After suggesting, nay insisting, we not only decant but double decant each bottle of the five wines from Gaja in Piedmont for a dinner I thought, “what have I become?” Being a staunch non decanting guy from way back I felt like I’d finally become one of the wine mafia. Ultimately the wines looked better than they would have had we ripped the corks out and poured undoctored, so it was the right thing to do. But it did occur me to that sometimes I think people are too quick to decant just as I am to stubborn to breathe life into my young’uns.
A few years ago this article would have simply said “DON’T DO IT!” It might also have included the useful analogy, “Decanting wines is like sending your kids to boarding school. You get to skip some of the awkward phases but you miss a lot of their development too.” Followed by a smug smile at my own brilliant saying.
The reason not
Is simply because wines evolve with air and time. Primarily decanting is used to speed up this process and will ideal show the wines in its peak form. I think you’ve paid for that whole journey and why not go with it? There is nothing wrong with having five bottles of wine open at varying levels of emptiness for assessment purposes over many nights. Unless you drink them all and decide to rock out to Neil Young at 2am in the morning telling your angry neighbours they don’t know good music but they will by the morning (I haven’t done this by the way).
If it is a young wine you might actually learn a lot to see it over a few nights and see if it improves, stays the same or fades away. The former is the best sign it will age, the longer it survives open roughly equates to the length of years it will age. The middle option is still not a bad result for short to mid term drinking. The latter means you have to drink them all soon or the bottle was faulty, just try to not drink them all at once so as to avoid the Neil Young thing.
Decanting takes away that experience. The journey from useless newborn (just opened) to interactive and curious toddler, gangly and possibly anger teenager who in front of your eyes is blossoming into the glorious time of middle age and eventually becomes a dottery old fool, if you allow it to get that far if too good to miss. Imagine how boring we would all be if we just one day appeared as a 30 year old with a steady job and a child on the way. No nights rocking out to Neil Young that is for sure.
Now that I am older and wiser I’ll say: Don’t do it, unless…
You want to impress someone. The visual impact of a decanted wine is undeniable. And done with a bit of flair the whole process is quite a spectacle.
It is so old that sediment will be an issue. And I mean it will be undrinkable for all the deliciously crunchy wine mud that has started to cling to each other like reunited lovers. But like reunited lovers, not many people want to interact with them and rather they stayed inside and hugged there.
Or the classic James Halliday advice “If you open a really old bottle and like what you smell put the cork back immediately. If it doesn’t smell so fresh then decant it as you have nothing to lose.” It’s true.
That doesn’t mean you should just tip everything into a decanter because you can.
I think a careful assessment of the situation and keeping in mind the number one rule… which I’ve just decided is… Don’t miss the journey. If you’re having a lovely, long meal with friends pour all the wines out together. While this is basically decanting, you can sniff and sip the later wines and see what they are doing and how they are evolving.
The how to of decanting.
1. Never ever ever call it decantering. Never utter “I am just going to quickly decanter this wine.”
2. Open the bottle.
3. Vigorously pour the wine into the decanter. Yelling “get some” may or may not help. Whistling Toccata and Fugue might be better in company.
4. Enjoy. Style points for putting it into a glass first.
Possible additional steps.
If there is going to be sediment then you have to be careful. Don’t rotate the bottle. Keep it as still as possible and don’t rotate the label from the angle it was resting at. Move the knife around the bottle to cut the foil and screw the cork screw not the bottle. Put a source of light (candles for romantics, convex iPhone 6s for hipsters) that will shine through the neck so you can see what is moving through.
Slowly pour the wine into decanter in one even motion. Never stop, never look back. When you start seeing sediment coming through stop pouring and leave the rest in the bottle.
If the bottle is to be used for presentation then you can rinse it with water if there is sediment in there you need to evacuate. If not just leave it, water is just diluting your wine. Pour the wine back in with the help of a funnel and away you go.
Keep in mind that a decanter can be any vessel that you have on hand. If double decanting and no one will see or care then a 1 litre plastic jug will do the job.
Ultimately I don’t care how you serve a bottle of wine to me. Well… lay backs aren’t my thing… But don’t feel like you have to pour it into a jug to impress me. As with food pairing and the company you share a bottle with, context is everything. I like to watch my wines unzip like the great files used to on my 486. Oh, the anticipation is almost better than the outcome. Almost.