This article begins with a common story heard by Italian wine clubs. A club member recently called to order a second bottle of a monthly feature, an Italian Barbera. Upon calling to order a second bottle, the member discovered no other members had reordered the wine and he wasn’t surprised as when he poured a glass of the Barbera, he wasn’t initially impressed with the taste. However, a telephone call interrupted his meal by a half hour. When he returned to his wine and dinner, the transformation in the wine astounded him. The Barbera, which he initially described as banal, was now brimming with berry flavor and aroma and had a luscious, silky texture.
What happened during the half hour the wine sat in the glass? The wine had time “breathe.” Exposed to air for a half hour, the wine was able to release its flavors and aromas. The formal method for bringing about this transformation is to decant the wine before serving, transferring it from its original bottle into a decanter, although the process is not without controversy. This article looks at the process of decanting wine so it can breathe before tasting, including the pros and cons of decanting.
Italian wine clubs agree the undisputed advantage of decanting pertains to older wines that have developed sediment in the bottle over time. Carefully transferring to wine to another container while the sediment remains in the original bottle separates the unpleasant sediment from the wine. Another undisputed aspect of decanting wine, whether old or young, is simply that a beautiful decanter made with clear glass is an aesthetic pleasure that enhances both the wine and the table.
The controversy centers on whether or not decanting to aerate wine really benefits the taste, supposedly releasing aromas and fruit flavors and softening tannins through oxidation and evaporation. Most people in and out of the trade think it does although the science, at least what exists, says not exactly.
Swirling, Sniffing, And Sipping
When winemakers taste professionally, they swirl wine in a glass and sniff it first before sipping because we perceive only sweet, sour, bitter, and salt with the taste buds on our tongues and recognize every other flavor with the nerves in our noses. Swirling the wine sets its molecules in motion to allow for easy inhalation of aromas. Likewise, decanting a wine will set molecules in motion as does swirling it in a glass although some argue that exposing the wine to air over a prolonged period will dissipate delicate aromas, especially those of older wines.
While aerating wine for at least a short period can noticeably improve flavor, whether it makes the wine smoother is debatable by Italian wine clubs. The primary reason winemakers age red wine in barrels is that wood is slightly porous and allows the wine to undergo a carefully controlled oxidation over many months. Oxygen promotes the polymerization of tannins, which links shorter molecules into chains that feel smoother on the tongue. In older wines, these chains become heavy and create sediment in the bottle. However, the process occurs over many months or years, not within the hour exposing the wine to oxygen in a glass or a decanter.
What can happen within an hour is that preservative sulfur compounds added during the winemaking process can evaporate. Yeasty components and carbon dioxide in white wine can also dissipate. Without the extraneous elements, intrinsic fruit flavors become more apparent. Red wine will reach room temperature faster after decanting and feel smoother in the mouth than at lower temperatures.
So if you are not in the habit of decanting wine, should you start? Why not give it a try if you have the time and want to enjoy a given wine at its very best and especially if you think a wine is not as good as it should be.