When living beings feel bottled up, it's good medicine to take time to get in touch with their essence, to try to renew what's best in them. The same prescription applies to wine...

Share story

When living beings feel bottled up, it’s good medicine to take time to get in touch with their essence, to try to renew what’s best in them.

The same prescription applies to wine — a little down-time out of the bottle before drinking can let it put its best foot forward, too.

The practice is called decanting, and simply means pouring wine from a bottle into a larger container, says Canlis wine manager and sommelier Shayn Bjornholm, who was named this year’s sommelier of the year by the Washington Wine Commission.

It’s very different from just pulling a cork out of a bottle and letting it “breathe” before pouring, which Bjornholm says does very little to enhance a wine unless the breathing period takes place over days.

He cites three general reasons to decant, the first being to remove sediments that separate from the wine as it ages and settle in the bottle.

Another is to give the wine, mainly those being consumed in their youth, more exposure to air to release aromatic components, called volatiles, that also enhance taste. Some experts, however, argue that extra exposure to the air beyond swirling in a glass is unnecessary, and perhaps may even crimp some of the sensory traits the winemaker intended.

Pouring wine into a decanter allows more room for the wine to breathe.

The third, Bjornholm says, is just to dress up the table with a stylish piece of glassware that lets the dark ruby or deep purple of a well-made wine show through. “It’s just kind of a fun thing to do,” he says.

Fun, functional or both, decanting comes with definite dos and don’ts.

Done right, it can perform magic on a wound-up wine. But if done wrong — such as airing out an older wine that is on its last legs because of years of oxidation in the bottle — you can lose whatever magic it had left.

Getting out the sediment

Removing sediments is most often needed for ports and long-cellared Old World French and Italian reds that by tradition were not clarified and fined through filtration and other means when they were made.

As they’ve aged over the years, organic particles and crystallized acids settle in the bottle. They create “a lot of sandy, chunky grit” that looks unappealing in the glass, and when sipped with the wine, can impart a bitter taste or a more chalky feel, Bjornholm says.

Wines most likely to have a fair amount of sedimentation are heavy reds from the Bordeaux region of France, pinot noir from Burgundy, Rhone syrahs and Italian nebbiolo and sangiovese, he says.

Although most New World wines are known for being heavily filtered and fined to remove minute grape detritus, a recent trend among winemakers is to leave a little cloudiness. And many fuller-bodied ultra-premium Washington and California cabernet sauvignons and syrahs may harbor enough sediments that people who like their wines crystal-clear may want to get them out, Bjornholm says.

To remove sediments, he advises letting the bottle stand upright at least a day before opening. That should be enough time to let particles collect in a layer on the bottom.

When transferring the wine to the decanter, hold the upper part of the bottle over a bright light and watch from directly above to observe when sediments begin collecting in the shoulder. That’s when to stop pouring into the decanter.

Throughout the process, Bjornholm said, the bottle should be handled gently and the pouring done slowly to avoid a remixing of the wine and sediments.

Two schools of thought

Now that the wine has found more clarity, the next issue is whether and how long it should be intentionally exposed to air in a decanter. A factor to remember is that a cork never completely protects a wine from oxygen molecules seeping in, which is why decanting a very old wine can turn it flat in a hurry, Bjornholm said.

There are two schools of thought on the subject. British Master of Wine Jancis Robinson, who edits “The Oxford Companion to Wine,” cites a traditional theory held by French enologist and “The Taste of Wine” author Emile Peynaud.

Peynaud recommends decanting only to remove sediments, which should be removed immediately before drinking. If aeration is needed because of some perceived fault in the wine, the taster can oxygenate the wine by swirling it in the glass.

“(Peynaud’s) argument is that from the moment the wine is fully exposed to air (which happens when it is poured, but not to any significant extent during so-called ‘breathing’), some of its sensory impressions may be lost, and that decanting immediately before serving gives the taster maximum control,” Robinson said.

Seattle Times wine columnist Paul Gregutt says a more contemporary approach is to decant young red wines because they are no longer cellared at the winery.

“Decanting young wines is almost never mandatory, but with truly cellar-worthy, high-quality young wines — both white and red — it does accelerate the process of oxygenation, which in turn can unlock some of the flavors that are in hiding,” he says.

Gregutt was introduced to the value of decanting young white wines during a recent trip to Central California, where he sampled a “very expensive” 2000 chardonnay from Talbott Vineyards.

“Though delicious right out of the bottle,” he said, “it definitely blossomed in the decanter, revealing more layers of flavor and texture. I was quite impressed.”

How long a wine should remain in the decanter depends again on the particular wine, according to Bjornholm.

“For older wines that are pretty much over the hill and don’t have much in the way of sediments, open the bottle and drink it quickly,” he says.

For some middle-age wines, something called “flash decanting” may be best. The day before the wine is to be served, pour it from the bottle into a decanter and then back into the bottle and put the cork back in. The “flash” of new air gets the wine working so it will be ready to serve.

For robust, complex reds like middle-aged Bordeaux or expensive Washington and California cabernets and syrahs ready to drink with comparatively few years in the bottle, it might take more than a day to coax out their full flavors and aromas.

“You have to know the producer, where it was made, where the wine is in its age,” he said. “You have to know your wines.”

And if you aren’t a connoisseur, ask one. “I recommend people call ahead of time if they know they’re going to want a big wine,” Bjornholm says. “I really want them to enjoy it with their dinner.”

He says more than once he’s had the following words pass through his mind when customers waited until they were seated to order an expensive wine that would benefit from decanting: “This is really going to be great on Monday — and this is Friday.”