Decanting breathes flavor into wine
The question of whether or not to decant a wine comes up often. Many do need to be opened in advance and allowed to breath, but if left too long will become tainted and taste like vinegar. So how do we know when we reach the point of no return?
The purpose of decanting is to separate the wine from sediment and to aerate, enhancing the flavor and aromas. Aged reds naturally produce sediment when the color pigments and tannins bond together and fall out of the wine. This sediment creates a gritty, bitter taste and should not be poured into a glass for drinking. Decanting will remove the sediment and clear the wine. The process to decant an older red is to set the bottle upright for up to 24 hours, allowing the sediment to slide to the bottom of the bottle. Once opened, pour slowly into a decanter or carafe until the sediment reaches the neck of the bottle. This may leave an ounce or two to discard, but know it is better there than in your glass.
White wines don't create sediment, so decanting is more for the purpose of aerating to open up the flavors. If you open a bottle of white and the aroma is strong, no decanting is necessary. If there is no aroma, the bottle is called "closed". That's why the term "to open" the flavor is used. Or, upon opening a white you may find a heavy aroma that is unpleasant. Some whites can smell funky, like damp mushrooms, when first opened. Decanting for approximately 30 minutes will open the true flavor and get rid of any unpleasant aromas to deliver a great taste.
This week I tasted a French Domaine de Paris Rose, falling in the middle between a red and white. This wine is what persuaded me to talk about decanting. I opened the bottle early in the afternoon for a taste to begin writing this article, thinking I would drink the rest that evening with dinner. In the afternoon the wine had a floral and mixed berry aroma. Matching this with the light coral color made the first sip quite pleasing. It created a burst of red berries on my tongue with just a hint of grapefruit, making it taste like a well-balanced fruit salad. In the sunshine of the afternoon it really hit the spot.
The bottle sat open for about an hour, and then I placed a cork stopper in it to save for later. With the passing of five hours, I re-opened the bottle and poured a glass. Yikes! It was flat and tasteless. So I went back to my original question of wondering when too much air becomes harmful. As previously stated, the right amount of oxygen is needed to open up flavor. But when wine sits too long it becomes oxidized through a chemical breakdown. Oxidation will cause a loss of brightness, both in color and flavor. Red wines have higher tannins that act as a buffer, so they can remain open longer than whites, which are more susceptible to this breakdown.
There is definitely a peaking process — open the wine to aerate, but use the following as a time guide: Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and most whites for 30 minutes; Malbec and Grenache for one hour; Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petite Sirah, Tempranillo, Port and Sangiovese for two hours; Monastrell, Syrah/Shiraz and Nebbiolo for two to three hours.
If you're not fully convinced that decanting makes a difference, try a taste test. Open a bottle early and taste it. Let it sit open or pour into another vessel as recommended. Taste later and see if there is any change. If you detect no difference, quickly give the bottle to a friend and label yourself a scotch drinker.