Decanting wine conjures visions of cobwebby bottles, flickering candles, crystal goblets, and white-gloved butlers. Performed primarily to relieve wines of sediment, the technique that’s known as the soft decant once involved all this and a good deal of practiced skill to boot.
Decanting was once important because wines (especially red Bordeaux wines) were routinely cellared for years in an attempt to moderate tannins and encourage the development of those alluring flavors and aromas we call bottle age.
Over time molecules of tannin would flocculate (glom together) until they were too heavy to remain in solution, whereupon they would fall to the bottom of the bottle to form a little pile of harmless but not very appetizing debris. A slow, skillful decant left you with lovely clear wine in your crystal decanter while the sediment remained in the bottle.
Today the soft decant is much less frequently seen for the simple reason that it’s less necessary. For one thing, we drink wines at an earlier point in their development, long before tannins have had time to polymerize and create sediment. Also, fining and filtering are more widely and successfully practiced, making “cleaner” wines.
Fresh, modern wines, however, are more likely to come out of the bottle oxygen-starved (the term you’ll see is “reductive”) than wine long-matured in bottle and can for this reason take a bit of time to expressive themselves. Infusing some air will often bring them around quickly, as inventors seem to have learned. All manner of widgets have appeared promising to make our wine more readily drinkable, but if aeration is one key to more immediately expressive wine, why not just familiarize yourself with the technique known as the hard decant?
Everything you need and everything you need to know to perform this maneuver is visible in the photo above: an open bottle of wine; a roomy pitcher of no particular configuration (any of the three shown would do the job – and have); and a tea towel, dish towel, or napkin.
The visual cues to good technique are in the blur and the foam. Remove the closure and in a single motion thrust the neck of the bottle, held almost vertically, deep into the container. Let the wine wantonly gurgle, splash, and swirl as it likes, keeping the neck of the bottle out of contact with the rising wine. The more action the better. It shouldn’t take more than a few seconds and you’re done.
The towel is there to help you do a little mopping up afterward – just in case your butler has the night off.
Stephen Meuse is a wine buyer at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge, and regularly talks wine on local PBS affiliate WGBH with host Christopher Kimball of America’s Test Kitchen Radio.