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aerating and decanting wine - Wine Discussion

About aerating and decanting wine

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Unless anyone objects, I've decided to post mini-essays about stuff I'm learning about wine as I learn it. It helps me to really know something has set in my mind once I've become able to repeat it off the cuff.

Hokay, so:

Aerating and decanting wine.

You may have seen the process of decanting wine in a restaurant, or seen all the fancy aerators that were all the rage this Christmas season at places like Crate and Barrel. What are they, how are they different, and do they really do anything?

A decanter is the large crystal or glass container, sometimes shaped like a fat, wide-bottomed bottle, other times like a pitcher, sometimes like an inexplicable blown-glass fantasy, into which wine is poured before serving. Sometimes, wine is poured into a decanter to actually decant it, sometimes just to aerate it. To decant in wine terms is the same thing it is in chemistry - to carefully pour off the top layer of a liquid without disturbing the solids that have settled to the bottom in order to separate them. Some wines, especially older reds, develop sediment. It's not harmful, it's just gritty and generally considered distasteful. This is the reason for the whole rigmarole with careful handling and angled baskets for such bottles in high end restaurants. The idea is to avoid shaking and mixing the sediment back into the body of the liquid, so it will stay trapped in the shoulder of the bottle as you pour the clear wine off. It's also the same thing you are doing when you pour the boiling water out of the pot of pasta when it is done cooking, being careful not to tip it so much that the pasta falls into the sink. Which wines need to be decanted? Simple - the ones with gunk floating around in the bottom of the bottle. Hold it up to a light and look. Usually older (10+ years) reds will have developed sediment, and some reds just do it spontaneously. Whites almost never need it. Educated waitstaff and wine salespeople should remember if a particular bottle usually needs it - ask.

To aerate wine is to expose it to oxygen to "open it up" or bring about it's ideal flavor. Interaction with oxygen does make a significant difference in the flavor development of wines - this is one of many factors considered in the age and porosity of barrels, and the time spent therin. If you've ever had a bottle sit for a few days as you nurse another glass with dinner for every night, you may have noticed the "progression" of a wine. This is often a problem when a restaurant opens for dinner after a day closed - the partially used bottle of wine from 3 days ago tastes utterly different than the next newly opened bottle of the exact same vintage. Some wines, particularly tannic, young, robust reds really need a certain amount of aeration to soften them up and bring about their ideal flavor. For this, you want to spread the wine out thinly over a large surface area to expose as much of it to air as possible. Just opening the bottle won't allow enough contact in the few minutes before you drink it.

Which decanter would you use for this purpose?


They will all do more than leaving it in the bottle, but most of it is just aesthetics. A is the simplest, most pragmatic design for the express purpose of putting the greatest surface area in contact with air. B is actually shown overfull - you would want to stop pouring lower, at the widest point. However, if that is what one regular 750 ml bottle looks like in it, it is a poor design. D is a much more old-fashioned design meant more for storage than aeration, and the rest, while perfectly adequate, are mostly shaped like all that for novelty.

Even the act of letting a wine sit in the bottom of your (spacious, wide) glass over dinner, not poured overfull and swirled idly as you hold it and talk aerates a valid amount. Then there are "aerators" - doohickies that force air rapidly into a thin stream of wine to open it up more quickly.

It should be noted that it is entirely possible to aerate a wine too much! There is an ideal amount of oxygen exposure you are aiming for, and it is easy to surpass. If you doubt it, leave a bottle open on your counter for a week. Wines that actually need aeration are robust, tannic, tightly wound reds, such as younger cab, merlot, nebbiolo and petite syrah. Many other reds and even some whites can benefit from it briefly, but a lot of times you will lose other preferred attributes (such as keeping the wine chilled to the preferred temperature) or over-oxygenate and kill it. Older wines tend to be more fragile, especially delicate varietals like Pinot Noir and tempranillo, and some Chiantis and Burgundies. Some very old wines (over 20 years) already must be drunk within 15-20 minutes of opening because they are already so close to the final tipping point. Herin lies the catch - older wines also often have sediment. If you must decant an older red wine to remove sediment, especially if it was never particularly robust or dark in color to begin with, remember that decanting also aerates in the process, and do it just before serving.

So, in conclusion: Generally, younger red wines (under 10 years) that can be described as "bold" "robust" or "tannic," either in the words of the waiter, on the label or by your own examination, will benefit from being aerated. Lots of middle-aged, medium bodied reds and even some whites will also benefit - but that's more a matter of taste. Try aerating part of the bottle and tasting it side by side with the unaerated part. Or taste the first sip, as-is, and then aerate it if you think you might like it softened up a bit. Generally, older (10+), lighter wines are more at risk of being ruined by aeration. Proceed with caution, get the sommolier's opinion, or google's.

A side note: People, including middle-price-point waitstaff, often mistakenly use the word "decant" to mean both "decant" and "aerate." Just remember it's a common mistake and be nice if you correct them. This is, in general, a fairly high-level lesson and an undereducated server might look at you askance if you ask for an unusual wine to be decanted. Just remember - your own taste is your own taste, and you're paying for it, so you're never wrong if you like it that way. Finally, if you aren't sure on a new bottle, don't be afraid to experiment. You don't have to psychically know in one shot. Taste a bit first and request it aerated afterwards if you think it would help. Just be nice enough to tip at least 20% or more if you make them run all over god's green earth to assemble the various equipment for your request.

If I haven't bored you to sleep yet, I hope that was fun!
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[User Picture Icon]
Date:December 29th, 2009 01:24 am (UTC)
I actually found this very helpful. Thank you!
[User Picture Icon]
Date:December 29th, 2009 01:47 am (UTC)
Yeah, thanks for this post. Very informative.

But how do you know if your wine needs to be aerated or decanted or both?? I've never seen a bottle come with instructions...
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Date:December 29th, 2009 02:15 am (UTC)
Frequently aerating is more a matter of personal taste than a "need." Wines generally get softer in the mouth after exposure to air, so as soon as you open a bottle, taste a sip and decide if you'd probably like it a bit softer. In a restaurant scenario, the server should theoretically offer you a sip and wait for your instructions, unless it's a wine that they know people almost always prefer to have aerated. If you don't like the difference it makes when you've tasted it aerated, next time you know that you don't like it, so don't aerate that wine. It's just sort of trial and error learning of which sorts of things you like. It's kinda like saying, do you want your vodka up or on the rocks? Neither is wrong, try both and pick a favourite.

I should add: I am of the school of thought that there is no "wrong" way to drink your wine. I don't care if old ladies want to put ice cubes in it. *I* wouldn't do it, and I will tell you that such would be treated a faux pas in an expensive restaurant, but in the end, it's your wine and your taste.

That being said, you don't have to reinvent the wheel. Wines that people almost always like better aerated include young (under ten years), robust, tannic reds, such as Cabernet Sauv, Merlot, Petite Syrah and Nebbolio. Put about an ounce of wine in a glass, tilt the glass at a 45 degree or so angle away from you under a bright light and over a peice of white paper, white tablecloth, etc. Is it bright, intense ruby red? Dark garnet? Electric purple? Almost back? That's probably a kind that's very firm and intense and will benefit from aeration. Look at a glass of pinot noir and a glass of cab side by side if you want the difference illustrated. Pinot is a very light vermillion, you can almost see through it. Cab is much more opaque. Gamay will be a bright Jell-O red, Zin purple, Nebbolio almost black. This is not saying that you should decide on aeration based purely on color, merely that it's a good idea to sit down and really examine the common varietals side by side to get a gauge in your head. Generally, since both tannins and the color itself comes from the skin, the more intensely, opaquely red (or purple or black) a wine is, the more robust and tannic it will taste in the mouth, and the more likely it is you will want it aerated. Also also - red wines turn orangy with age. If it's kind of a burnt brick color, that usually indicates that its too old and fragile to want to aerate. Of course, so will the year on the bottle and the price tag. Generally, if it is under 10 years old and a red that could be described as "bold" "robust" or "tannic," either in the words of the waiter, by the label on the bottle or by personal examination, you will probably improve it by aerating it.

With middle-aged and middle-bodied reds it becomes a more personal call. Some whites benefit from aeration - if it started off cold enough and you are going to drink it fast enough that it doesn't end up completely warm. Almost no one will ever offer to aerate a white for you; if they are undereducated, they may even look at you askance. That's a taste you're going to have to trial-and-error at home, and then insist and don't let the waiter question you. If you notice you like the wine (whatever it is) much better by the end of your meal after its been swirling in your glass an hour, next time ask for it aerated right off the bat.

The wines you want to be careful about aerating are the ones that are over 10 years old and/or of a daintier grape, eg Pinot Noir, Tempranillo, some Chiantis and Burgundies. Very rarely will that be a good idea.

The decanting question is much easier. You want to decant it if you can see bits of gunk floating around in the bottom of the bottle. Older reds (over 10 years) often but not always have sediment, but some younger ones just seem to develop it right away, every time. Waitstaff and wine retailers should also usually remember which brands often throw a sediment, so if the bottle is too dark to see, just ask.
[User Picture Icon]
Date:December 29th, 2009 02:32 am (UTC)
If you taste it and it feels like your face is getting chewed up from the inside out...

then it's time to aerate. (This is true, like the author said, of "big reds") Usually I find this to be the case with young cabernet sauvignon or cabernet franc (those are the main culprits around here in Napa); I have an Anderson Valley Syrah that could also definitely use it, but I'm going to cellar it for a couple of years and see if that helps mellow things out a bit.

I wouldn't try this with a pinot noir, but I tend to choose lighter/more delicate pinots in the first place so maybe that's why (a few good swirls in a nice, wide pinot glass tends to be the perfect amount of air)
[User Picture Icon]
Date:December 29th, 2009 04:23 am (UTC)
In my 10 years of drinking wine, I've encountered 2 or 3 wines that need aerating. IMHO, it's more for show than for necessity.
[User Picture Icon]
Date:December 29th, 2009 08:30 am (UTC)
Mediagurus "getting your face chewed from the inside out"
is the best discription I have ever heard!
[User Picture Icon]
Date:December 29th, 2009 05:24 pm (UTC)
Thanks, that was an interesting read.
I just starting playing around with decanting wine a few months ago after I got back from trips to France and Napa Valley with a wide variety of wine and lots of tasting notes to work from.
My brother and I did a bunch of before and afters and it's really incredible what a little air can do. It really ruined the delicacy of a 10 year old Burgandy (fortunately, we only decanted a small portion, because we throught that might be the case). But it helped some fairly tannic 2006 Charles Krug Cab Sauv incredibly.
[User Picture Icon]
Date:December 29th, 2009 05:42 pm (UTC)
While I found the essay very informative, I think it would be nicer of you to put it behind a cut in the future. Most people don't like having their f-lists crowded with long entries (esp those of us who check from our phones periodically).

[User Picture Icon]
Date:December 29th, 2009 09:29 pm (UTC)
good post

i like to aerate the bigger reds of course. I bought a Venturi wine Aerator and I am very pleased with it...if not only just to come off as a big snob to my friends
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Date:December 30th, 2009 07:10 pm (UTC)
Decanting (and oxygenation of the wine) is a big topic over in the Port world. Almost every Port worth drinking (LBVs and VPs) benefits from oxygenation, somewhere on the order of 30 minutes to 4 days (I'm serious, the stash of Roze's 1994 LBVs in the basement will each need to be open 4 days before they are ready to drink). Most are in the range of 4-8 hours, and we Americans are apparently inevitably impatient.

Part of the tasting process is often described as a secondary "Angel's Share" -- my tasting notes are littered with +0hrs, +30mins, +2hrs, etc as I record the progress of a wine post-oxgenation. There are few wrong ways to oxygenate, and lots of ways to speed it up. I often decant the wine, put my hand over the top of the decanter, and shake vigorously; then I let the wine sit for another hour or two. I do this to speed up oxygenation of the wine, especially when I realize it is not evolving (aka changing due to oxygenation) fast enough.

Decanting, or filtration as described in the OP, is not strictly the process of pouring only the top layer of wine and leaving that portion with more sediment. It is simply about filtration, and nearly any method you can imagine will work fine. The first thing I would suggest is to stand up the bottle a few days in advance. Laying a bottle on its side is only done to ensure the cork stays moist (thus maintaining a good seal and preventing premature oxidation), so stand it up a few days before hand so that the sediment can settle. If you are dealing with any Port labeled "Unfiltered LBV" or "Vintage Port," it has sediment. The bottle is likely black, so you will never know if it has sediment by holding it up to the light. Now that your bottle is ready, remove the cork (either by removing the top of the bottle entirely, or with a corkscrew). Place a funnel into your decanter, and a large coffee filter into the funnel. I like to place one of those high-quality reusable coffee filters inside the paper one, to catch the big stuff (otherwise decanting takes forever). Your equipment should be strictly kept for wine; don't use the funnel you used to change your car's oil or the reusable coffee filter you use for coffee. Pour slowly and evenly, stop whenever the filters show signs of overflowing. Other common filtration meshes are cheesecloth and nylon stockings.

One of these days I will certainly get a Venturi and decant side-by-side with my traditional method, then report back on The Port Forum.

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