By Michael Meagher
You’re out for a celebration at a great restaurant and you’re looking forward to a spectacular meal. To fit the feel of the evening, you order a nice bottle of wine off the list, which is then shuttled to your table by a sommelier who asks you if you’d like to have it decanted. Not wanting to seem unknowledgeable or naïve, you nod your head in agreement and the sommelier begins the process of opening your bottle and carefully draining its contents into a sparkling glass decanter. At the end of all this, a taste is poured from the vessel into your glass, and still feeling a bit overwhelmed, you nod in approval and say the wine is great, hoping to move along with the evening as efficiently as possible.
Decanting wine is a practice that usually occurs at upscale restaurants, and when it’s done properly, there is a lot of misunderstanding about why this ritual takes place. Is this really necessary? Sure, it’s likely going to improve your wine 99.9% of the time. Should I do this at home? Absolutely, as it’s a simple way to improve your daily experience with wine. Do I need fancy equipment? Nope, in fact all you need is a clean, empty vessel that can hold a full bottle of wine.
Decanting aims at achieving one of three goals: separating the sediment that can accumulate in an older or unfiltered bottle of wine, aerating the bottle to increase the aromatics and consumer’s enjoyment of the wine, and, perhaps most overlooked, putting a bit of showmanship and flair into the process of enjoying your wine.
Older wines, and on occasion unfiltered wines, tend to accumulate a good amount of sediment in the bottle as various compounds precipitate out of the liquid over time. While a coffee filter or fine mesh strainer might be an effective tool to strain out the solids, it’s a bit out of place at an upscale restaurant. The best alternative is to let the solids settle on the bottom of the bottle and then pour the bottle slowly into the decanter. Usually this happens over a lit candle so the sommelier can see through the neck of the bottle and stop the pouring when the sediment begins to approach the neck. A bit of wine will be left in the bottle, and that remaining wine can be consumed, if you don’t mind a bit of harmless grit in the glass, or you can ask the sommelier to filter the rest off to the side. If you are in a giving mood, you could offer that last taste to the sommelier as a gesture of thanks.
When you open up a bottle of wine, you’re summoning flavors and textures that have been cooped up in a bottle for years. Like a person getting off a long flight, wine can use a bit of a chance to get some fresh air and stretch its legs before it can really start to show off its pedigree and elegance. Tannins will soften, volatile aromas will be released, flavors will develop, and all of this happens because you’re giving the wine a chance to come into contact with oxygen. This is why large wine glasses are popular for premium wines as they provide a large amount of surface area.
Finally, we come to the third element for decanting: showmanship. Wine is a luxury good and in restaurants we want to be taken care of and entertained, after all we’re spending our hard-earned money on the experience. Decanting is one of the few opportunities for tableside service and interaction with the sommelier. This is an opportunity to ask questions about the wine, perhaps solicit an opinion about what entrée will pair well, or just to sit back and watch one of the few remaining vestiges of fine service that remains in contemporary dining.
Whether it’s separating the wine from the sediment, enhancing the aromas and flavors, or just to add some extra pizzazz to service, decanting is a simple and underappreciated opportunity to improve your overall dining experience.
Michael is a Master Sommelier Candidate is in the process of completing his Diploma of Wine Studies from the WSET. Being a former collegiate athlete, he is now focusing that competitive spirit on the wine world. He won the 2010 Chaine de Rotisseurs Best Young Sommelier competition, finished third at TOP|SOMM The US Sommelier Championships. He also serves as Chairman of the Boston Sommelier Society and owner of the beverage consulting company, Sommelier On-Demand.