I’ll never forget a dinner I enjoyed when I was a sophomore at UCSD (sigh… it was in the seventies). The venue was Anthony’s Star of the Sea room in San Diego which at the time was reputed to be the best restaurant in the city . There were several of us at the table and we were all mesmerized by the elegant room and the incredible bay view. After thoughtful study of the list, our host ordered the wine, which was presented by a tuxedoed sommelier with the funny ashtray-looking thing hanging from his neck. He was holding the wine in one hand and the fancy decanter in the other. I have no recollection of the wine but I think I could probably identify the sommelier out of a police line up even to this day. He made an impression, let me tell you.
This was my first experience with decanting. Alas, it influenced my view of this useful and practical procedure by cloaking it in formality and mystery. So until recently I reserved decanting for “Star-of-the-Sea”experiences only. As a result I have drank way too much wine before it has reached its full potential. By this I don’t mean drinking wines too early without proper aging in the cellar (God knows I have committed many of these so-called “infanticides”). What I mean is I have poured directly from the original bottle into my glass and have not taken advantage of the true quality of the wine.
Don’t make the same mistake. I hope to convince you to decant all your wines, fine or common alike, before you drink them. Know that most wines improve tremendously after decanting with plenty of “splash”. But don’t take my word for it. A simple “Pepsi Challenge”will make a believer out of you. Nothing you can do will improve your wine tasting experience more than decanting your wines. Even a $5 bottle of plonk will show its full potential, however limited, after the splash. While reds show the most dramatic change, whites also improve markedly. The reason is oxygen. Yes, oxygen. Oxygen binds with the complex aromatics in the wine and the combination has better aroma, flavor and mouth feel than the un-decanted version.
Decanting has traditionally been used to separate the sediment which can accumulate in certain wines after lengthy cellaring. To do this one pours the wine slowly and carefully until the first traces of sediment show on the neck of the bottle, at which point the remainder in the bottle is discarded. Nowadays wines are fined or filtered and seldom do they produce a sediment, making the slow decanting unnecessary. In fact, at a restaurant one must often instruct the servers not to “baby” the wine but to splash it instead. Not understanding the issue, they are sometimes reluctant to do this. Don’t be fazed. If they are going to go through the motions you might as well insist on a vigorous decanting and you’ll get your money’s worth from your selection. At home, grab your bottle, stick the neck on the mouth of the decanter, place the bottle vertically over the decanter and let ‘er rip.
Some of you have read my previous articles on proper storage of your wines. I am a firm believer in careful preservation of wines at stable temperatures. Unless you have a cellar or a wine fridge, trust your retailer or favorite winery to store the wines for you until you are ready to drink them. No amount of decanting can make up for the heat and cold cycle damage wine experiences when stored in the kitchen, garage or the always popular closet under the stairs. I am experimenting with some inexpensive alternatives for proper home storage of wines and hope to publish the results sometime in the summer after my “rig” goes through the hot season. Stay tuned.