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Breathing Lessons

March 15, 2000|ROD SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Decant or not decant; that is the question. Whether it's nobler on the palate to suffer the sandpaper and splinters of outrageously oaked young Cabernet, or take up a decanter and with one easy action eliminate the thousand natural shocks the sensitive New World palate is heir to.

Well, the answer to that one is pretty much a no-brainer. Decant, by all means, because most wines, especially the brawny young wines most of us are drinking these days, improve if you pour them out before you drink them.

In simplest terms, decanting means pouring a wine into another container immediately after opening the bottle. There are two reasons for going to that trouble. One is to leave sediment behind, in the case of an older wine in which grape solids have precipitated out of solution. The other is to let a young wine breathe.

The latter point is perennially controversial, although I'm not sure why. In my view, one of the debate teams forgot to show up. People who know and love wine have been decanting it for centuries for the softening effect of aeration on hard young wines. Yet with monotonous frequency one columnist or another hits a conceptual drought and tries to debunk the so-called myth of breathing.

Their tired old thesis is to the general effect that it does no good to air out a wine before serving it--that giving a pent-up wine a little air, maybe walking it around the block and scritching it behind the ears, does nothing for its constitution. Maybe, in this hackneyed scenario, it even harms the wine.

Nonsense. The truth of centuries is that many, perhaps most wines benefit to some extent from exposure to oxygen. So, too, their fortunate imbibers.

It's common wisdom in the wine world that young red wines, in particular, need to be decanted. The wine press often makes note of this fact. One such example from Wine & Spirits Magazine--in recommending a Chappellet Cabernet Franc, editor Joshua Greene writes that the wine is austere at first: "[T]hen, as it takes on air, it gains expression. The super-concentration of the fruit becomes apparent in a robust, red cherry flavor. The texture becomes grand and supple. Finely structured, this needs several years of aging, or at least an hour in a decanter to show its stuff."

In other words, a wine that will improve with age will also improve--much faster--with decanting. Decanting wine speeds the efflorescence of fragrances and softens the wine's texture.

Unfortunately, waiters in American restaurants aren't as well-educated about wine as their European counterparts. They often misunderstand a request to decant wine. "Oh, this doesn't have any sediment," they say, and you have to explain that you want the wine to reveal its hidden beauty, which doesn't always go over like the Spielbergian vision you mean it to be. Many restaurants don't even have decanters (in which case I ask that the wine be poured into a water pitcher).

Waiters don't blink at a request for decanting in French restaurants. At Chez Mimi in Brentwood, for example, I ordered a Clos du Val Cabernet Sauvignon '96 and asked our waiter to decant it while we were still drinking Sancerre with the first course.

She didn't miss a beat. The decanter of brilliant ruby-red wine glowing in candlelight was a lovely addition to the table, and it did the wine a world of good to be freed from its glass confines for 20 minutes or so. When I first tasted it straight from the bottle, it was rather tight and closed in. By the time it was poured into glasses, it was all fragrance and silky texture.

A lot of people who know wine inside out will even decant white wines. They understand that the molecular reduction of the oxidative process can be reversed to great effect by counteracting the oxygenation with--who knew?--more oxygen.

One winemaker, the Rho^ne producer Frederic Jaboulet, says, "I decant everything. It's the best way to show the flavor. Even in young wines, but especially in old Rho^ne whites. An old Hermitage Blanc '70 or '72 can smell terribly oxidized when first opened, but leave it for two hours and it will be deliciously nutty."

It's not always an obvious choice, however. Sometimes decanting is a bad move even when there's considerable sediment in the bottle. During a recent dinner at Le Vigneron in Reims (Champagne), chef-proprietor Herve Leigent pulled a bottle out of his cellar to prove that in good vintages red Pinot Noir from Champagne can stand with the great wines of Burgundy. The wine was a 1953 Bouzy from Pommery, one of the top Champagne houses.

At first glance, the wine was a clear candidate for decanting because of its thick crust of sediment. But Leigent's long experience with the wines of his native region told him not to decant. Instead, he poured straight into glasses so deftly that most of the sludge remained in the bottle.

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