The French vineyard: get the best from your bottle
Let wine breathe easy for fuller flavour: Jonathan Hesfordon why decanting is vital for getting the best from your bottle
I get quite a few questions from visitors about the benefits of decanting and the various gadgets available that claim to make wines taste better.
Decanting is done for two reasons. Firstly to avoid stirring up the sediment or pouring it into the glass and secondly to aerate the wine, allowing it to breathe.
Sediment is generally only found in older bottles of traditionally-made wines. Most New World and big-brand French wines are made using modern techniques that prevent sediment from forming.
The sediment is a combination of tannin and tartrates.
When the wine is first bottled, these substances are dissolved in the wine but over time they precipitate to form solids. So a sediment is generally not a result of a wine not being filtered. Filtration is done to avoid wines looking cloudy, not to avoid bits getting into the bottle.
The tannins precipitate because over a long time, the molecules they are made from join up, eventually becoming too big to remain in solution.
Tannin is the substance that has a drying effect in the mouth. Therefore the creation of the sediment actually reduces the sensation of tannin in the wine, making it taste (or feel) smoother and silkier. That is why old wines appear smoother.
Tartrates are tiny crystals of potassium bitartrate, a natural component of all wines, which precipitate under cold conditions. They can occur in both red and white wines.
Most commercial wineries force the tartrates to precipitate in tank before bottling or add chemicals which prevent the crystals from forming.
Tartrates are harmless but consumers do not know what they are and therefore may return bottles to the shop when they discover them, sometimes believing them to be bits of broken glass.
If you let the bottle stand upright or in a cradle for a few hours to allow the sediment to settle, you can carefully pour the wine into a decanter or carafe and leave the sediment behind.
The second reason for decanting is to aerate the wine. Allowing the wine to come into contact with oxygen in the air will “open up” the wine, releasing pleasant aromas and making the wine seem less “closed”.
Wines served straight from the bottle often do not release these aromas in time for us to smell them before we drink the wine, meaning that we are missing out.
Oxygen also has the effect of transforming tannins, making the wine seem smoother and softer. However, this process takes much longer. At least an hour is required and sometimes several hours for young wines with a lot of tough tannins.
Nearly all wines can be improved by decanting.
It has the most dramatic effect on high-quality young red wines but even everyday wines should improve. Even white wines will seem more aromatic and less acidic.
The wine will absorb enough oxygen to do the trick when it is simply poured gently into a decanter.
There is no need to increase the aeration by using a gadget, like the Venturi or VinLuxe ones, or by vigorously pouring and swirling the wine around. In fact that may over-oxidise the wine. The time required to transform the tannins are not shortened by using gadgets or techniques.
On the other hand, simply uncorking (or unscrewing) the bottle does virtually nothing as the surface area of the wines exposed to the air is tiny. They say that 15 seconds in the glass is the same as eight hours in a just-opened bottle.
If you want to serve the wine in its original bottle, you can double-decant it. Simply pour the wine into a decanter, or just a jug, rinse the bottle and refill it.
This is also useful if you are travelling with a wine and do not want to risk stirring up the sediment en route.
All the studies I have read say that it is this simple aeration plus time which improve the wine. The gadgets that claim to make the wine pass through a magnetic field, or some other pseudo-scientific idea, will not do anything to improve the wine other than make more of a ritual of serving it.
If you want to get the best out of your wines, invest in a decanter and use it regularly.
It does not need to be a fancy cut-glass one, a simple carafe will do the trick. Just make sure it is kept clean.
Also, do not forget that serving wine at the right temperature is really important.
White wines should be served chilled but not too cold and red wines are best between 17 and 19°C.
Jonathan Hesford is the owner, vigneron and winemaker of Domaine Treloar in the Roussillon; www.domainetreloar.com
If you have questions on this or other subjects covered in the wine column, or a suggestion for a topic, you can email him: firstname.lastname@example.org