To decant or not to decant? How? What? When? There are no hard and fast rules, says Steven Spurrier, but there's no doubt a little aeration helps any wine of quality...
The Oxford Companion to Wine has one definition of decanting: ‘an optional and controversial step in serving wine, involving pouring wine out of its bottle into another container called a decanter’. In reality 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’.
But 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
What to decant
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.
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). It was decided to pour the wine directly into seven tulip-shaped Bordeaux glasses – one for each diner – 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.
How to decant
All you need is a clean decanter, a light source (candle, torch or naked light bulb) and a steady hand
Stand the bottle up a few hours beforehand, letting the sediment fall into the punt
Cut the capsule a centimetre below the opening, wipe the top of the cork and rim with a clean cloth
You can use muslin, fine-grade coffee filter paper or a finely-meshed decanting funnel, although I don’t do this.
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
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
When there’s about 2.5cm of wine left (triple that for vintage port), and you see the sediment flowing towards the neck, stop immediately
Place the decanter on the table with the stopper in or out, according to the extra level of aeration desired
To double decant, the bottle is rinsed out and the wine poured back in, so that the original bottle with its label may be shown
Should Burgundy be decanted?
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.
Young, tannic reds
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.
When to decant
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.
Amongst the classic whites, wine professionals tend to consider only German whites and Champagne are best from the bottle. I do not decant Champagne, but I love to see it served en carafe. 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
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
Young white wines, even Muscadet or Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, may be decanted for pleasure.
Mechanical decanting aids
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.