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To Decant or Not to Decant?

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Meanwhile, decanting could be disastrous for what Grahm calls New World wines from "modern, high-tech drip-irrigated vineyards," such as many wines from the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. "Give them a big slug of oxygen, and they keel over and die," he maintains, meaning the wines lose their fruit notes and the flavor goes flat. If this all sounds confusing and contradictory, it is. But take heart, because as Grahm acknowledges in this nugget of wisdom, "How you figure out the precise time to decant in advance is a very imprecise science."

Although red wines are most often the focus of decanting, experts acknowledge that even certain whites can benefit from contact with air—but again, opinions differ on exactly which ones. Chang thinks the whites that act more like reds—those that are "richer, denser, darker, meatier, such as great Chardonnays from Burgundy"—are good candidates. In Robinson's view, a few "boutique-y" whites benefit, such as wines from France's Rhône Valley made of varietals with "a lot of power and intensity"—Marsanne and Roussanne, for example. But these are not, she adds, the white wines "the typical person goes out and picks up on their liquor-store run." Johnnes thinks decanting is good for whites in general because they're often served too cold, and decanting helps them to warm up faster. As for Grahm, he likes to decant mineral-rich whites, and shares Johnnes' preference for whites that aren't too cold.

While the authorities we spoke to all agree that decanting can be beneficial to some wines, "hyper-aeration"—the process of whirling wines in a blender championed by Modernist Cuisine author Nathan Myhrvold—was resoundingly nixed. "Brutal," declared Grahm. "Overly harsh," responded Robinson.

So, do you need to invest in a real decanter? Chang considers them her "secret little wine weapon"—one shelf of her bookcase at home is full of decanters—because they make drinking even a simple wine a luxurious experience. She advises friends to buy inexpensive glass pitchers to elevate their wines for a party—both for the show of decanting and to allow the wines to open up. Johnnes agrees that any pitcher will do—even a flower vase, as long as it's clean. But "if you're serving a nice wine, it's a good idea to have nice glasses and a real decanter; it's just part of the ceremony and appreciation of a fine wine." Even better, says Silirie, "is to have candlelight reflecting and refracting into the decanter on the table," to add atmosphere.

Most experts we consulted said with a chuckle that they rarely have leftovers, but if you do, they recommend keeping the original bottle and pouring the decanted wine back in, then sealing it with a vacuum pump and stopper, if you have one, or the cork. Another idea is to save and clean half bottles to store leftovers, so that there's already less air space. And refrigerate those leftovers, no matter the size of the bottle or the type of wine it holds (even reds will warm to a good serving temperature in the glass).

Does decanting do anything for inexpensive, everyday wines? "I wouldn't decant jug wine," says Johnnes. "I'd fill it with ice cubes to kill the flavor." Yet Robinson thinks everyday wines are ideal for people to experiment with and sample after decanting them and letting them sit out for different lengths of time. And Chang loves to decant inexpensive wines. "After being a sommelier for 15 years, I've tasted everything from an $8 bottle of Cabernet all the way up to one that's priceless, and I think it's possible to take an $8 bottle of Cabernet and make it taste like a $50 bottle."

On reflection, decanting must explain how, many years ago, my in-laws were able to pass off Gallo Hearty Burgundy to a wine snob they had invited for dinner, who commented repeatedly during the evening about how marvelous the wine was. According to family lore, my in-laws struggled to keep from laughing, because for them, the decanter was their secret weapon to disguise the fact that they refused to spend a lot of money on wine. How fortuitous that by decanting the wine to hide the telltale bottle and label, they no doubt had improved upon its flavor.

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