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Dan Berger

One of the myths of fine wine is that after you open a bottle, you have only a few hours to enjoy it. Decades ago, this was true.

No longer. Making wine today has become so sophisticated that spoilage elements once common pose little problem today. Equipment is better and wines are more stable than ever.

Also, cleaner and more stable wines live longer than ever — if a few precautions are taken.

Here are some of the issues:

  • Fact? Decanting is recommended for all young red and white wines to allow them to “open up:”

In general, this is mostly true.

Oxygen is the enemy of table wines. Too much of it will soon ruin a wine’s aroma and taste, especially with delicate wines. Protect most wines from excessive air contact.

But with so many wines being released so early, most whites and reds are a bit backward. An hour of aeration in a decanter helps rid many wines of unwanted aromas.

Usually, just an hour in a decanter will help younger wines smell and taste more like what the winemaker intended.

  • Fact? Wines aged in barrels should be decanted because sediment can form in barrels.

I heard this bit of folk wisdom from a “wine educator” 40 years ago. It’s no longer true, if it ever was.

Chardonnays and other dry whites often are aged for months in small oak barrels. Wines that stay only in steel vats are usually fresher and have less exposure to oxygen, so can handle more air without noticeable oxidation.

However, sediment is almost never an issue today. Filtration systems are far more delicate now, so whites are better. (Old red wines will often have some harmless sediment.)

  • Fact? Decanting all older red wines helps open their aromas.

This once was considered standard operating procedure for older reds, and decanting is routinely practiced by many wine lovers over the decades. But the main reason to decant an older red is more related to getting it off any sediment.

  • Fact? Routinely decanting older red wines could be a disaster if you don’t know what you’re doing.

True. I have experienced more than one such calamity over the decades.

About 30 years ago, at the request of the host of a dinner party that he was hosting, I brought a 1969 French Burgundy to go with cheeses after dinner. What I didn’t know was that someone opened the wine and decanted it immediately after I arrived.

Hours later, it came out, but by then oxidation had overtaken the fruit. It was undrinkable.

One tactic when opening older red wines is to pour a tiny splash for the person who provided it. Let him or her decide if decanting is warranted. Sometimes it’s the worst thing you can do to an older wine.

If it’s hard to determine whether decanting is a tactic to pursue, often you simply have to guess. Knowing the wine and/or the producer usually helps.

We have good friends who decant almost all older Barolos from top producers. Wineries like Vietti, Marcarini, Prunotto, Aldo Conterno, Sandrone, and Ratti usually turn out wines that at age 30 to 40 deliver the goods in ways that decanting best reveals.

We’ve never had a problem with this tactic.

But decanting can only do so much. With entry-level Barolos from unknown producers, no amount of aging or decanting will help turn mediocrity into greatness. Nothing speaks louder than grapes of a great vineyard.

— Fact? Red wines from cold-climate vineyards can be tasty for many days after they’re opened; some even improve.

Very often, this is true. Wines with higher acids are more likely to have longer lives than softer wines.

— Fact? The best way to extend the life of an already-opened red wine is to refrigerate it until you’re next ready to have some of it.

True. Most young reds are fine for up to a week if refrigerated.

Discovery of the Week: 2013 Fontanabianca Barbera d’Alba ($26): Decanting this terrific red wine helps to display aspects of its aroma that are invisible seconds after the cork is pulled. Fresh plums and dark cherries are in the first whiff, but after a bit of air, the aroma becomes more complex hour later. Wonderfully balanced. Perfect with tomato-based pastas. Very good value. Available from Chigazola Merchants (chigazolamerchants.com/products/2013-fontanabianca-barbera-dalba-doc).

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Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a subscription-only weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com. He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.

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