HOW TO DECANT & SERVE FINE WINES
How you open, decant and serve your fine wines can have a big impact on the enjoyment you get from them, and we would always advise going about this in a thoughtful way. How wines age, and behave once opened, is a subject for another post, so we will limit ourselves to suggesting some simple serving tips and try to explain the principles behind them.
Ultimately, as with many complex questions, the most frequent answer to questions like "should I decant my wine" and "how long should I breathe a fine wine for" is “it depends”! For that reason, we are always happy to give personal advice to our customers. Please simply email us if you would like suggestions on when and how to open and serve a wine which you have purchased from us.
Complicated accessories and expensive variety-specific glassware can add to the enjoyment, but are not essential. More important is an understanding of the various factors at play in how wine ages and develops once opened.
STORAGE & SELECTING BOTTLES TO SERVE
Even meticulous decanting and serving won’t save a wine which has been badly stored. See our blog post here for advice. Not every bottle in your cellar may have been stored well, so do take this into account. Approaching each one with the mindset that it will have had an individual journey since it was first bottled can help adjust expectations. Even the bottles from the same case can vary. The 'ullage' or 'fill level' is a good indicator of condition (see our guide to fill levels here). Understanding this can help you to enjoy the subtle differences between bottles of the same wine and vintage and avoid disappointment.
Decanting serves two quite separate purposes: separating sediment from older wines and ‘breathing’ or introducing oxygen.
Decanting to remove sediment
Removing sediment is usually necessary only with aged wines (although in theory, a young, unfiltered wine could throw a sediment). Sediment can comprise a mixture of elements, including (pre-bottling): dead yeast cells, fragments of grape skin and pulp and (post-bottling): tartrates, tannins and phenolic compounds (including pigments) which are initially soluble in the wine, but which polymerise and coagulate with time, forming sedimented solids.
The amount of sediment thrown varies with age, region, variety and winemaking technique. Thicker-skinned varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon tend to throw more sediment than thinner-skinned ones such as Pinot Noir, ditto unfiltered wines versus heavily filtered ones. Not all sediment needs to be removed.
Both red and white wines can have deposits in the form of tartrate crystals (about the size of grains of sand, which sometimes glisten). These remain in solution when the wine leaves the winery, but form deposits when whites are chilled before serving, or over time in red wines. They are harmless and tasteless and do not need to be removed (but can be as a matter of preference).
The fine sediment in some aged reds, on the other hand, can be bitter tasting and leave an unpleasant, grainy texture on the palate, but this varies by wine. Red burgundy has less tannin and pigment; hence the sediment is light and usually sweet-tasting, hence it is not usually decanted to remove the sediment. Rhône reds vary according to cepage, whilst most Bordeaux and Tuscan reds will throw a heavy sediment with time. Vintage ports can throw particularly heavy sediment.
How to decant for sediment
Various wine accessories exist to help with this process, but we don’t recommend them. A decanting funnel with a fine mesh can be useful but will not remove the very finest sediment which sits in suspension in old wines. Muslin is an attractive alternative in a pinch, but often reduces aroma and flavour; quite apart from the possibility of the wine becoming contaminated e.g., with aromas from whatever detergent the muslin has been washed with. We experienced this once with two dozen bottles of Taylors 1970 decanted for a large wine trade event at a hotel. The whole room immediately noticed that something was amiss!
We know of no better way to decant for sediment than the traditional method, using a candle:
Breathing a wine
‘Breathing’ means introducing oxygen to the wine. There is no doubt that a wine’s aromas will change after a bottle is opened and a glass is poured. Tannin is an antioxidant, and it binds aroma compounds to it. Breathing the wine oxidises the tannins, releasing the aroma compounds. Numerous times during blind tasting exams we have tasted a wine, written confidently about its quality level, origin, variety and vintage, only to re-taste it fifteen minutes later and find a (seemingly) completely different wine in the glass, full of ripe fruit aromas!
Some wine faults (such as TCA, or corkiness) increase as the wine is exposed to air. Others dissipate, such as excessive reduction and Brettanomyces. This alone is a reason to allow a wine 10-30 minutes to breathe before assessing it. Ethanol also evaporates once the wine is exposed to air, carrying with it various volatile aromas (fruit, oak etc) which intensify after opening.
The amount of oxygen which will benefit the wine at the point of serving depends on the production methods used and the age of the wine, as well as the consumer's own preferred wine style. During the winemaking process, the exposure of the fruit, must or fermented wine to oxygen is carefully controlled and is a key factor influencing style and quality.
Approaches range from highly oxidative (e.g. Madeira) to anti-oxidative approaches (e.g. with many fresh, aromatic white wines made using modern vinification techniques). Entry-level commercial wines are made using an antioxidative approach, to preserve fruit aroma. Certain fine wines may also take this approach. Others (for example the red and white burgundies from Eric de Suremain) are exposed to lots of air during pressing, fermentation in large wooden vats and ageing in barrel and need less breathing as a result (not that the relationship between winemaking and breathing time is linear).
A rule of thumb is that younger wines may benefit from longer breathing (e.g. 2+ hours), whilst very old wines (e.g. 20 years +) may need less time (e.g. 30 minutes) having been exposed over many years to oxidative ageing in a bottle sealed with a cork. This is sometimes a surprise to customers, who assume that powerful, concentrated fine reds (for example, a cru classé claret at ten years old) need breathing for several hours. In a sense this is true, but we would draw a distinction here between breathing a wine and drinking it over several hours to follow it as it evolves through various stages, as part of appreciating it.
In recent years there has been a trend towards breathing certain top white wines and champagnes before serving. There is certainly an argument that top examples of such wines will show more of their aromatic complexity with air, but having experimented with this, we think breathing them in a Decanter is an unnecessarily harsh way to do this, accelerating the loss of some finer aromas. Much better to simply pour the wines into a glass and allow the aromas to develop at their own pace.
What is double-decanting?
For high-quality wines with lots of tannin that are still young in relative terms, double-decanting can be an effective and practical approach to breathing. This technique is widely used in the wine trade to get lots of air into a young, tannic wine. Essentially it means pouring the wine, gently, out of the bottle, into any suitable clean, inert vessel and then back into the bottle. The wine should be left to breathe for at least an hour. This method is not suitable for very old, fragile wines.
An old adage is that fine reds should be served at room temperature; however, the ‘room’ in question is not that of a modern centrally-heated home (21-23ۥ°C), but the drawing room of a Bordeaux château in the nineteenth century (18-20°C)! Usually, consumers serve reds warmer and white wines colder than trade professionals.
Most trade pros and winemakers prefer reds at around 18-21°C and white wines at 7-12°C. Warmer temperatures can intensify the volatile aromas of reds and give the fruit a ‘stewed’ character. At domestic fridge temperatures (below °5C), the flavour of fine white wines is lost (the restaurant customer who complains loudly that his Chablis is not cold if there is no condensation on the bottle is often in the wrong on this).
The old practice of warming a red wine before serving (‘chauffe vin’) is similar to using a fish knife…an affectation and a hangover from a time when wine was not well understood in this country, and when many wines were faulty. Serving at warm temperatures can certainly cover faults, but this is not a way to appreciate really high-quality wine.
This also applies to drinking fine reds in warmer summer months. We have tasted many excellent clarets and burgundies ruined by being served too warm in summer. If the bottles are not coming from a cold cellar, there is even an argument for chilling them gently in a fridge for 20 minutes or so until they are closer to 18-20°C. Reds from Mediterranean climates often work better in these circumstances, Chianti and Brunello being a good example, the higher acidity of Sangiovese serves to frame the fruit and keep it tasting fresh.
Once again, we are always happy to give personal advice to our customers. Please simply email us if you would like suggestions on when and how to open and serve a wine which you have purchased from us.