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Thursday, September 3, 2009

WINE REVIEW: John Haggard on Decanting

To Decant or Not to Decant…

A decanter is designed with a wide base and thin neck for two reasons: to expose the wine to air and, when poured, to allow the wine to flow more easily and the sediment to remain in the base of the decanter. It was the Romans who came up with the idea of using glass for decanters, so you could say the track record for glass decanters is rather long. It seems obvious why one may not want sediment in the glass, but why more air?

Winemaker Fred Scherrer explained to me that red wines are a series of sharps and rounds. In my experience, the sharper flavors tend to be red fruit and can be described as “strawberry, raspberry, pomegranate, red cherry” and the rounds tend to be black fruit flavors “blackberry, blueberry, black plum, black cherry”. Sharper red fruit flavors tend to soften after decanting as do tannins caused by oak barrels and numerous other factors used to create complexity in wine but which become more subtle over time or with proper decanting, bringing wine into balance.

Many winemakers structure red wine to be able to both age and, indeed, improve with age. Bordeaux varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon may be made to age decades: Ramey Jericho Canyon Vineyard 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, is a highly collectable wine that will age for ten years or more (ret: $125). Some burgundies (pinot noirs) will age five to ten years. Ross Cobb of Cobb Wines structures all his pinot noirs to be aged. Cobb Wines (as many wineries do) releases “Library Wines” to its members list, so that older vintages may be appreciated. Zinfandel will usually have a shorter life (perhaps three to five years). 2007 has been a stellar year across the board for Sonoma Wines. In my opinion, Balletto’s 2007 Pinot Noir (retailing $20-$25) is one of their best. It has structure that will age, and will benefit from decanting about an hour if opened now. Decanting accelerates the aging process. It allows wine to display more of the characteristics that it would have displayed some years hence. Occasionally, when opening a wine in a restaurant that I know to be particularly youthful, I will ask the server to not only decant the wine, but to “shock it”. Simply put, “to glug” the wine into the decanter by turning the bottle almost upside down while pouring, allowing a fast pour and more air bubbles to form.

Try for Yourself…
When entertaining, I will often pour my red wines into decanters as I start to prepare the meal. The chef does deserve a small taste of the wine as the bottle is opened, both to determine that the wine is not bad (or corked) and to truly experience the wine as it opens from the first glass, and later, at the meal when poured from the decanter. Putting this into practice will allow you to educate your own palate as to which wines truly benefit from decanting.

Decanting Calculator?
While there is no Iphone App for this yet (though it may be worth someone‚s time)… a rough calculation that doesn’t work in all cases, but may be helpful: upon release, for each year that is recommended to age a wine, up to an hour of decanting may be necessary to open the wine today. A wine said to be at its best four years from now upon release, may need decanting two to four hours. However, two years from now, it may only need thirty minutes of decanting (you’ll find wines with age need less decanting time and do not need to be ”shocked“).

What to use?
A glass pitcher will suffice to aerate wine if you don‚t have a decanter handy (though they are not shaped to hold back sediment). Decanters make great gifts for anyone who enjoys wine. Support your local Sonoma wine stores by checking with them for decanters: Vine Life, Wine Tasting Sonoma, Gourmet Au Bay, The Wine Emporium, Sonoma Fine Wine, Vine & Barrel and Sophie’s Cellars. Or – go to the wine store near you and let us know who – and where – they are!

John Haggard is owner of Sophie’s Cellars, The Sonoma Wine & Cheese Market in Monte Rio, California. Sophie’s Cellars is open 11am - 7pm, closed only on Wednesdays.