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Let that wine genie out of the bottle

November 23, 2005|Corie Brown | Times Staff Writer

YOU'VE wandered the aisles of wine shops, imagining what would really delight your guests; you've sought out the most delicious possibilities your budget will allow. But there is still one more thing you can do that will almost invariably enhance whatever wine you have decided to serve at Thanksgiving dinner: Decant it.

If you thought decanting was a ritual reserved for venerable bottles of Bordeaux or expensive Cabernet Sauvignons from the Napa Valley, you're wrong. The simple act of pouring it out of the bottle and into a glass container for serving can flesh out almost any wine. Less expensive, younger wines may actually benefit the most.

Decanting exposes wine to air -- oxygenating the wine -- which produces a chemical reaction that releases aromas and flavors, says Bonnie Graves, a former Spago sommelier who now teaches wait staffs proper wine service. Young wines, with tight, closed structures, unwind after oxygenation. "Decanting opens them up, helps to free the esters and allows the aromas to develop," says Graves.

Red wines benefit the most, but Graves believes that white wines can improve with decanting as well. "A huge California Chardonnay can even out and calm down after decanting," says Graves. "Besides, decanting never hurts a white wine."

Given the benefits, it's surprising how rarely Los Angeles sommeliers suggest decanting younger wines. But decanting is not just a special-occasion ritual. Once you get the hang of it, it's simple enough to make part of your everyday wine service at home.

Decanting doesn't require any special skills. Although it might be tempting to pour the wine vigorously into a decanter, really sloshing it around as if the bubbles and froth are evidence that more oxygen molecules are infusing the wine, forget it, says Sona sommelier Mark Mendoza. A gentle pour is just as effective.

Most people associate decanting with the arcane-looking ritual to separate the grit and sediment out from older wines. But if you're serving a more expensive wine, even if it's still on the young side, there's a good chance it will be "unfined and unfiltered," which means there may be sediment. This goes for both reds and whites.

"Any wine that hasn't had the life cleaned out of it is going to have sediment," says Graves. "And tannic wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux and Nebbiolo can throw sediment at any time." So you'll always want to decant these wines.

Decanting separates "the good juice from the crappy stuff," says Graves. "You pour off as much of the good wine as you can into the decanter, leaving the sediment behind in the wine bottle."


The sediment question

HOW exactly do you do that? It's a bit different than decanting wine just to oxygenate it. If your goal in decanting is to eliminate sediment, says Mendoza, then stand the bottle upright for at least a day to allow the sediment to settle on the bottom. Then, as you slowly pour the wine into the decanter, shine a penlight through the wine as it moves down the bottle's neck. If you see any sediment escaping into the decanter before you're close to the end of the bottle, slow down, he says. You're pouring too fast.

When the bottle is almost empty, slow down even more. Then, when you see sediment in the neck, stop. You're finished.

If the wine you've decanted is young, you can then oxygenate it by decanting again. And again. Mendoza gently pours the wine back and forth between two decanters to expose it to more oxygen. It's the same drill for reds and whites. "With young white Burgundies, there's a lot of sulfur on these wines," he says. Decanting in this way helps to blow it off. Does that mean buying two expensive decanters? Certainly not. At home, Mendoza uses a glass flower vase. A glass water pitcher works just as well, he says. The important thing is to use an inert material, such as glass or crystal, that doesn't interact with the wine. Clear decanters have the advantage of showing off the color, an important part of enjoying wine.

"I don't like the frilly decanters. They're a pain to clean," he says. At Sona, however, it might look odd to pour wine from a vase. There he uses a simple upright Riedel decanter. Wide-based decanters, sometimes in whimsical shapes like headless swans or long-necked geese, expose a greater surface area of wine to the air, which allows gentle oxidation. That slight advantage, however, is outweighed by the greater difficulty of cleaning, says Mendoza.

When do you decant the wine? With most everyday bottlings, you can decant just before serving. For extremely tannic red wines, including Barolo, Barbaresco, Bordeaux and Chateaneuf-du-Pape, Mendoza suggests decanting a couple of hours before dinner is to be served. Those wines may take longer to open up.


When to think twice

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