Beyond a bottle of wine, a trusty corkscrew and a good wine glass, there isn’t much a wine lover needs. The one other item that stands at the ready in my cupboard is a slender decanter that I’ve managed not to break over the years..
The compact piece was made by Riedel, an 11th-generation Austrian family business specializing in making a range of glasses and decanters to enhance the wine experience for consumers. It’s a standard model that’s easy to store and pour from. Practical and durable, it is a plain Jane compared to Riedel’s evolving range of elaborate and eye-catching crystal designs with shapes inspired by snakes, swans or musical harps. These multi-coloured and hand-crafted pieces are beautiful and make impressive centrepieces or focus a dining room’s attention on a sommelier practicing his or her trade tableside. However, they wouldn’t last 20 minutes let alone 20 years in my care.
Plus, I’d rather spend my money on the wine, not the accoutrements of wine appreciation. All you really need to successfully decant a bottle of wine is a clean vessel. It could be a blender, a pitcher or glass vase. In my university days, I used a retro Kool-Aid pitcher.
But just as there’s continued interest in sensible automobiles, such as Volvos and Subaru Outbacks, Riedel continues to produce my go-to decanter. The Merlot decanter, which was introduced in 2004, is produced from machine-made crystal. It’s dishwasher safe and its shape is effective to use for young or older wines. Its suggested retail price is $55, a fraction of cost associated with the handmade pieces, but a quick browse of the internet will reward bargain hunters.
After more than 30 years in wine, I have collected other decanters, usually while travelling. There are slender examples used in Alsace and Austria to decant riesling and gruner veltliner, with sleek design that allows them to fit comfortably in an ice bucket, that struck my fancy. Larger format ones made to hold the contents of a magnum, the equivalent of two standard bottles of wine, that captured my imagination for all tomorrow’s parties.
I don’t use these purpose-built models often. They rest in the “wine room” downstairs, which is how we refer to the basement cold cellar, with the racked bottles.
A recent heatwave did see an alternate called into action. The Studio 50 Rock Bottle Vessel features a round bottom flask that rests on a concrete base, which can be put into the freezer to keep the contents of the decanter cool on a sweltering afternoon or evening. Its rustic design makes it stand out on a table and the 1-litre volume of the flask allows a conventional 750-ml bottle good exposure to oxygen to release its aromas. Better yet, it’s way more stylish than an old Kool-Aid pitcher.
Traditionally decanting a wine is done to separate clarified wine from the solids suspended in the bottle or to enhance a wine’s flavour by exposing it to air. After spending months or years in bottle, most wines can benefit from having air and space, but the practice is most common for robust red wines.
When you’re hosting a dinner or party, serving wine from a decanter can add a bit of theatre to your presentation. It elevates the experience, although be prepared to end up serving your guests wine all night should they be too timid to attempt to pour from a “fancy” decanter.
Decanters expand the surface area of the wine, which encourages exposure to oxygen, which helps to smooth out harsh tannins and bitterness in full-bodied red wines while allowing more fruit and acidity to emerge. Richly flavoured white wines, such as many chardonnays or barrel-fermented chenin blancs from South Africa, are also good candidates.
Decanting any wine isn’t likely to hurt its character. Some wine lovers I know like to decant sauvignon blancs or rosés that are bottled with screwcap closures. They believe the rapid introduction of air helps release some gases – compounds that smell like rotten eggs or a struck match that may have developed in bottle and allow more enjoyable fruity notes to shine. In doing so, they risk losing some of the more delicate aromas, such as the dramatic grapefruit, guava, or passionfruit aromas of a well-made Marlborough sauvignon blanc, but there’s still plenty of intensity and fruit character to enjoy in the glass.
Some sommeliers, notably ones working in fine dining establishments, decant Champagne and other top quality sparkling wines. They say the practice helps to calm down the effervescence and slightly increase the wines’ temperature, which helps its aromas express themselves in the glass more. (It’s also why it’s increasingly fashionable to serve sparkling wine in a white wine glass instead of a slender flute. It allows greater appreciation of the aromas and flavours of the wine compared to the narrow flute, which is great at showing off the bubbles in the glass but not the overall quality of the bubbly.)
Decanting shouldn’t be an extreme sport. Thirty minutes to an hour will help show a young red wine in a flattering light. Taste it and see what you think. Is it appealing? Do you think it needs more time? When I decant white or rosé wines, I usually serve them right away. (There are many aeration devices on the market designed to fit on top of a bottle or decanter to help the aromatic intensity develop more quickly than a long decant or swirling in your glass. I’ve tried many of them but haven’t found one worth keeping.)
Older wines can be more delicate. Sediment is formed over time by the bonding of tannins and other compounds in red wines – they can start appearing in bottles that have four or five years of bottle age. Red wines that aged for longer than 10 years should be decanted otherwise the contents of the bottom half of the bottle is likely to be pretty “chewy.” There’s no harm in consuming a wine’s sediment, it’s just not a pleasant experience.
Once you have poured the wine out of the bottle – a candle or smart phone flashlight shining underneath the neck of the bottle helps to see when the wine turns from clear to cloudy as you decant – I think it’s best to serve. The wine should continue to develop, but I would rather witness a wine blossom in my glass than risk leaving it in the decanter too long and miss enjoying it at its best.
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