I recently tasted an incredible cabernet from Sonoma that cost less than $25 per bottle—an anomaly in the wine world these days. It showed the most beautiful, expressive notes of blackberry, black cherry, leather and warm spices. It was like velvet across my palate, with just the right amount of backbone from the tannins.
“I’ll take five cases!” I enthusiastically told the wine rep. I just knew it was going to be a huge hit.
But when I put this show-stopping cab in the lineup for our weekly tasting, it wasn’t a huge hit. It was dull. Flat. It wasn’t showing all those glorious flavors and aromas like it had when I tasted it with the rep. Was this a bad bottle? What happened to that incredible Sonoma cab I loved?
Ah, yes … then it dawned on me: The bottle of cabernet the wine rep was showing around town would have been opened that morning, or maybe even the day before. By the time he got to me, that cabernet would have been exposed to air. It would’ve had time to “breathe.” That little bit of oxygen allowed any negative aroma compounds to dissipate, shifting the focus to the fruit and savory notes I was supposed to taste.
This is the very reason you have that crystal decanter (or, like, 12 of them?) that you inherited that makes you swear like a sailor, because all it does is collect dust, and it’s a pain in ass to clean … or maybe that’s just me? In any case, it’s high time that decanter gets put to good use.
If you have questions about which wines should be decanted—if you should decant white wine, old wine, young wine, sparkling wine or cheap wine—you’re not alone. I get asked these questions all the time, and the simple answer is: Yes. Decant your wines. All of them. Why not? I mean, other than the whole cleaning thing, you don’t have anything to lose.
Think of it like this: As a wine is fermenting, it’s housed in a large barrel, a stainless steel tank or a concrete vat. It has a lot of room to move around and be comfortable. Then, one day, it’s evicted from its expansive space and moved into a little bottle—kinda like going from a 10,000-square-foot house to a tiny studio apartment. You would be a little bitter and desperate for some fresh air and wide-open spaces. Your wine feels the same way.
Wines in their youth benefit from decanting to reveal more subtle and complex aromas that might be masked by the intensity of their fruit. Wines that we call “fruit-bombs” often just need to breathe and mellow out a bit.
Older wines are primarily decanted because of their sediment. These are those little crunchy floaties in the bottle caused by the tannins precipitating out, or perhaps the wine was unfiltered. They are not a flaw and a very normal thing to find in your wines, both red and white, but they are not exactly something you want a mouth full of when you’re sipping your 1962 Chateau Cheval Blanc. However, a word of caution here: With older wines, the aromas become more delicate and can evaporate much faster, leaving you with a beverage that doesn’t taste much like anything. When you open an older bottle, my suggestion is to drink fast, because in some cases, even after a short 30 minutes, your wine can be on its flavor deathbed.
But inexpensive wine doesn’t need decanting, right? Sure. You’re also free to eat your frozen dinner out of the plastic container, but you’ll probably experience a little more enjoyment if you put it on a plate. Will decanting an inexpensive wine turn it into Opus One? No. But it will make the wine more aromatic, softer and pleasurable. And that is the point, isn’t it?
So what about whites and sparkling wine? I say absolutely! I have tasted many decanted chardonnays from Burgundy and Sonoma, sauvignon blancs from Sancerre and Napa, and vintage Champagnes—and these wines were explosive, like tasting a wine under a microscope, with all its nuances and grandeur on display.
Now, I know other experts will disagree with me about bubbles being decanted. The wines will undoubtedly lose some of their fizz, and yes, that’s why most people drink them. However, if you’re a flavor-craver like me, I encourage you to give it a try. See what it’s like to taste a Champagne that’s been allowed to slowly open up like a flower. I think it’s pretty magical.
If for no other reason, decant so you can give your wine a fancy new home for its last night of existence. We should all be so lucky.