Magic or myth?
It can make for great theatre in a restaurant or distinguished dining house. But for all its grandeur, is there really any benefit from decanting wines? Or is it one of those traditions that makes for a good show but has no more benefit than the psychological effect of a placebo?
If you ask the glassblowers or crystal merchants, their wares can infinitely improve the wine consumption experience. But over the years, I've met many cynics who swear that they just don't taste any difference between a wine that is decanted and one which isn't. So who's right?
The theory behind the decanting process is that is serves two key purposes: to separate the sediment and to aerate the wine. And there can be little argument about the advantage of separating the dregs. After all, who likes imbibing those sludgy remains from the bottom of the glass of well-aged red?
Not only does decanting avoid gritty particles spoiling the mouth feel, it also avoids the clarity being ruined by an aesthetically unattractive cloudiness developing. And most sommeliers agree that the best way to ensure that the fine residue of tannin and lees doesn't negatively impact on the experience is to hasten slowly.
Ideally, the bottle should be allowed to stand for at least several hours before serving so that the sediment can work its way to the bottom of the bottle and then be poured very slowly in to the decanter to minimise the disturbance of the fine particles. In the perfect world, the last few centimetres of fluid should contain almost all of the unwanted silt so that it can be conveniently disposed of.
On the other hand, the process of pouring the wine and allowing contact with air in the bulbous base of the decanter enables the oxygen to open up the wine, releasing flavour and aroma.
But here lies the trap. Allow too much time in aeration and the wine can become flat and lifeless - especially if it's an older wine. There's nothing worse than serving up a 20-year-old Bordeaux blend or South Australian shiraz and finding that having allowed it to "breathe" for too long results in all of the delicious intensity of fruit washing out.
On the other hand, younger wines can be tightly bound and a bit more time spent in glassware can allow the tannins to unwind and a vibrance of fruit to return. The trick is in finding the "Goldilocks" moment when the wine has had just enough time to open, without risking the oxidisation process developing.
So if you can look beyond the pomp and circumstance or the histrionics of the decanting process, I reckon it's indisputable that the right amount of time in crystal will vastly improve the winemaker's handiwork.
Retailers might try to tell you otherwise, but personally, I don't think the shape or style of the decanting vessel really makes a lot of difference. Not, at least, to the aeration process.
There are some pretty funky and cool decanters out there these days, but for the combination of style and function, it's hard to go past the Riedel range. They are steeped in Bohemian history but in tune with contemporary design. My current fave is the Riedel Amadeo decanter that looks a bit like a set of glass cow horns but looks great, is stable on the table and allows efficient air contact. It's a bit pricey at $400-$500, but for special occasions and well-aged premium wines, I reckon it's a worthwhile investment.