Martin, it was his wife, for Hew Blair of Justerini & Brooks, it was his butler.

Decanting: What the professionals say

We asked three top sommeliers, Terry Threlfall of Chez Bruce, Gearoid Devaney of Tom Aikens, and Vincent Thompson of the Atlantic Hotel, Jersey, whether or not they would decant two particular wines…

Would you decant a 2006 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc?

TT: ‘I wouldn’t normally decant this wine but I might do with something fuller like a Cloudy Bay. I decant fuller white wines such as white Rhônes or Burgundies to open them up and get them to the right temperature.’

GD: ‘I would decant it if asked but not usually. I would rather keep it in the bottle on ice. The aromatics of the Sauvignon Blanc are immediately strong whereas I would tend to decant full-bodied whites such as a big Chablis or California Chardonnay.’

VT: ‘I would advise not to decant a young Sauvignon Blanc as it is still fresh and fruity. A 2006 still has all its flavours and aromas. If it were a 10-year-old white I would decant to get oxygen into it and drain the deposits.’

…and a 2004 Châteauneuf du Pape?

TT: ‘I would decant this to soften the tannins and allow the fruit to express itself. The younger, richer wines can be hard as nails and very closed, so ideally with a 2004 I would double or triple decant, and serve it in a ship’s decanter.’

GD: ‘I would decant the Châteauneuf to help open up the tight tannin structure. I wouldn’t necessarily always decant the older wines; I have served a 1978 Haut-Brion straight from the bottle because if it had been decanted for an hour before it might have lost some of its flavours. I do decant at home as I like to see how a wine evolves in the glass over time.’

VT: ‘The 2004 is a very heavy, full bodied wine that is a bit closed. It needs oxygen to fully develop so I would decant it. At home I prefer to decant a wine the night before drinking but in a restaurant it would get no more than about 20 minutes to breathe before serving. This is not ideal but there are no hard and fast rules with decanting.’

Decanting for dummies

Decanting isn’t complicated. All you need is a clean decanter, a light source (candle, torch or naked light bulb) and a steady hand. Take the bottle from its bin or rack a few hours beforehand and stand it up, letting the sediment fall into the punt. (With unfiltered wines – particularly, in my experience, wines from the Rhône – pigment deposits may stick to the bottle’s sides, forming a voile. This will remain, and is nothing to be concerned about.) Cut the capsule a centimetre below the opening, wipe the top of the cork and rim with a clean cloth, take the bottle in one hand, the decanter in the other and, with the rim of the bottle on or close to the opening of the decanter and the light below, pour slowly and steadily until, with about 2.5cm of wine left (triple that for vintage port), you see the sediment flowing towards the neck. Stop immediately. Older wines should be poured slowly, the bottle angled so that the wine flows down the neck into the decanter bowl without splashing. Younger wines may be poured less gently, as aeration will open them up. 

The wine in the decanter should be star-bright, and there will be a few centimetres of sedimentary wine left in the bottle. You can filter this through muslin or fine-grade coffee filter paper and add it to the decanter. I don’t do this – dregs become ex-dregs – but an authority such as Tom Stevenson (The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia) states: ‘I have never been able to tell the difference between pure-decanted wine and that augmented by a small volume of filtered wine. In fact, none of my friends and colleagues who have doubted my assertion have been able to score higher than 50% in blind tastings’. Better leave it out, is my view.

Place the decanter ready for serving with the stopper in or out, according to the extra level of aeration desired.

In ‘double decanting’, the bottle is rinsed out and the wine poured back in, so that the original bottle with its label may be shown.

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