Two weeks ago, we established why you’d want to decant all sorts of red winesit will make your experience of drinking them much more pleasurable, opening up the flavors and saving you from inadvertently consuming a mouthful of chunky sediment. Now we come to how to decant.
Like most everything else about the decanting issue, it’s pretty easy. If it’s an older wine and you’re decanting it because it might have sediment, you should stand it upright for a day or so if it’s been stored lying on its side. That way, all the debris settles on the bottom, where you want it. When opening the wine, remove the entire foil capsule—you’re going to want to see what’s going on in the neck as you pour—and wipe down the mouth thoroughly.
You’ll need a decanter of course. In truth, a lemonade pitcher will work if that’s all you have. I myself am proud to have decanted a fine wine in a flower vase in one memorable emergency situation (after a thorough cleaning). But ideally you want a beautiful, clear glass receptacle made expressly for holding a fine wine. The best decanters have a wide bottom, to maximize exposure to the air. (Just opening a wine and leaving it in the bottle does nothing, since only the tiny surface at the top gets aerated.) I love Riedel’s decanters (see images at left) for the sensuous shapes, the quality of the material, and the fact that my wineglasses are also Riedel. But many other makers also offer good options. Just choose one you find attractive.
So, you’re ready to pour. The tradition is to hold a lighted candle underneath the neck so that you can see what’s going on with the sediment. This definitely works (so does a flashlight), but I find it unnecessary most of the time. Once you’re tipping the wine out, slow and steady is the rule, as you don’t want to rile up the stuff at the bottom. If you see solids coming out toward the end, stop pouring. You may lose a bit of wine in the process, but think of it this way: It gave its life for a good cause.
There’s no reason to be overly delicate about the whole thing, though: a little sediment won’t kill you. Last weekend I brought a Château Haut-Brion 1985 to dinner at the house of my friends Brendan and Melissa. This is a first-growth Bordeaux of real breeding and class, and a prime candidate for decanting because of its age. (It retails for about $500 a bottle, but thankfully I didn’t actually pay that much.) The wine showed beautifully, reminding us why we drink older wines in the first place—it was developing heavenly flavors of tobacco, leather, and smoke, not to mention Haut-Brion’s signature note, pencil lead. (Yes, pencil lead. It’s better than it might sound.) We ended up with a dusting of purple tannins in the bottom of our glasses, but trust me, no one left anything behind.
Ted Loos, executive editor of Art+Auction magazine, is the former features editor of Wine Spectator and has written on wine for Bon Appétit, Town & Country, and many other publications. He's the author of Town & Country Wine Companion: A Tasting Guide and Journal (Hearst Books; $12.95), published in fall 2007. "In the Cellar" appears on ARTINFO every other Wednesday.