Our wine-loving general manager James Mackenzie explains why decanting helps enhance the taste of all wines.
Let's be honest, many of us have a decanter of some sort. Often given as a 21st birthday, wedding or retirement gift, many find their way to the back of a cupboard, or for the more imaginative amongst us, are used as a flower vase. Yet they possess a secret power - they can make cheap wine taste good, and good wine taste excellent!
Like most aspects of wine appreciation, decanting is often seen as just another one of those ceremonious and pompous activities undertaken by wine snobs (smelling the cork after opening the bottle tells you nothing about the wine, btw). These people inhabit films, sometimes fine-dining restaurants, and have managed to make the subject of wine seem impenetrable.
Whilst many traditions surrounding the service and consumption of wine seem can seem a little intimidating, decanting wine is something I urge the everyday wine drinker to try for these three reasons: the first is to remove sediment from the wine; the second is to expose the wine to oxygen, allowing it to breathe; and the third is a bit of both (read on).
Decanting to remove the sediment
The first reason, to remove the sediment, is quite important if you have an older wine, or you’ve aged a special bottle. As wine ages, natural molecules in the wine bind together and fall to the bottom of the bottle forming a sediment. This is more common with red wines, but can also occur with some whites and rosés. Sediment is completely fine to consume, but if you like drinking wine without a muddy texture, it’s best to try to get rid of most of the sediment.
To do this you’ll need a decanter and a candle. Before you begin, leave the bottle in the same position for a day or two - either standing up or lying down. If it’s lying down, make sure you don’t rotate the bottle during the decanting process. When you’re ready to decant, open the bottle as gently as possible so as not to undo the settling process. Then, with a lit candle positioned so you can see clearly through the neck of the bottle (do not place it too close to the bottle or you will heat the wine), begin to slowly pour the wine into the decanter. As you pour, keep the candle shining directly through the neck of the bottle until you start to see the ‘smoke’. This is the precursor to the sediment proper and looks a bit like, well, smoke. At this point, you need to slow the speed of pouring. Now, the next bit is up to you. Either stop immediately or chance your arm and continue until the smoke becomes slightly denser and then stop. It's your choice, but if you get greedy you run the risk of ruining the whole process, ending up with a lovely mix of sludge and wine. Leaving a little bit in the bottle may seem a like a waste, but read Aesop's fable, The Dog and The Bone, and the reasoning will become apparent.
Decanting to expose the wine to oxygen
It’s the second reason applies young wines bought for almost immediate consumption. Throughout much of the production and bottling process, wine spends most of its time in a fairly oxygen-free environment, often developing unpleasant aromas that can be expelled on contact with oxygen. Many wines under screwcap are bottled with a small amount of gas between the wine and the seal which can also result in an 'off' smell when the bottle is first opened. Decanting is the perfect solution to get rid of these odours and is a very easy process.
All you need to do in this scenario is pour the wine - quite vigorously - into the decanter. The aim is to introduce as much oxygen as possible to the wine. Then let the wine sit in the decanter for a while. Any length of time is good, but an hour or longer is best. Just as we need oxygen to live, so does wine. The interaction between the wine and the air will bring out its best.
Decanting to remove sediment and expose wine to oxygen
And finally, the third reason. Some wines are produced with as little intervention as possible. In
particular organic, bio-dynamic and natural wines, that producers choose to bottle without much
filtration, meaning bits of grape and dead yeast are purposely left in when bottled. Many producers
argue that continued contact with these sediments give their wines fuller character and style. And who are we to argue. When decanting these wines, employ the same technique as with older wine – let the wine settle, decant it gently and don't be greedy. Decanting these wines also achieves the aim of exposing them to oxygen and letting them fully open up.
Wine will forever be a topic that divides opinion, but that should never stop us from enjoying it. If decanting a bottle of cheap plonk heightens our enjoyment, then why not do it. Whether you spend £5 or £500 on a bottle of wine, it’s always worth considering decanting before drinking.
No decanter? Decant the wine into a clean jug before pouring it back into the original bottle using a funnel. Do not do this with older wines though, as it will cause too much contact with air.
No candle? Use the torch on your phone.
Can't be bothered doing the whole waiting for the smoke thing? Place a coffee filter paper and a funnel into a decanter or jug then pour the whole bottle through slowly. The wine snobs will never agree with this one but it works, and works well!
When somebody opens a bottle of wine and smells the cork? Ask them why they are doing it.
Dining at Cafe St Honoré, or anywhere else? Do not hesitate to ask for your wine to be decanted.