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Dan Berger On Wine: Un-decanting: when and why does decanting help?

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"Most young wines benefit from aeration." That sentence was in an article I wrote earlier this year here, but I left one thing dangling: I never explained that word “most.”

Dan Berger On Wine: Aeration: How wine changes

Some wines probably shouldn’t be decanted.

An impending tasting of some old Napa Cabernets prompted one participant to suggest that all the wines be decanted. But an industry professional suggested we don’t decant any of them. I agreed. Air can ruin old wines.

It was then that I recalled my failure to explain more about decanting. I didn’t complete my thoughts months ago because of how complicated this subject is.

Which is why so few people have ever investigated it.

Which, I admit, I haven’t done either.

Which is because it’s far too complex a subject to delve into without lots of scientific research, most of which I suspect hasn’t been done, and if it were to be done, surely would lead to even more confusion because there are far too many variables to consider.

Which leave us with no sound solutions.

Which is why I’ll attempt to offer general thoughts on the subject that may or may not be relevant. How’s that for equivocation?!

Young wines that don’t benefit from decanting are those that are made to enjoy young or have already received sufficient oxygen during production, so further air could harm the delicate fruit aromas.

U.S. winemakers usually don’t rely on long in-winery aging. Most prefer wines with fresh fruit that shows well soon after release.

In some countries (such as Spain), longer barrel aging regimes can benefit some red wines, which then might not hit the market until they’re several years old, at which point they are ready to consume. Further aging is pointless.

Such wines have already received so much oxygen that they really can’t sustain much more without deteriorating. I love mature Rioja, but some of the wines that come on the market when they’re 6 or 8 years old have already received sufficient time in barrel and/or bottle. When left open overnight, Riojas often are faded.

Most young reds can sustain some aeration, but there’s a limit to how much any red wine will benefit from oxygen.

There are several elements in the chemical makeup of all wines that contribute to longevity. One is tannin, that astringent compound that’s in all wines (whites too!), which is an antioxidant, though not an efficient one. And it varies from one grape to another.

Petite Sirah, Tannat, Petite Verdot, Nebbiolo (Barolo), and Cabernet all are grapes with some of the most severe tannins. Most such wines get cellar aging before release to tame tannins. Wines made from those grapes usually are still so tannic that drinking them young can be an act of masochism. (There are exceptions…)

In most cases, young versions of these wines are so rough on the palate that consuming them without bottle age is best done after decanting for hours. Sometimes a day or more is better!

In one case, I opened an outrageously astringent 5-year-old Italian wine that was so tannic I recorked it. Two months later I tried it again. It still needed many hours in a decanter to appreciate!

In contrast, Pinot Noir is among the red wines with the lowest tannins. It can make wonderful softer wines when young, although it’s really best 2 to 5 years from the harvest, when it can display charming nuances.

With old reds (like Cabernets from the 1960s and ‘70s), those with perfect storage can be treasures, although wine collectors often engage in strong debates, a few of which have tested friendships. Arguing over how a wine ages? Yes, I’ve seen it.

(At a regular luncheon of wine collectors at a chichi Sunset Boulevard palace de haut cuisine 30 years ago, two vin-savants debated the merits of a 1966 Burgundy that one of them had contributed. I wish I had filmed it.

(“It’s over the hill,” said the adversary.

(“Nah, it just needs more air,” shot back the contributor.

(“More air? Look, this is John Cleese’s parrot, you idiot. It’s deceased.”

(“Still, I love the complexity.”

(“Complexity?! It smells like my left shoe after the Mojave Marathon.”

(The problem? The wine was brought to the restaurant early and decanted far too soon. That was the wrong move. By decanting it 90 minutes before it was served, the contributor had killed its aroma.)

My wife and I experienced a really old red wine in a Madrid restaurant in 1998. The list had a 1971 Baron de Lay Rioja Reserva for $11. The restaurant owner, explaining the low price, said, “Most Spanish people do not like old wines.”

We ordered it. For the first 15 minutes it was glorious. Then within about 12 minutes, the air that had been blocked for decades by the cork did its dirty work. We watched as it turned from brick red, to dark red to brown-red and then to the color of mud. It was then completely undrinkable.

As for wines meant to age: The great trick is to catch them at a peak, when the fruit is still evident and complexity has added nuance. Decanting fragile reds can destroy the delicate balance between fading fruit and maturity.

Knowing when that optimum moment is, for any wine, is complicated. There’s an old saying: “There’s no such thing as great wine, only great bottles.” Corks being unreliable, the amount of oxygen that might creep into a bottle varies.

Several times I’ve had two “identical” bottles where one was in decline, the other fine.

An East Bay wine collector I knew, who had numerous bottles of the great 1945 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, contributed several to various tasting events. At one such event, I was awed by the wine; others in the room agreed that it was great.

But the man who brought it was unimpressed.

“I’ve had this wine at least 15 times and this is the worst bottle I’ve ever tasted,” he said.

So, lots of variables enter the equation.

Decanting older Bordeaux is often a good idea because of how such wines were made a half century ago. Some were so rustic that aeration benefited them. In the case of (the more stable) older California Cabernets, funkiness rarely was a problem, so aerating them now runs the risks of excessive oxidation, which may harm the remaining fruit.

One secret to why well-stored 50-year-old California Cabs often are excellent is that they had moderate alcohols (roughly 12% to 13.5%) and low pH levels (a tart 3.6 or so, rarely higher). And almost none had any sugar. They were designed to age.

Compare this with most of today’s Cabs. Many of the most expensive today are soft, with alcohols close to or over 15%, with pH levels at a high 3.9. These wines aren’t age-worthy and many seem vulnerable to the ravages of oxygen.

A friend and ex-winemaker agreed that the 1970-era reds we plan to enjoy in a few weeks will be best without prior aeration. If they need more air, swirling will be sufficient.

(A report on our forthcoming historic tasting will be published here in early October.)

Wine of the Week: 2021 Protos Verdejo, Rueda ($13) – The aroma of this stylish Spanish white wine is vaguely citrus-y with a faint similarity to a cool-climate Pinot Gris, but with a hint of Granny Smith apples and terrific acidity. Structurally it’s like old-world Muscadet — completely dry, best served with shellfish. Great value!

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes Vintage Experiences, a subscription-only 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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