While shopping for wine way back in my early, overly enthusiastic days, I would commonly hear knowledgeable shopkeepers say lines akin to, “Oh, it’s relatively young now. So if you can’t wait, decant it for a couple of hours and it should be great.” Once I heard this, I took note and committed it to memory.
Then it seemed like all of the sudden every person working in every wine store was telling every customer to decant every wine. Seriously, to this day, if I hang around a wine store of any size or level of sophistication for more than 30 minutes, someone’s going to recommend that something be decanted “for a couple of hours.” Being the diligent student I was, I immediately bought a decanter and started decanting wines.
Side note: I’ve never been a huge hater of sedimentary deposit (the gunk at the bottom of a bottle of unfiltered wine) because, most of the time, you can avoid pouring yourself a big glassful without the assistance of a decanter. Decanting from this perspective then really only meant one thing to me: letting bottles of traditionally tannic wine breathe enough to allow me in for a drink much earlier than could normally be expected.
I was off to the races decanting Napa Cabs, Rhone monsters, the occasional big Bordeaux, and even once an innocent bottle of champagne (note to self: sometimes you’re not so smart). One day while reading Emile Peynaud’s The Taste of Wine, I ran across the most astonishing theory. Summed up by Peynaud, “First: if it is necessary to decant, it should be done at the last moment, just before sitting down or just before serving, never in advance. Finally (in exceptional cases): only wines suffering from some fault (for example a lack of cleanness on the nose, the presence of some gas, a little thinness in constitution) warrant decanting sufficiently in advance to allow plenty of contact with air.” Wha? Only wines that have a problem need to be decanted? Coming from anyone else I would have scoffed and laughed off the idea as some hair-brained theory from someone who had perhaps decanted one too many bottles of wine on a particular night. But this was Peynaud, by all accounts one of the fathers of modern wine, and if he was saying it, it was more than likely true and most certainly well researched.
After years of trying to reconcile modern talk around the wine store and generalized, current thought in the industry (decant, decant, decant) with Emile Peynaud’s denunciation of such a practice, here’s what I’ve come up with: Peynaud is right. Stop your decanting now! No, not really. How pompous would I have to be to tell you how to drink your wine? Want to drink it out of a dirty coffee cup? Fine by me. So speaking only for how I like to enjoy wine, I prefer not to decant. I want to smell, taste, see, and in some cases hear what a wine is really like, not what it’s like after it’s been flattened by the weight of hours of air. Peyanud’s point in The Taste of Wine is that decanting may, in fact, smooth out some of the tannins and rustic elements in a wine, but it also eliminates a great deal of the finesse and complexity in a wine. A decanted wine seems to offer up a fleshier, thicker version of the undecanted wine. When I think about it, this makes sense. Essentially, decanting is the act of force-feeding air to wine.
For reasons having a great deal to with everyday economics, I want to be able to decant wines. The underlying idea when a shopkeeper recommends decanting a wine that isn’t quite at its peak is that he or she realizes that I probably can’t afford to buy a wine that’s at its peak (say, perhaps, ten years older). Wines at their peak often command four to five times of what their pre-peak counterparts might and with today’s wine prices that ends up being just stupid money. So I want to decant and force-feed air to wine to avoid the exorbitant peak-wine prices, but what I end up doing is, in effect, destroying what is good about the wine to begin with: its originality, its complexity, its elegance. I still have a decanter, but now it just gathers dust.