To decant or not to decant? Well it does make a difference to your wine
One of the many things I like about screw-cap wine is the instant access it affords. There’s no messing about – one twist and you’re in. There I sit, watching the clock crawl towards seven, gasping for my first drink of the evening, then twist, click, and at no more than five seconds past, that first generous gulp of ice-cold New Zealand sauvignon blanc courses down my throat and all is well with the world once more.
At the opposite end of the “accessing one’s alcohol” scale, of course, is decanting. This is one heck of a palaver, and torture if you’ve a raging thirst. To start with, you need a foil cutter and a decent corkscrew (lever screwpulls are by far the best). Then, you need a decanter, a stopper and a proper silver decanting funnel (pierced with tiny holes to let the liquid through while trapping any gubbins), or a common-or-garden plastic funnel lined with coffee filter paper, muslin or even your wife’s tights. Finally. you need a torch or candle, with which to spot the gunk arriving in the neck of the bottle, at which point you stop pouring. Oh, and perhaps the most vital requirement of all: a steady hand.
So why on earth would anyone bother? Well, I’ll tell you why: because it can make an enormous difference to what you’re drinking and because a brimming decanter on the dining-table speaks out of luxury and looks gloriously inviting.
My advice is to fortify yourself with a large glass of the aforementioned Kiwi sauvignon and get stuck in. Although decanting wine is indeed time-consuming and fiddly, half the fun of it is in the anticipation. It’s a bit of a vinous striptease. You get a saucy glimpse of the wine as it slips silkily down the funnel and cascades into the base of the decanter, and you catch an elusive whiff of its come-hither perfume as it pours. No, no, you can’t taste it yet, but just think of the pleasure yet to come.
I can hardly imagine a wine that doesn’t benefit from such treatment. The general rule is that fully mature red bordeaux, burgundy and rhône, along with vintage port, need decanting to free them
from the gunk gathered at the bottom of the bottle. Very young reds need decanting so that they can interact fully with the air, shed their tannic overcoat, stretch out and show off their fruit. Really old wines should be decanted only moments before you drink them, so that they don’t fade away too fast, whereas young wines can be done several hours before.
I’d add to this list a host of other wines. Some time ago, at supper, I tried a small unscientific experiment. I served two identical £4.99 supermarket own-label Chilean reds, one in its bottle and one in a decanter. The latter was drained in no time, while the bottle was virtually ignored. No surprise there. But when I asked my guests to try the wines side by side, all six of them declared the decanted wine to be the far superior of the two.
I put this down to two reasons: first, to perception – the decanted wine must be the better. After all, who’d bother to decant a £4.99 wine? And second, the fact that by treating the wine as serious and grown up and serving it in a decanter, it acted serious and grown up. The sluicing through the funnel had let it open up and smile.
I reckon that almost any red improves after it has been decanted, unless it’s so old that it’s almost shot to pieces and has no fruit left anyway; I’d also add full-flavoured white wines such as old white burgundies, New World chardonnays, white rhônes and rich, spicy gewürztraminers. Moreover, most white wine is consumed too cold and can benefit from getting a bit of air just as much as reds, which is why they often taste at their best at the very end of the bottle.
And if you think a decanter is too poncy, use a carafe. Sweet champagne served at the end of a meal in a simple carafe is a wonderful treat and pleasantly decadent. It softens the acidity and allows the fizz to settle down just a touch. And if you have a showgirl’s slipper to sup it from, even better.
I remember Andy McConnell, glass expert on The Antiques Roadshow and author of The Decanter, An Illustrated History of Glass from 1650, once eulogising about decanters. He argued that using one helps the wine taste better, making a £10 bottle of wine taste like a £20 one, and it also makes it look better, he said, before adding, “To me, serving wine straight from the bottle is as bad as serving milk straight from the carton.”