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Poring Over Ritual of Decanter

March 03, 1988|DAN BERGER | Times Wine Writer

In the arsenal of the wine snob, the Ritual of the Decanter is a major weapon.

The decanter is that glass thing used to hold wine poured out of the bottle in which it came. And decanting can be a valid procedure for some wines, on some occasions helping a wine taste a little better and removing some of the sediment that forms in older red wines.

But often the snob uses the act of decanting as merely another gimmick to justify his status and elevate a mediocre old wine into oblivion.

It has happened to me more than once: the snob ushers me into the dining room and I notice that the red wine of the evening, an older wine, has been poured from the bottle into a decanter.

"I decanted it at noon," he proclaims. "To let it breathe."

A Shadow of Its Former Self

And often as not, by the time we get around to tasting it, some eight hours after it was decanted, the wine is a mere shadow of its former self. Breathing has not helped the poor old thing, and in fact has sent it into a state of decay from which it will never return.

Old wine is fragile. Even if it has had the best of storage (cool, constant temperatures; no vibration; no light), oxygen can ruin it, robbing the wine of what little fruit is left. Decanting such delicate creatures creates a flat, oxidized aroma and taste that won't resemble the wine it was once.

And that demon oxygen will attack a wine as soon as the cork is withdrawn.

I'll never forget the time I attended a dinner staged by some friends. It was a "best of the cellar" dinner where everyone brought a bottle of one of the best wines they had. I brought a bottle of 1964 Echezeaux. Others brought a 1970 Bordeaux, a 1966 Rhone and a 1958 California Cabernet.

All the bottles were collected at the door and two hours later all the wines were brought out. Already decanted. They had been decanted two hours earlier. My Echezeaux was shot.

Concerned that my last two bottles of that wine also were both gone, I vowed to try another, soon, and within a month I had my chance. At a dinner, I pulled the cork on a bottle of that '64 and poured. The wine was fine--but within an hour, the aroma already was fading, and after two hours, the wine tasted like it had that night a month before, like an old dishrag.

Decanting might have ruined it.

The wine snob often will "over-aerate" on the theory that if decanting for half an hour is good for a wine, letting it breathe for two hours is better, and four hours better still. This is rubbish. I prefer to allow a wine to breathe in my glass, so I can watch it "open up" and develop nuances.

There are two very valid reasons to decant a wine. One is to help a very young wine aerate and lose some of its awkwardness from lack of development. The other is to get a slightly older wine off the sediment and aerate it, to help it gain access to its nuances faster.

Along that line, Martin Gersh of Vogue magazine has done admirable research into the length of time various wines should be opened and aerated, so they are at their peak of drinkability. However, Gersh's work relates only to bottles that have been perfectly stored, for if a wine has had poor storage up to the time it is consumed, aeration may ruin it.

The Older the Better

The snob loves to decant old wine. The older the better. But my experience is that very old wines don't always improve with aeration and many are hurt by it, so why take a chance?

The snob never decants young wine on the theory that there's no sediment in young wine. But my experience is that young wine is still undeveloped and raw, lacking any bottle bouquet, and that aeration helps clear away some of the residual effects of fermentation and bottling. It expands the aroma and softens the wine.

But whereas decanting of older wines should be done with care, so as not to roil up the sediment and slosh it into the decanter, decanting of young wine should be done with abandon. The splashier the better. My theory is that if a young wine still has an off odor from the fermentation, splashing it around may get rid of it.

Thus when decanting young wine, you want air to help open the wine, and merely pulling the cork and letting a bottle stand open for an hour does little for it. Splashing it into decanter from 12 inches above the decanter is better, and pouring from two feet is better still.

(This led, at one point in my life, to the formulation of the Berger Theory of Aeration, to wit: The number of hours a young wine sits in the decanter is equivalent to the number of feet from which you decant. Thus, I theorized, if you have a rather hard, unyielding wine that needs five hours in a decanter, you can get the same effect by decanting it from five feet above the decanter. At the behest of the lady of the house who helps me clean up after my wine parties, I have since abandoned this practice. The theory remains unproved.)

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