Decanting – should we or shouldn’t we?

In recent months the question of decanting wine has been debated at length. For those of us entertaining friends and family over the festive season, this is a timely debate.

Perhaps the most obvious question is “Should wine be decanted? And the second is “Which wines, if any, improve most by being decanted?” Is it the young or old, the red or white, the cork or screw-cap? The debate has been conducted by erudite oenologists, Masters of Wine (MWs), growers, wine merchants and sommeliers – even by people like me, who are not actually involved in the wine trade. To the layman, it is all pretty confusing – or is it? There is a third question too, which asks what decanter is most suitable.

Quite apart from being something many of us love to drink, wine is a very complex liquid and experts talk of tannins, polyphenols, mercaptans, and its other constituent elements, many of which most of us have never heard. However, they combine to make wine what it is. Not only is it complex, depending on this plethora of variables, but and importantly, wine changes with time, too. As for decanting wine, it seems that white wines repay decanting as much as reds and that younger wines benefit more than old ones. Indeed, one expert has said that almost the only reason to decant venerable clarets, is to separate the wine from its sediment. I am not sure that I quite agree.

There are numerous scientific reasons why decanting is a good thing to be done every time a bottle of wine is opened, but principal among them is that unwanted smells which develop in a bottle which has been closed for months or years, are let loose into the atmosphere. Once they have been released, this leaves us free to enjoy the fruity and other aromas and essences that emanate from the wine itself.

On the infrequently aired subject of decanting white wine, there is one great advantage which is commonly overlooked. It is this: white wine is often served straight from the refrigerator which is much too cold. OK, perhaps you have a wine fridge, which maintains a higher controlled temperature than the standard domestic one, or better still, a cool cellar, but if not, decanting is definitely the answer. Decanting a too-cold white wine will bring it up to an optimum degree of cool and will present the wine as it is supposed to be – to the greater enjoyment of all concerned.

If a host decants wine for you at dinner it conveys the concept that they are taking trouble to bring you the best they have, or at the very least, they are making the best of what they have chosen for you. Such a situation occurred very recently chez Butler. We invited friends to supper; it was not a smart dinner party, more of a ‘kitchen supper’, so I chose a very inexpensive white wine which I happen to enjoy. I decanted a couple of bottles into a lovely magnum decanter of c.1800, which I have had for 40-odd years, and the wine was much admired. There was no reason to say what it was and our guests happily took up the offer of refills and a good evening was had by all! The act of decanting and seeing the decanter made the occasion better for all; it was sound psychology! Aeration devices simply don’t have the ‘presence’ and while they change wine, it is questionable if it is always for the better.

And that brings me to my final point; there really is nothing like a magnum decanter to put over the feeling of generous bonhomie – except perhaps a double magnum! The wine doesn’t have to be expensive as long as it is carefully chosen and matched to the food. Even if a host has only one guest who is known to have a well-tuned palate, then a fine wine might be chosen which will do justice to that guest’s palate – especially if decanted.

Robin Butler has the world’s leading business dealing in Antique Wine Accessories – decanters, corkscrews, wine funnels etc.

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