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The following will GREATLY enhance your pleasure with a bottle of older wine. It may sound like a hassle, but it’s really not so bad, and well worth the trouble.
Basic Wine Decanting 101
There is nothing complicated or mysterious about this process; just follow these simple instructions.
You do not even need a decanter – any glass pitcher or bottle will suffice, along with a light source like a flashlight or candle.
1. Stand the bottle upright to allow the fine sediment to settle. With older wines try to allow at least 24 hours – even more time is preferable.
2. Pull the cork carefully so as not to disturb the sediment that’s now settled to the bottom of the bottle, thanks to step #1.
3. Position the light source so that you can use it to illuminate the neck/shoulder of the wine bottle as you pour the wine into the decanter. I prefer to do this with the light standing in a sink – this provides a comfortable height for your arms as you decant the wine (and makes clean-up easy if you spill any wine!).
4. Begin to pour the wine into the decanter (being right-handed, I hold the bottle in my right hand and the decanter in my left); try to keep the flow slow and steady to avoid agitating the bottle.
5. As the wine is pouring, maneuver yourself so that upper part of the bottle is over the light source and you can see the flowing wine through the upper part of the bottle. The cloudy part of the wine will begin to enter the stream of liquid; when it reaches the top of the bottle, stop pouring. Typically anywhere from ½ inch to 3 inches of wine will be left in the bottle; this amount depends on how gently you’ve operated, and of course on the amount of sediment that was there in the first place.
Any wine left in the bottle can be poured into a glass to settle out again – you can see later if this looks worth trying or not (and if you do try it you will likely notice how much the sediment compromises the quality of the wine). Some people recommend filtering the sedimented wine through a coffee filter or cheesecloth, but we would advise against adding filtered wine back to the clean decanted wine.
An optional final step: Once the wine is decanted you can rinse out the bottle (very often there’s lots of sediment left behind), and then re-pour the wine back into the bottle. You’ve now “double-decanted”, which permits you to serve the wine from the bottle instead of from the decanter. This is especially useful if you’re taking the wine to friends or to a restaurant, and naturally want to avoid showing up with a wine full of suspended sediment.
The big question: How far ahead of serving should you decant?
This is controversial. For example, many Burgundy aficionados insist that you should never decant old Burgundy because the wine is too fragile; based on the shocking number of fine old Burgundies we’ve tasted that have been ruined by sediment, we respectfully disagree, and when we’re in control of the bottle will decant a bit ahead of serving the wine. This should be the baseline for serving old wine / wine with sediment: decant just before serving.
By contrast, we have observed countless times that some wines benefit from extended time in the decanter; this is especially true for Barolo and Barbaresco, including most very old bottles of those wines. Too many times the very last of the bottle has been the most delicious – and not because we’ve been drinking!
Some suggestions for how long ahead to decant:
Barolo and Barbaresco: 6-8 hours for bottles up to 20 years old; 3-4 hours for older wines;
Bordeaux: 1-2 hours for bottles up to 20 years old; shortly before serving for older wines;
Burgundy: 1-2 hours for bottles up to 10 years old; shortly before serving for older wines;
California Cabernet: 1-2 hours for bottles up to 20 years old; shortly before serving for older wines;
Rhône: 2-3 hours for bottles up to 10 years old; 1 hour for older wines.
And, yes, we do decant young red wine, and we often decant white wine and even Champagne, but we’ll leave those for another day.
If you have any questions or need any assistance please feel free to call Chambers Street Wines at 212-227-1434.