Wine & Spirits
Making the Most of a Bottle
You’ve ordered a bottle of red wine in a restaurant. When the server returns with it, he asks, “Would you like me to open the wine now so it can breathe?”
Hmm. Sounds good, so you tell him to go ahead. But in reality, simply opening the bottle doesn’t expose the wine to much air. The amount of oxygen that can reach the wine through the narrow neck of the bottle is simply too small to make any real difference, unless you’ve ordered the wine at lunch but don’t plan to drink it till dinner. Pouring the wine into a decanter will aerate it much more effectively.
Many people think that decanting is something done just for old wines, which can have a lot of sediment. The sommelier carefully pours an old wine into a decanter, usually with a candle or other light source illuminating the neck of the bottle. The sediment is left behind in the bottle, and the decanter contains clear wine.
For a young wine, decanting may be beneficial because it helps the aromas and flavors to open up and develop. In effect, it accelerates the “breathing” you were trying achieve by having the waiter open the bottle ahead of time.
There’s also a common belief that decanting helps soften a young wine’s tannins. “But that’s sort of a myth,” says Andrew Waterhouse, a professor of enology at UC Davis. He’s studied the subject of decanting and has written on the topic for the Scientific American Web site, www.sciam.com.
If a wine sits for 20 or 30 minutes in a bottle, he says, that’s not long enough for the air to cause any chemical changes in the tannins. Instead, decanting changes the wine, because the air stirs up volatile aroma compounds. The enticing aromas are enhanced, and some unpleasant ones are eliminated.
Travelers to Italy’s northwestern Piemonte region know that restaurants will nearly always decant bottles of young Barolo, a wine that can be extremely closed and tannic. You don’t even have to ask; it’s part of the routine. I see it less often in restaurants here, though most good restaurants will decant a wine if you request it.
Chez Panisse in Berkeley is one place where servers are trained to decant certain young reds. “I wouldn’t say you decant all young wines,” says wine director Jonathan Waters, citing the example of young Burgundy. But he says that servers decant young Cabernets and “almost all Piemonte reds,” such as Barolo. Waters adds that “we decant lots of older wines for customers.”
The servers at Bay Wolf in Oakland are also trained to suggest that many young wines be decanted and to explain the benefit. “Any wine that is tight, this will loosen it up a bit,” says owner Michael Wild, who also handles the restaurant’s wine program. Wild is an advocate of decanting not only a lot of reds but also “serious white wines” like white Burgundy or whites from the Loire Valley. In addition to aerating the wines, Wild says, decanting warms the whites slightly. He notes that many white wines are served too cold.
If you’re decanting a young wine at home, give it a good splash so it’s exposed to plenty of air. You don’t need a pricey decanter—a cheap carafe or even a pitcher will suffice. Old wines, on the other hand, should be decanted slowly and carefully so the sediment doesn’t get stirred up, and they should be drunk right away, because the oxygen will cause a fragile old wine to change quickly, usually not for the better.
And if you’re using a lead crystal decanter, don’t leave any wine in it for a prolonged period. The acid in the wine can leach out the lead.
–By Laurie Daniel