Vail Wine Ink column: Decant wine to practice the art of the pour
UNDER THE INFLUENCE
1990 Jean Louis Chave Ermitage “Cuvee Cathelin” — Perhaps the most impressive, no make that the most impactful, wine that I have ever tasted was a Syrah from the Northern Rhone made by the fabled Chave family. I was at a private home interviewing a generous collector, and he was decanting the wine as I arrived. The amount of sediment in the bottle was prodigious, and it took him a few rotations of pouring and setting the wine down before he completed his task. Upon completion of the interview, I asked to take the empty bottle home and kept it to this day. The sediment still clings to the sides of the bottle. A reminder of a wine of my time.
The wine was not mine, but I could not take my eyes off the sommelier as she poured it. In her hands was a vessel of glass so beautiful as to be an object of art.
A tapered neck, nearly two feet long, extended from a large bowl. As she poured the wine, the liquid flowed in a perfect ribbon of red, drip-free, from the end of the stem into a glass a good half-foot below. As she brought her serviette — a small cotton side towel that sommeliers use to wipe clean a bottle or decanter — to the end of the beautiful glass, she smiled and said, “Pretty cool, right? It’s called a Swan.”
I had seen some amazing decanters before, but this one was so beautiful in its pour, so direct, clean and precise, that I wanted to splurge on a bottle of something worth decanting. Alas, my budget was such that I could not afford to purchase anything on the prodigious list that would be appropriate for a Riedel Swan, which retails for something like $400. I was relegated to watching the sommelier pour for others.
For most people, a decanter is a gift they got at their wedding from the aunt and uncle who didn’t visit the online registry. It sits near the wine stash and likely has been used maybe a couple of times, when a bottle seemed expensive enough to deserve extra attention. In this day and age, when we drink wines the day we buy them, often opening them with the twist of a screw cap, the decanter may seem as much a relic of a bygone age as an AOL address.
Ah, but let’s not forsake both the usefulness and the tradition of decanting wines just yet. For there is definitely value to decanting certain wines, and doing so will enhance your experience of drinking them.
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There are two practical reasons to decant a wine. The first, and this is something that is most appropriate with an aged (likely at least 10 years old) red wine, or perhaps an old port, is to rid the wine of sediment. Nothing is quite so grody as pouring a glass of a wine from a bottle that you have been saving for years for just right the moment and getting a mouthful of astringent, gravelly sediment. It’s a harsh experience.
If you take the time to uncork the wine, then find a good light or perhaps a candle to shine under the neck of the bottle and slowly pour it into a decanter, you can reduce the chances of that sediment (the dregs of the leftover stems, seeds, skins or tartaric acid crystals that naturally occur in the winemaking process) finding its way into your glass. Keep an eye on the neck of the bottle, and as the sediment rises, be sure to slow your pour so it remains in the bottle and not in your decanter.
LET IT BREATHE
The second purposeful reason to open a wine and pour it into a decanter is to give the wine a little time to breathe, allowing it, especially if it is a young, tannic red wine, to mellow a bit before you drink it. While the exposure to air is one part of the process that is accelerated by decanting, there is a second principle at work, that of the Brownian Motion. Say what?
The Brownian Motion is a scientific principle that details the effects of the constant motion of molecules in a gas or liquid. By opening and pouring the wine into a larger vessel, or even swirling your glass, you change the random dynamic of the molecular composition of the wine. For the better? Perhaps, but we’ll leave that to physics.
But perhaps the most important reason to use a decanter is, well, let’s call it romance. The esthetic of the pour, the tradition of the task and the patience that is required to take the time to decant a wine shows both a respect for the wine and your guests. To use a hand blown-glass vessel, like the Swan that I saw being employed by the sommelier, for the bottle of wine is a celebration and a visual sensation that make the wine special. It added an additional element to the enjoyment of that wine.
Yes, it may be as old-fashioned, but the art of decanting has a place in our wine world.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.