The fine art of decanting

When you see a wine buff swirling away at their glass before tasting, it is to get as much air into their wine as possible to release the volatile alcohol within the wine. When the alcohol travels up through the glass and to your nose it carries with it all the lovely aromas present in the wine that have been cooped up inside the bottle.

In much the same way then, decanting the entire bottle of wine into (usually) a wide-bottomed glass or crystal receptacle known as a decanter will ensure that the wine suddenly has a far wider surface area with which it can mingle with the air and release its potential before drinking.

“You don’t need to decant wines into an actual decanter,” explains Lee Royle, wine marketing manager with Jacques Scott, “You just need to ensure that the receptacle into which you are pouring the wine has a greater surface area than the bottle. It could simply be a jug or other vessel that you have at home.”

Lee says that aeration of the wine is one important reason to decant a bottle of wine; the other is to rid the wine of sediment. This usually occurs in more mature red wines, which have ‘thrown’ a sediment during the bottle ageing process. Sediment in red wine is created over time by the breakdown of pigments and tannin within the wine. As time matures the wine, small amounts of these phenolic compounds gradually settle at the bottom of the bottle.

As these pigments are responsible for the colour in red wine, over time you will see a distinct colour change in the wine, turning from a deep inky purple/black colour to shades of lighter shades of brown. This also occurs in white wine through a process called micro-oxidation. You can see this in action yourself by slicing open an apple and then leave it on the counter for some time. You will see the exposed apple turn from white slowly to darker shades of brown as time goes on.

During the aging process, an aggressively tannic red wine will become softer and rounder in the palate and it will develop more complex secondary aromas, or a ‘bouquet’ than its original primary fruit aromas. Exactly the same occurs in white wines although of course white wines do not have the tannins and colour pigments that red wines do. Lee says that the classic wine for decanting is mature vintage port, which may well have a good deal of sediment in the bottle and therefore should always be decanted.

“Big tannic wines from Bordeaux or Barolo are another obvious example, but really any sort of wine benefits from aeration first,” he says. “White wines can also be decanted, especially if they come from some of the great Premier or Grand Cru vineyards of Burgundy. The same principles apply here, these wines may be ‘tight’ and not giving much up whilst in their youth but decanting (vigorously) can help release those endearing aromas.

The best method of decanting

There is a fine art to the decanting of a bottle of wine, as Lee explains: “First you need to prime or cure the decanter with a small splash of wine with a similar style wine of which you wish to decant (you may use a drop of the wine you are to decant if no other is available). Simply roll a small amount of the wine around the bottom of the decanter and up through the neck and pour away. This will ensure that there is no residual dust or dishwashing liquid left in the decanter

“Then, you need a light source under the bottle that you are decanting so that any sediment will show up clearly. A candle is a traditional lighting method but any light source will suffice. Then carefully and slowly pour the bottle over the light source into the decanter, watching all the time for any sediment buildup in the side of the bottle. You want to catch it in the bottle before it flows into the decanter itself.”

Lee says the best way to aerate the wine is to quite vigorously pour the wine into the decanter, thus exposing the wine to the maximum amount of air possible and releasing those lovely aromas.

The wines: the big and the bold

To put decanting to the test, the Jacques Scott team of Lee, plus Paul McLaughlin, Sergio Serrano and Jo Austin, as well as yours truly decided to decant half of four great bottles of wine, tasting first the non-decanted, then decanted wines alongside a tremendous feast for the senses presented to us by Ercole Musso, chef and proprietor at La Dolce Vita, his latest venture that delivers the best in Italian cuisine, situated above the Havaianas store, overlooking George Town harbour. Wines were semi-decanted about an hour before tasting began.

First up for examination was a 2002 Briarcrest Cabernet Sauvignon from Clos Du Bois ($49.95). This wine is made from 100 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon grapes harvested from Alexander Valley located in California’s Sonoma County.

Upon initial inspection of each glass, tasters noted a marked difference in the aromas – the undecanted glass giving a heady fruity nose, the decanted glass giving a totally different aroma of leather, mint and liquorice.

“Decanting allows the wine’s secondary aromas to develop, permitting the complexities of the wine to develop far more quickly than they would if the wine was drunk straight from the bottle,” Sergio explains.

On the palate it was immediately evident that the undecanted wine had obvious chewy tannins still tightly tying up the wine, while the decanted permitted softer, rounder flavours to tickle the taste buds.

Lee estimated that the wine would keep very well for around 15 years. 

Chef Ercole and his team produced a delicious array of hot and cold appetisers that did perfect justice to the great wines, including a home made beef and pork sausage on mash with mushrooms, bacon-wrapped shrimp and the most delicate of beef carpaccio with cherry tomatoes.

Next up was a Langhe Nebbiolo 2006 from La Spinetta, Italy ($34.95), made from 100 per cent Nebbiolo grapes.

This is a deep dark red wine that enjoys aging in French oak for a year and then further aging in steel vats and then the bottle.

Again, juicy fruits such as plum and black cherry were evident on the nose from the undecanted glass, while the decanted version made way for more complex mint aromas and softer, rounder flavours.

Tasters enjoyed a splendid array of mains including home made pasta stuffed with lobster, scallops and shrimp, pan seared snapper with avocado, anchovies and cherry tomatoes, a grilled veal chop with sautéed mushrooms, garlic and Gorgonzola and a rack of lamb in a red wine sauce.

Moving to South Australia now for our third wine (and thereby showing that wines from anywhere in the world can benefit from decanting) we enjoyed a Tapanappa 2004 ($66.99) made from 70 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon and 30 per cent Shiraz, a big bold wine that most definitely benefited from aeration before drinking, the steely tannins opening up nicely to make way for a complex wine with spice aromas and a long finish.

Finally on our list of these big and bold wines was a Chateau d’Armailhac (Pauillac) 2006 from Baron Phillipe de Rothschild ($64.99) from Bordeaux. A blend of 60 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon, 29 per cent Merlot, and the remainder Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. This Bordeaux initially displayed a wealth of fruit on the nose (undecanted) making way for earthier nuances.

Lee says: “This is a great wine from Baron Phillipe, one of the best D’Armailhacs made in a long time.”

After decanting we were impressed by aromas of black currants, creamy oak, leather and earth and a distinct softening of tannins making it an absolute pleasure to drink. To ensure that tasters really enjoyed a flavour of all La Dolce Vita has to offer, a ridiculously tempting selection of desserts were duly placed in front of us, including a soft set panna cotta with mixed berries, a chocolate toffee mousse with macadamia nuts, hazelnuts and caramel, a warm chocolate cake and a patisserie apple pie with Marsala Chantilly and raspberry sauce. All to die for.

Lee sums up: “Decanting will essentially speed up the development of aromas for any bottle of wine. Whites, reds, old and young wines all benefit from decanting. So don’t be afraid of it – give it a go and you will notice a marked difference.”

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From left, Loredana Musso, Lee Royle, Ercole Musso, Sergio Serrano, Paul McLaughlin and Jo Austin

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