FOOD FOR THOUGHT - June 24, 2009
Mark R. Vogel - [email protected] - Mark’s Article Archive
To Air is Human
Many years ago I was purchasing a bottle of wine, Barolo to be exact, in a wine shop with the woman I was then dating. After ringing up my Piedmontese elixir the clerk strongly advised me to aerate the wine before serving it. Unaware of my oenophilic expertise he instructed me to open the bottle and let it sit for an hour. (More on that in a moment.) Meanwhile, my erstwhile lady friend taunted me about my hoity-toity wine which needed to "breathe."
To the lay person, aerating a wine can certainly seem like a snobbish ritual; a pretentious formality designed to impress others and inflate one's ego. I'm sure there are some poseurs out there who do so for such purposes. For serious wine drinkers however, the seeming haughtiness is belied by the reality based reasons for aerating wine.
For starters, the wine clerk in my introductory paragraph was amiss in his aerating instructions. Merely uncorking a bottle of wine does not provide enough of an opening to truly let the wine breathe. The wine should be decanted, i.e., poured into a decanter, a large glass vessel designed for aerating wine. In addition to aerating the wine, decanting removes the sediment and can facilitate bringing a chilled wine up to the proper temperature.
Let's begin with aeration. Why in the world does a wine need to breathe? Very simple. Certain wines will taste noticeably better after a brief period of being exposed to air. By admixing with oxygen, the wine will “open up,” i.e., the range and depth of its flavors will expand. This is especially true for very tannic wines.
Tannins are a group of astringent compounds found in the skins, seeds, and stems of grapes. White wine grapes have very small amounts so the whole tannin issue is usually confined to red wines. Tannins imbibe the wine with backbone, texture, and also flavor. Naturally, some red wines are more tannic than others. When a wine higher in tannins is young, it can taste a bit harsh. In young wines tannins are in their prime, or at their astringent peak shall we say. But allow that wine to rest for many years and something wonderful transpires. The tannins soften, gradually transforming and melding with the wine’s other constituents to produce a harmonious mélange. Hence the reason why aging wine is also a reality based and not a snobbish practice.
Returning to decanting, as stated, all tannic wines will benefit from aeration, especially those from recent vintages. When a young, tannic wine, one that ought to be spending another decade or so in the bottle is opened, aeration can attenuate the tannins’ harshness. But even an older wine will still deepen in flavor and become more complex after a little breathing room.
Older wine brings us to the second reason for decanting: reducing sediment. Virtually all red wines, but especially tannic ones, will start to form sediment beginning at around seven years, give or take. Sediment is composed of tannins and other trace elements that separate from the liquid and coalesce over time. The last thing you want in your glass of wine is floaters. To eliminate sediment, first stand your bottle of wine upright the day before serving it so the sediment can collect on the bottom. In one continuous but gentle motion, slowly pour the wine into the decanter, holding the decanter on an angle, much like done with a beer mug to prevent excessive foam. Keep an eye on the bottle’s shoulder (the point where it starts to curve inward toward the neck). Professionals will place a candle or light just under the shoulder while pouring to enhance visibility. When the sediment reaches the shoulder stop pouring. Then allow the wine to rest in the decanter so any lingering sediment can gravitate toward the bottom. Young wines that do not contain sediment can be summarily poured into a decanter without any of these procedures.
A final reason to decant is to bring a wine that has been stored up to a proper serving temperature. The ideal temperature for wine cellars and wine storage units is in the mid to high 50’s. However, the serving temperature for most tannic, red wines is around 10 degrees higher. Pouring the chilled wine into a room temperature decanter will expedite its thermal trip to the target temperature.
Ok so who are all these tannic wines that need a little oxygen therapy before serving? They are usually the heavy hitters of the wine world: tannic, robust and full bodied. They include Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon, Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello di Montalcino, Syrah based wines, (especially the northern Rhone reds such as Hermitage, Cote Rotie, Cornas, St. Joseph, etc.), Malbec based wines such as those from Argentina or Cahors from France, and vintage ports. Although not as tannic I would also decant higher quality Burgundies but for less time than the preceding examples. There are even a few whites that may benefit from some aeration, for example full bodied white Burgundies and white Bordeaux.
Generally speaking, wines to be decanted are usually pricier. Yes there are inexpensive Cabernet Sauvignons out there but the cheaper ones are inevitably lighter, thinner, or from inferior vintages; in a word, less tannic. Malbec however, is a fiercely tannic wine that is also inexpensive. With these exceptions aside, your average, economically priced, workaday wine designed for immediate quaffing and not aging, usually doesn’t need decanting.
Decant your wine for 30 to 60 minutes, (the more tannic the longer). Choose a decanter that does not have an overly wide, flared base nor too narrow an opening. Too wide a base or too narrow an opening does not allow for an optimum air-to-wine interaction rate. You do not need an expensive one. If you wish to purchase a $250 fine crystal decanter that’s up to you. What's vital is the aforementioned functional aspects of the decanter, not its pretentiousness.
Decanting, when done correctly with the appropriate wines, is a procedure designed to improve the wine. It is not done for ostentation or tradition. Decanting wine for the right reasons is down to earth and indeed a breath of fresh air.
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