October 12, 2011
Like the average casual wine consumer in America, I drink bottles mostly in the $10 to $15 range. I’ve never decanted my wine (poured it into another container to allow it to “breathe” before serving), and I’ve wondered if the practice really improves the taste or if it’s just a wine snob’s affectation. It seems even wine experts disagree on whether or when decanting makes a perceptible difference, and whether that difference is necessarily positive.
All agree on one clear benefit to decanting: done properly, it means any sediment that has accumulated in the bottle won’t end up in your glass. Sediment is usually only an issue with red wines, especially older ones, although decanting also works for unfiltered wines of any age. Decanting to improve a wine’s taste is more controversial.
First, a little (simplified) science: wine, as a fermented food, has a complex combination of chemical compounds. The character of the wine is constantly changing as these compounds interact with one another and with light, oxygen and humidity. Left to its own devices, wine will eventually turn to vinegar. Bottling or otherwise storing wine (as in casks or tanks) slows down that process almost to a halt—the trick is capturing it at the optimal point in its evolution. Most wines made today, especially those in the low to middle price ranges, are intended to be drunk within a few years of bottling. But others are meant to be further aged in the bottle, allowing them to develop what is considered the perfect balance of flavors.
Decanting, ideally into a wide-bottomed decanter that increases the wine’s surface area, exposes wine to oxygen, speeding up its transformation. The disagreement is over whether this change is significant to be worthwhile, and whether the change is always for the better.
Andrew L. Waterhouse, a California viticulture and enology professor, explains in Scientific American that an expensive (more than $20) red wine intended for cellar aging can taste astringent or “closed” if drunk before its time, and that decanting allows unpleasant volatile compounds to evaporate. In theory, it also “softens” the harsh taste of tannins, although Waterhouse notes that chemists have not observed changes to the tannins after decanting.
But Jim LeMar, a wine company sales representative, points out the risk of losing pleasant aromas through decanting. He argues on the blog Professional Friends of Wine that today’s winemaking techniques have mostly eliminated undesirable sulfuric smells, “rendering aeration before serving moot.” He continues, “Some VOCs [volatile organic compounds] are present in such minute concentrations and are so volatile that they may be exhausted and disappear completely with only a few seconds of aeration. Is it worth sacrificing these scents for what amounts to superstition that has little scientific basis?”
At the other extreme, Joseph Nase writes in New York magazine that all wines, even whites, can “come to life at an accelerated pace” through decanting. “This is especially important for younger wine,” he continues.
The latest wrinkle in the debate is the practice of “hyperdecanting”—mixing wine in a blender to maximize oxygen exposure. Nathan Myhrvold, co-author of the recent Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking and a proponent of the technique, claims it “almost invariably improves red wines—particularly younger ones, but even a 1982 Château Margaux.”
But John M. Kelly, a Sonoma Valley winemaker, contends on his blog that just because a wine objectively changes through decanting or hyperdecanting doesn’t mean everyone will prefer that change. It’s a fair point, and one that brings us to the bottom line: if you want to try decanting, go for it. If you like the results, keep doing it. If you don’t, or you can’t tell the difference, don’t bother. Decanting, as with everything about wine, is a matter of taste.
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