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Decanters - Holiday Suggestions Part II

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Okay, so your loved one already has stemware which was my first recommendation for a holiday gift. What’s next? After stemware, for me, everything else falls in to a big bucket in terms of priority. Here I discuss decanters.

Controversy surrounds decanting wine. There are three main reasons to decant a wine. The first reason to decant a wine is to eliminate sediment. Sediment is caused by a variety of factors. In younger wines, sediment can occur after fermentation and can consist of dead yeast, grape seeds, and other solids. This sediment is sometimes removed during the wine making process by a procedure called racking. In racking, the wine is moved from one vessel, such as a barrel, to another vessel, such as another barrel. The sediment is thereby left in the original vessel. Additionally, some wineries use a process called “fining” to clarify the wine and remove suspended particles. In fining, a substance such as egg white is added to the wine. The egg white binds the particles and is subsequently removed from the wine. There are filtration methods to eliminate sediment as well. Some wineries prefer to leave the sediment in the wine. In older wines, sediment is caused by the breaking down of pigments and tannins. This sediment settles on the side or bottom of the bottle depending on how the wine is stored. In addition to sediment, another thing you may notice when opening a wine are crystals either within the wine or, more likely, attached to the cork. These are most likely tartrate crystals and are, again, a result of the winemaking process. Sediment and crystals should not be considered a flaw or fault. However, some feel it detracts from the aesthetic of the wine and therefore remove it by decanting.

The second reason to decant, which is where the controversy comes in, is for aeration. This is also referred to allowing the wine to “breathe.” We have all opened up a bottle of wine and found that it is quite closed up and after minutes of sitting in the glass or vigorous swirling, the wine has changed dramatically. Decanting can accelerate this process. This can be particularly useful for younger wines. Much like swirling your wine in the glass, aeration exposes the wine to oxygen. This releases the aroma molecules into the air. It is also believed to smooth aspects of the wine, such as the tannins. The controversy comes in because some believe that decanting dissipates some of the aroma molecules. Others argue that it does not soften the tannins but rather alters other compounds in the wine that gives the perception of softening the wine. While the debate rages on, I enjoy decanting wines. Note that not all wines are suitable for decanting. A robust, tannin driven wine such as a Cabernet or Barolo can benefit. A more delicate wine, such as Pinot Noir, can be destroyed by it. See my experience decanting a Dolcetto here for an example of this.

The third reason to decant a wine is because decanters are pretty! Yes wine bottles are pretty too but you have to admit that wine poured in to a crystal vessel is visually appealing. This brings us to the focus of our topic for today.

There are many different types and shapes of decanters out there. The decanter you select should be largely driven by the aesthetic quality of the decanter as well as, obviously, the price. Here I will list some decanters I have used.

Riedel makes a variety of different decanters. The Riedel Cabernet Decanter has a classic, carafe style that costs approximately $40. The Riedel Duck Decanter is shaped like a duck and costs approximately $225. For you decoy duck aficionados out there, and you know who you are, this is an ideal choice. Riedel also has shapes like the Lyra and Cornetto.

The Spiegelau Authentis Decanter is also in a classic style with a thin neck and wide base. This decanter also allows easy swirling of the wine while in the decanter to assist with aeration. This decanter costs approximately $64. Many others make a decanter similar in shape at a variety of prices.

One of my personal favorites is the Orbital Decanter. The Orbital Decanter features a silver plated base that the decanter can either sit in or be removed from. When is it removed from the base, the decanter can be placed on its side and gently rolled to increase aeration. This was once demonstrated to me at a winery where the decanter was rolled along the edge of bar with part of the decanter over the edge. Do not try this at home. This decanter costs approximately $60.

Again, what decanter you choose should be largely based on price and its aesthetic appeal. Any one of these will assist with aerating your wine or removing sediment, but only a few may look pretty to you.

One final note about decanters. They get dirty and require some maintenance over time, even if you quickly wash and rinse the wine out of the vessel. There are a variety of tools to assist with this, such as washing brushes and steel beads. Personally, I have found the brushes to be more successful. There are also washing racks that allow you to place the decanter upside down after washing it to eliminate water marks on the side of the glass.

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