Thursday, December 3, 2009

A Reader Asks!

R_____, from Ottawa, asks, “How can you tell when a wine should be left open to breathe for a significant period of time (two hours or more) before drinking it?

Thanks for a great question, R_____. My “rules” on decanting and letting a wine breathe reflect my own experience.

Let’s start with decanting. Decanting a wine is done for 3 reasons: to remove sediment from a wine, or to open a wine’s aromas quickly, or because you like the look of wine in a decanter.

First, and there’s really no debate about this, you should always decant if you even suspect that there’s some sediment deposited in the wine. Sediment that ends up in a wine glass doesn’t look good and it certainly doesn’t taste good. Sediment increases with age, so I decant almost any wine that’s more than 10 years old (the exception: I never decant Pinot Noir). Because older wines that have matured will lose their aromas and flavours rapidly with prolonged exposure to oxygen, decant just before serving.

I also decant any wine, regardless of age, that is “unfined” or “unfiltered” as these wines, not surprisingly, will contain more sediment when bottled. Again, decant the wine just before serving.

Another reason to decant a wine is to open the aromas quickly in a young wine. Such cases should be rare. Let’s say that you have a more expensive bottle that is worthy of aging and hasn’t yet hit its maturity. Allowing that wine to age in the bottle exposes it to oxygen very slowly, allowing the flavours to mature and the tannins to soften. What if you just can’t wait? If you want to drink a wine before it's had a chance to fully mature, then decanting it (exposing it to oxygen all at once) accelerates the aging process and brings out more of the aromas and flavours. But it’s like being awoken from a deep sleep at 3 am with a slap across the face (uh no, hasn't happened to me). Sure, you're awake, but perhaps not at your best. If you really, really want to drink that expensive bottle before its time, then go with decanting about an hour before serving. For me, that's only for young full-bodied wines (above 13.5% alcohol) like Aussie Shiraz or California Cab. Light and medium-bodied wines need to be fresh, and long exposure to oxygen takes that away.

Of course, the real trick here is knowing whether a wine has reached maturity and, unfortunately, there’s only one sure way to know. That’s right, you have to open it!

Oh, there’s one other reason to decant a wine: aesthetics. If you simply prefer the look of wine in a decanter, then go ahead. Again, decant just before serving.

What about simply opening the bottle to let the wine breathe? Some experts (Steve Spurrier is one) do recommend opening up red wines about an hour ahead of serving. I'm not a big fan of this. If you just open the bottle, the amount of exposure that the wine gets through the bottle opening is so little that it has minimal effect. But it won’t hurt the wine either.

Whether it’s decanting or letting a wine breathe, try it with a few wines and see if you can see a difference. Open the bottle about an hour ahead (decant as well if you want), try an ounce then, and try it again when you serve it to your guests. Do you see a difference? If you think it helps, that's what counts. I'd love to hear about your experiences.

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