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Monday, August 15, 2011

The SF Weekly Guide to Decanting Wine

Posted By on Mon, Aug 15, 2011 at 11:40 AM

Surely you can find something to do while the wine breathes
  • Surely you can find something to do while the wine breathes

A former Microsoft technology guy, Nathan Myhrvold, is all over the Internet this week with a video showing that he believes the best way to decant wine is to use a blender.

"Decanting is about doing two things," Myhrvold told Bloomberg. "It's about mixing oxygen in with the wine and about taking dissolved gasses out of the wine. So, if a little bit of decanting works, why not a lot?"

It's typical of the thinking of Myhrvold, who was Microsoft's chief strategist and chief technology officer. Why use something simple, beautiful, and low-impact when you can employ an overly complex piece of machinery?

This decanting technique reminds us of Microsoft Word, which we avoid whenever we can (and we're professional writers, remember). Hopefully he won't succeed in shoving it down our throats like Microsoft has done with Office.

Sure, you can decant wine in a blender. You can decant wine in any open-air vessel: a swimming pool, a colostomy bag, the basement at the Asian Art Museum.

The question isn't can you, but should you? So we thought we'd help our readers with a quick guide to wine decanting.

1. Why decant a wine?

You pour wine into a decanter for the same reason you swirl it before drinking: to allow it to interact with air. But the reason, chemically, is surprising. Decanting a wine allows sulfur compounds that build up in the wine to break down. You're not trying to add positive aromas so much as to subtract negative ones.

2. What wines should be decanted?

It's more important to decant younger wines than older ones. This is backward from the traditional image. But they're decanted for different reasons: Older wines develop sediment at the bottom, and most of us don't like getting sediment in our teeth. Fair enough, but younger wines are more likely to need the aeration to shine, whereas very old wines sometimes only maintain their charm for a few minutes after exposure to air. I don't usually decant very old wines for this reason.

White wines need decanting just as much as red wines do. If you're drinking a wine -- any wine -- and you don't love the aroma, try decanting.

3. Does the price of the wine matter?

No, but the closure does. Wines with screwcaps are more likely to need decanting than wines with corks. Screwcaps are a good thing -- we're big fans for a lot of reasons we won't get into here -- but be aware that whether your screwcapped wine costs $6 or $60, you really should decant it.

4. What should you decant into?

It's true: Any vessel can be a decanter. But let's be practical: You want a very clean glass vessel. You don't need a fancy $500 hand-blown decanter. A big used jar like one in which you make iced tea will do, as long as it's clean and doesn't smell like soap. I never clean my decanters (I do use real ones, sorry) with soap.

So why not a blender? I'm not confident that, at home, I can get a blender completely clean, especially without soap. A commercial kitchen like the one Myhrvold used can do it, so sure, why not?

Would I hit the rotor blades like he did? No, for the same reason I don't stir my wine with a fork. It's overkill. Does it actually hurt the wine? We'd have to do some serious control group sensory analysis -- which he hasn't apparently done yet -- to find out. But it's just so Microsoft. Why use your hands to swirl, when you can plug it in and blend the shit out of it?

5. How long should you decant?

Even five minutes helps. Very tannic red wines often need an hour or two. Again, this is counter to what you may have thought, but if you have a young Napa Cabernet -- not a very old Bordeaux -- that's the wine you should open and decant a couple hours before your meal.

Some wines like old Madeira continue to improve after being decanted for more than a day, but for the great majority of wines, the optimum decanting time is somewhere between five minutes and a couple of hours.

6. Should you ask for your wine to be decanted in a restaurant?

Yes. I do it all the time, yet I should probably do it more often. Whenever the wine doesn't seem like it's aromatically at its best, I ask for a decanter.

7. So is Myhrvold on to something?

I guess we should just be glad he's wasting his time on this rather than coming up with more ways to make MS Word bigger and harder to use.

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W. Blake Gray


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