To Decant or Not to Decant

Norwich Bulletin - 2000


To Decant or not to Decant

by Bob Chaplin

A question I’m asked many times at winetasting groups and food and wine pairing classes, is should I decant wine, or not. Decanting means pouring the wine into another container before serving.

After reading and researching many articles, and consequently getting very confused at times, the following is my approach on how to present wine. The one article that I returned to time and time again is one I found in an English magazine called ‘Decanter’ What better titled magazine is there to defer to!

‘Decanter’ did an interesting experiment with four red Bordeaux wines. The results would be applicable and relevant to most other red wines. The four wines represented a cross section of quality from First Growths to generic Bordeaux wine, and represented wine from the legendary 1961 vintage through 1982, 1989 and 1990 -- all excellent vintages from Mouton Rothschild.

The results were even more convincing because of the palates involved in this comparative tasting. Included were two celebrity Masters of Wines, Serena Sutcliffe and Hugh Johnson, both experts on Bordeaux; Steven Spurrier, a knowledgeable wine columnist and Patrick Léon, the winemaker of Chateau Mouton Rothschild.

The four individual wines were prepared in six different manifestations: three decanted (one decanted just before serving, one at two hours before, one at five hours before,) and, for direct comparison, three just opened and kept in the bottle (one served straight away, one left to breathe for two hours and one for five hours.) Each wine was tasted blind, the tasters knowing the wines name but not which of the six ways it had arrived in the glass.

As was to be expected, the result of this tasting was complex and by no means unaminous. But the consensus was this. As a general rule it appeared the worst way to present the wine was to decant and serve straight away. The best overall method was to just open the bottle and serve the wine straight away!

But, the bigger and better the wine, serving the wine two hours after decanting seemed to bring out the best attributes in the wine. This is the classic and traditional approach for older and grander wines . For very young wines the very best approach seemed to be to open the bottle and let it stand undecanted for 2 hours. And of course for old wines and especially old vintage ports that throw tremendous deposit of sediment, decanting is a necessary ritual.

Recently Frank Prial in an article for The New York Times came out with a similar ‘pour straight from the bottle’ scenario.

I hope this helps! I must admit with old great wines I have been fortunate to drink with friends, I love the way the wine develops and evolves in the glass. I use as large a glass that I can muster, and try to not submit to the temptation of drinking the wine all at once. Although I’ve noticed with grand wines it is difficult not to submit to the hedonism of the experience.

If any one would like the full text of of this interesting article please e mail me.