A Contrarian View on Decanting

Retailers and wine snobs may go on about giving your red wines air before you serve them, to tame their tannins and bring out their inherent complexity.  Yet with most bottles, there's more to lose than to gain.  With white wines, I invariably just uncork and pour.  (Of course, I don't serve whites straight from the refrigerator because the extreme chill would mask their texture and aromatic complexity.)  And in the case of lighter, more delicate reds, I wouldn't decant for fear of letting their fresh aromas dissipate before I had the chance to enjoy them.

Sturdier, more tannic young wines like claret, Barolo and Barbaresco, and syrahs from the northern Rhone Valley are another matter.  If you insist on committing infanticide, young wines will benefit from time in a pristine (odor- and soap-free) carafe, but keep in mind that your wine glass also functions as a decanter, and even brutish reds can soften noticeably in the time it takes you to down a bottle.

I like to err on the side of underdecanting.  If I'm enjoying a bottle over a leisurely dinner, I like to watch the wine evolve in the glass and bottle over the course of an hour or more rather than miss those first aromas.

Generally speaking, the older the wine, the less breathing time it needs; rather than benefit from aeration, a venerable bottle may simply hyperventilate and drop dead.  I've had generations-old Bordeaux that were ineffably complex on first pour only to expire in the glass within minutes.  But even with young reds and most whites, too much aeration can cause the wine to lose its exhilarating high notes and vibrancy even as it gains in texture and breadth.  That's a tradeoff I'm rarely willing to make.

Under normal circumstances, I reach for the decanter only if there is sediment in the bottle and it's necessary to separate the clear juice from the muck at the bottom.  (Most serious, tannic red wines will throw a deposit as they approach maturity.)  To decant a wine with sediment, stand the bottle up for at least a couple of hours first--the longer the better--then carefully pour it into the carafe in one continuous motion, stopping when you see the first sign of solid material passing through the neck of the bottle.

Then too, if a young wine displays what members of the wine business term "bottle stink" (you'd smell funny too if you were trapped in a closed container), give the wine a stiff dose of oxygen by decanting it, to encourage those untoward aromas to disperse.  A double-decanting is often helpful here:  pour the wine into a decanter, rinse out the bottle with clean cold water, return the wine to the bottle using a funnel, then back into the decanter again.  Rather than risk setting my eyebrows on fire by pouring off the wine over a candle, I slide a Mini Maglite flashlight into the neck of a 375-ml. bottle saved for this purpose and decant over its penetrating beam.  A vigorous double-decanting is also advised if you're bothered by a spritz of carbon dioxide when you first taste a bottle.

Here are some wines that don't need decanting, although all of them should gain in complexity as they open in your glass and none of them is in danger of running out of gas anytime soon.