THE FRUGAL OENOPHILE
Wine Appreciation through Education
email newsletter: july-august 2005



The Great Decanting Debate

There's a wonderful scene in an episode of "New World Wine Tour" where host Jonathan Welsh asks Robert Mondavi about decanting. Mondavi answers matter-of-factly: "Always decant red wines."

Margrit Mondavi abruptly counters with, "YOU always decant red wines." The next few exchanges suggest that the couple was used to discussing the issue and had reached an uneasy truce.

So if California's first family of wine can't agree on decanting, what are the rest of us to make of it?

I have yet to see any sort of useful research on decanting. Mostly we hear a lot of half-true platitudes that may or may not apply … depending. Ever the sceptic, I decided the only way to approach the issue was to do it myself. So I convinced my chapter of the Amateur Winemakers of Ontario to be guinea pigs for a tasting of the same wine six times, each bottle decanted for a different length of time. I'll get to the results in a minute.

My rather crusty philosophy (pun intended) is that there are a limited number of reasons given for decanting:

1. The wine is old and has thrown a crust of sediment. Careful decanting allows you to drain the wine off the sediment and into a clean decanter;
2. The wine is perhaps a bit too young, and decanting may soften it and make it more drinkable;
3. Your decanter is extremely cool extremely expensive;
4. The person who gave it to you is coming over;
5. The wine came from a "bag-in-box" or tetra-pak and you want to appear a bit more sophisticated.

There main reason people decant is that they feel it opens the wine up and rounds out the palate, and this is the one that I'm not sure about (although I'm not entirely convinced that reason #2 is necessarily valid).

OK, that's a bit simplistic, but it essentially sums it up. The other thing to remember is that, except for ridding a wine of sediment, the main rationale for decanting is to aerate the wine. But the results can be unpredictable. For example, very old wines have been known to fade distressingly fast with even a modest amount of air.

Less is Less
There are several ways of getting air into wine. Many people believe that pulling the cork and allowing the bottle to "breathe" is essential. Truth be told, pulling the cork exposes a surface area smaller than a dime to a tiny amount of motionless air. The net result is near zero. (It's alarming how many people in the culinary business believe this to be true.)

Splashing About
A very effective way to add air is to pour the wine vigorously into a decanter. This can be as simple as up-ending the bottle into the decanter and letting the wine splash its way in. Or you can pour the wine down the side of the decanter as if it were beer.

Shooting the Tube
A more scientific method that accomplishes a controlled amount of "splashing" is the wine funnel. These come in a lot of different styles, but the basic models either direct the wine to the side of the decanter or send it out of several jets. Funnels range in price from about $10 to as much as a couple of hundred. They all claim to do a superior job of aeration. Some even have supporting documentation. I won't comment further since, as the "frugal" oenophile, I'm loath to spend money on an essentially unproven technology.

Back and Forth; Forth and Back (see the "Oenophile Trivia Challenge", below)
Some people believe that only aggressive aeration can adequately open up a troublesome wine. They have no qualms about decanting a wine and then pouring it back and forth -- as often as a dozen passes -- between two decanters. This introduces a huge amount of air into the wine in a matter of seconds. Keep in mind, though, that such an aggressive approach is completely wrong for a delicate wine. Big jammy wines that need a bit of loosening up might survive, but that barolo you've been nursing in the cellar for 15-20 years will surely die.

The Criteria
To end up with a meaningful result, and to examine the effects only of decanting and aeration, I needed to reduce the overall number of variables. I wanted a wine that was drinkable enough today but that might benefit from decanting and aerating. It also had to be relatively consistent from bottle to bottle.

I chose Concha y Toro Castilla del Diablo Cabernet Sauvignon 2002. Cabernet is one of those long-lived wines that has a significant level of tannins. Such a wine might benefit from a bit of air. The wine had to be relatively young, in this case, a three-year-old that had a few years ahead of it. The wine also had to be produced in a large enough quantity that there would be a minimum of bottle or batch variation. A bonus is that all the bottles I used were from the same case. When I previewed this wine about a month earlier, I decided that it would be an ideal candidate for the test.

I began by rounding up a half dozen 1-litre carafes, the kind you find in a so-so restaurant. All the decanters were identical. Using the splash technique, I decanted sample #6 a full 24 hours ahead of the tasting. Wine #5 was decanted just after breakfast that morning, for a resting period of 12 hours. I decanted other samples at 4 hours, 2 hours and 1 hour prior to serving. The last bottle I decanted with minimal splashing just minutes before serving. All the samples were kept in the same room, which I managed to keep at a civilized temperature despite a snap heat wave.

We began our tasting shortly after 8:00 pm with the newly decanted wine. I served the remaining wines at 15-minute intervals. I had the group taste each wine as served without discussion. I then fostered discussion before serving the next wine. This method provides the dual benefit of undisturbed tasting plus group sharing. (I find that in a relaxed atmosphere people are mostly unaffected by suggestion and feel free to disagree with other tasters.)

Excuse me!
I admit that I had envisioned a specific result: that the decanted wines would generally lack pizzazz and that the undecanted wine would emerge as the victor. Not only was my assumption wrong, I was totally unprepared for what transpired.

Throughout the tasting, people kept saying that that they couldn't believe they were tasting the same wine. Clearly, decanting and aeration have a substantial effect. There was no clear-cut winner, though. One taster liked the undecanted wine (that was me!) and one taster liked the wine that had sat out for 24 hours. Nobody liked the wine that was aerated for one hour. And the remaining samples were fairly evenly distributed, although there was a slight skew toward the two-hour aeration period.

My own perceptions may have been clouded by my admitted prejudice and the fact that I knew which sample was which. I like fresh wines with lots of nose. Only the undecanted wine could be characterized this way. I was also very surprised by the reaction of the tannins. Folk wisdom says that aeration softens the tannins, yet in all of the aerated wines the tannins seemed harsher than in the unmanipulated wine, and the panel agreed.

In general, I found that the longer the wine had sat out, the more reserved (i.e. "dead") the nose. Here, too, the panel mostly agreed and their tasting notes supported this.

Confusing Conclusion
So what do we make of all this? First, decanting is not a fool-proof solution to anything except the elimination of sediment. Also, aeration appears to negatively affect the nose of the wine, making the wine dumb. Aeration will not necessarily soften tannins or make the wine rounder either. Although a two-hour rest may appeal to some people, no aeration period seems to be ideal; anything from 0 to 24 hours appears to pass muster.

This experiment involved one wine, from one maker, from one region, from one vintage, decanted according to one person's idea of how it should be done. At every turn I tried to eliminate variables, and yet the results were far from conclusive. My tasters managed to come up with a definitive answer. After a brief discussion (while I was out of the room), they decided: There is no answer. Not what I was hoping for.

So it would seem that decanting is not a given. There are no clear-cut reasons for doing it, but apparently no real reason not to. I will continue to use my decanter for cut flowers, as I've proven to myself that I don't like what decanting does to wine, unless I hit some sediment, of course.

A Note on Pronunciation

Aerate is pronounced AIR-ate
Aeration is pronounced air-AY-shun
There is no word that is pronounced "air-ee-ay-sun".

The Oenophile Trivia Challenge

The phrase "Back and Forth; Forth and Back" comes from a TV show that was one of my favourites years ago. The first person to identify the show and the context of the quote will win a copy of my Wine Lexicon (if you already have a copy, I'll substitute my new laminated Wine & Cheese Matching Chart). Here's your opportunity to show not only how clever, but how old you are, and how eclectic your tastes might be!

Yes, I have the answer!

Loony Booze

People in Prince Edward Island certainly know how to have a good time. And, as always, the government liquor "police" had to step in and spoil the fun.

It seems there was a bit of a price war going on among local bars in a pitch to attract more customers. At the tail end of this contest, drinks were going for as little as $1 apiece! Knowing a good thing when they see it, patrons lapped up as much as they could. And the bars had no qualms about dishing it out.

The lunacy finally came to an end when the P.E.I. Liquor Control Commission established minimum prices for bars -- $2.85 for beer and $2.35 for a shot of liquor. However, there was no mention of whether wine drinkers (or servers) were involved.


Department of Hyperbole

I was amused this week to see a sign outside my local Wine Rack store which read "Sawmill Creek Bin End Sale." Bin end usually means the last few bottles or cases of the lot. For a wine that arrives in Canada by the boatload, "bin end" sounds a bit far fetched. Then again, "Tanker End Sale" doesn't sound quite as dignified.


Fun and Games

Always longed to own a vineyard? Here's your chance to give it a no-risk trial run. McCerty and Co., a consulting company based in Stockton, California, provides management support for farmers and grape growers. They also provide an online grape growing game that will give you some idea of how you might fair as a vineyard owner. Not terribly complex but lots of fun. Give it a try it at McCerty Vineyard Challenge.



From "The Frugal Oenophile's Lexicon of Wine Tasting Terms"

Ullage

The space in a bottle between the top of the wine and the bottom of the cork. Size of the ullage can be an indicator of an older wine's condition. (Also the space at the top of an ageing barrel)

You can now buy this and other items at my Online Store

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Little-known Grape Making a Name for Itself

I heard a story about a red wine from Ontario that was awarded a Gold Medal in a prestigious European competition. However, when the judges found out that the wine was made from a hybrid grape (see below)rather than a noble vinifera, they demoted it to a Silver. It seems to me that if you manage to beat all comers and do it with some sort of handicap (i.e. using an "inferior" grape) then you really ought to get bonus marks. I think that the wine should have received a Double Gold for blowing away all the high-powered cabernets and cabernet blends.

Hybrid grapes served a very important role when Phylloxera devastated European vineyards. But once the vineyards were restored using vinifera grapes growing on North American or hybrid root systems, the hybrids were all but banned from Europe. Now some of the hybrids are enjoying a bit of a comeback in regions where vinifera grapes are less likely to survive.

One hybrid grape that has received little attention is Chambourcin (sham-boor-san). Considered in some circles to be the finest of the red hybrid grapes, Chambourcin's aetiology is unknown. It may have originated in the Rhone region, whence it migrated to the Loire. The grape made its first appearance in 1963, introduced by its creator Joannes Seyve, who unfortunately died without leaving any notes on the grape. Some speculate that its parents may be as many as eight different North American species plus any of the Seyve hybrid grapes.

Chambourcin is quite cold hardy and disease resistant, and will comfortably produce huge volumes of grapes -- up to 7 tons/acre. This makes it popular with commercial growers, but winemakers who prefer a richer raw material will lower the yield to 3 tons/acre or so.

Although a stranger in its own land, Chambourcin has found good homes in cooler regions. It is widespread in the Eastern and mid-Atlantic states in the US, as well as Niagara. For the intrepid newcomers in Eastern Ontario - Prince Edward County - the grape seems ideal. There are also a few plantings in Australia, to good effect. And there are still a few acres to be found in the Loire.

Chambourcin is a wine of many personalities. It has been used for every manner of table wine as well as sparkling wines (in Australia), port-style wines and even icewines. Table wines can range from a fruity, beaujolais style to full-bodied, oakey monsters. The wines have been compared to merlot, shiraz, chianti, and even beaujolais nouveau (at least one US winery produces a "chambourcin nouveau"). The wines show spicy, slightly herbaceous aromas, currant and blackberry flavours -- with deep colour and firm tannins -- and can integrate nicely with either French or American oak.

At the table, Chambourcin is equally flexible. Try it with veal, pasta, roast beef, BBQ, and all manner of cheeses. Served with a slight chill, lighter versions can be an ideal match for pork tenderloin.

 Hybrid, French/North American

A grape variety that is the product of crossing European vinifera vines with North American vines. Tend to be winter-hardy and resistant to disease and phylloxera, usually without a foxy taste or aroma. Have unfortunately fallen into disfavour in some circles (e.g. Maréchal Foch, Baco Noir, Vidal, Seyval Blanc) ...back

Inspirational Quote

When it comes to wine, I tell people to throw away the vintage charts and invest in a corkscrew. The best way to learn about wine is the drinking - Alexis Lichine


All material is Copyright 2005 by The Frugal Oenophile.
Reproduction by any means must be accompanied by proper attribution.