For many of us, Christmas is a time to pull your best wines out of the cellar and share them with the family around the dinner table. If you have been saving a particular bottle for a while, or spent a bit extra for something special, you want to make sure you are enjoying the wine at its best. So the question is posed: To decant or not to decant?
There are two main reasons to decant a wine. Firstly, an aged wine may have thrown a hefty level of sediment in the bottle that needs to be removed before the wine is poured. This will often occur in vintage ports, or unfiltered red wines that have been cellared for 10+ years. The sediment is quite bitter, so there is nothing more embarrassing than pouring a glass of lumpy wine for your guests.
A young wine may also need decanting to allow the wine to “breathe”. Allowing oxygen to get to the wine can help to remove any sulphurous quality that you might find in a young white, or to open up the flavours of a young red.
The decision on whether to decant or not varies from wine to wine. Hold your aged wines up to the light to see if it has thrown a deposit. If it has, slowly and steadily pour the wine into a decanter, holding the neck of the bottle over a source of light, such as a lamp or candle. This allows you to the sediment as it edges towards the top of the bottle. Once the sediment reaches the neck, stop pouring. Any wine left in the bottle will make a great addition to gravies or sauces.
A wine that seems closed or overly tannic simply needs to be poured into a decanter and allowed some time to rest and breathe (usually no more than an hour or two). This will take the bite off the wine and allow complex flavours to develop. Be careful when giving older wines to breathe; a wine such as an aged fine Burgundy may lose its flavour if over-oxidised.
Wine can be decanted into any container; you don’t necessarily need a lavish crystal decanter. Use a wide based container for wines that need to breathe, or a narrow container with a lid for the wines that don’t. Some people choose to use a filter to extract every last drop of wine from a bottle, but this process can sometimes extract flavours and character from the wine. If you wish to do this, only filter the wine left over after completing the process above.
For those who are a feeling a bit adventurous, there is the emerging trend of Hyper-Decanting – the practice of giving a wine a whirl in the blender. Some see this as wine sacrilege, while others swear by the process for getting the best out of their young reds. Either way, it is sure to generate plenty of conversation around the dinner table this Christmas!