To Decant Or Not

That is the question. I have a number of decanters around the house. I use them when I have a wine that needs to be removed from a sediment in the bottle. But I never decant a wine hours before serving it to let it “breathe” and I don’t own one of those thingamajiggys that aerates the wine as you pour through it. One, I don’t buy wines that some think need such treatment to taste “better.” Two, I value the more gradual change in a bottle of wine as it opens up in the glass over the couple of hours it takes us to drink it.

For me the second point calls into question the validity of the premise implied in the first–that aeration actually improves wine. It may change them, but does it really improve them?

This morning Joe Roberts (1 Wine Dude) tweeted about this article in Bloomberg Businessweek where Nathan Myhrvold discusses “How to Decant Wine with a Blender.” Joe’s comment about hyperdecanting: “I know a lot of wine geeks that actually do this.”

My first thought was “really? why?” Is this just another example of our “more is gooder” cultural imperative? Or is it wine geeks feeling the need to insert themselves in to the winemaking process?–“hey look I made it better!” My second thought was “whatever, you bought it, it’s your wine–you can mix your ’82 Margaux with Tab and serve it over ice if that’s what floats your boat. It’s not like you’re shooting paintballs at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.”

But careful reading of Myhrvold’s article reveals an interesting nuance. Early on he states that hyperdecanting in a blender “…almost invariably improves red wines—particularly younger ones…” This is a subjective evaluation, and I believe if you put ten people in a room to taste a blended ’82 Margaux next to a bottle decanted just to remove sediment, you’d get some lively argument about which wine was “better.” (Especially if I was there.)

Then comes something interesting: Myhrvold talks about using a triangle test to remove bias. With at least 10 judges, and multiple presentations. It’s not surprising that the former CTO of Microsoft understands the value and utility of the triangle test as a research tool. It would be astonishing, though, if consumers and professional wine evaluators actually started to use the method to eliminate bias in tasting.

From my perspective the best part of the article is when Myhrvold walks back his assertion that hyperdecanting “improves” the wine, when he says that “…hyperdecanting does clearly change the flavor of the wine.” Note: changes, not improves. He follows up with “To determine with scientific rigor whether your tasters prefer the hyperdecanted wine requires a more complex trial called a ‘paired preference’ test, or ‘square’ test.”

Absolutely. And I can tell you from experience that the results of this sort of evaluation are often something like “60 percent of the tasters prefer wine X at the 90% confidence level.” In other words, on average 6 out of 10 tasters (not necessarily the same group of six in each trial) prefer wine X about 9 out of 10 times.

Does this mean wine X is “better”? No. It still means that a group of tasters express a subjective preference for wine X. If 10 out of 10 tasters prefer wine X at the 99% confidence level, perhaps then we would be justified in concluding that wine X really is better.

22 thoughts on “To Decant Or Not

  1. SUAMW

    I was always of the impression that the point of decanting was to get the wine off the sediment and get it a little O2…

    I know a few winemakers who will vigorously shake their wines (especially young ones) after opening them for a tasting. This is intended to aerate and open up the wine.

    Nor sure I’d do it with an aged wine – blender or otherwise.

  2. Thomas Pellechia

    So, John: now you are channeling me…

    But of course, you jest. I know that you know that when someone likes something that means it is automatically better than what someone else likes.

    Haven’t you learned nuthin’ in this world???

    I’m going to try that triangle thing as soon as I can find two willing women…oh, not THAT triangle.

  3. Peter O'Connor

    Although I agree with you that decanting serves mostly for removing sediment, it also makes sense for wines high in malic acid (e.g., Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rioja, etc.), since longer aeration smoothes out that characteristic harsh taste.
    On the other hand, regardless of whether it improves red wines or not, I believe decanting allow for a more transparent tasting process and a deeper understanding of the wine’s innate character, by unveiling most minor flaws and substandard winemaking practices.

    1. John M. Kelly Post author

      Peter – most red wines have no malic acid, as they have been through malolactic fermentation – so I’m not sure to what you are referring.

      Also, decanting/aeration decreases reductive notes – these days arguably the most prevalent minor flaw in wines that don’t get full attention from winemakers. I have not noticed that decanting markedly increases the perceptibility of other winemaking flaws, such as V.A.

      What I have seen is that decanting will kill an aged wine that otherwise would have shown an elegant and dignified slow demise in the glass. And far from revealing a young wine’s innate character I would argue that hyperdecanting is an entirely artificial process that introduces a new variable in the equation of understanding the nature of a particular wine.

      But sure as Michael Bay is going to make another “Transformers” it’s just a matter of time before the sommelier is going to approach the table that just ordered a young first growth and ask: “Would the gentleman care for me to bring the blender?”

  4. Thomas Pellechia

    “…high in malic acid (e.g., Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rioja, etc.),…”


    Even if true, I doubt that smoothing out the perception of acidity in wine that is aged in bottles over a long period of time is due solely to exposure to oxygen. On this subject, however, the answer remains elusive, and I don’t believe that decanting replicates fully what happens in the bottle.

    1. John M. Kelly Post author

      “…I don’t believe that decanting replicates fully what happens in the bottle.”
      Precisely. Hence my comment about the new (and to my thinking, unnecessary and undesirable) variable being introduced into the equation

  5. Peter O'Connor

    Most Beaujolais and old-school (red) Riojas do not undergo MLF.
    Well, perhaps I should have written “red wines made with grapes high in malic acid”, but anyway, lactic bacteria (wild and commercial) are 100% efficient only when right conditions are met.
    Among mid-to-low end Bordeaux and Burgundy producers perfect conditions are rarely met (low spring temperatures; early separation of the wine from its lees; not enough micro-nutrients in the must; low PH; too much SO2; deliberate suppression to retain acidity in warmer years…), as a result conversion from malic to lactic acid is seldom complete.
    I guess you haven’t been drinking a lot of (reasonably priced) Bordeaux and Burgundy lately…
    Try the colder vintages (2007/2008) and tell what you think.

    1. John M. Kelly Post author

      Peter: Thanks for the clarification.

      There are a few reds that are not allowed to go through malo. But of those that are, I don’t recall ever doing an analysis where I found the residual malic to comprise more than 10% of the total acidity. My inclination is to question whether 0.6 g/L malic in a wine with total acidity of 6.0 g/L would be noticeable, but I don’t know. You have inspired me to do a comparative acid addition on one of my finished wines (residual malic ranging from undetectable to 0.10 g/L): plus malic, plus lactic, and plus tartaric at the same levels. Maybe after harvest 😉

      I can’t say I’ve ever felt the need to decant a Beaujolais, noveau or otherwise, with the exception of Morgon from Lapierre–which usually has a sediment. I’ve also never decanted an old-school Rioja (except for sediment) as the wines are almost always 5 or more years old when released. You mean they are not supposed to taste like that?

  6. Peter O'Connor

    Rioja’s producers always had the (IMO, flawed) perception that their climate is warm, and have been trying to emulate the Bordeaux’s taste profile (high acidity, low density, moderate alcohol) since the phylloxera epidemic in the late 19th century.
    Rioja’s climate is quite cool; even Arnedo and Calahorra in the (supposedly hot) Rioja Baja are both in the Region II of the Winkler’s Scale (with 2900 and 2950 heat units, respectively), only slightly warmer than Bordeaux: but with colder nights, a shorter growing season and a marginally higher level of solar radiation.
    Since under normal conditions, these facts seem to guarantee an adequate tartaric to malic ratio, it doesn’t make sense, to me, to suppress the MLF with grapes like that. Most of these wines at first taste hard with a sharp tartness and IMO need some aeration to smooth the edges. Don’t you think so?

    1. John M. Kelly Post author

      Call me a classicist but I have always been content with Rioja as Rioja. As I said, I have never decanted one to aerate it or let it breathe. I have no use whatsoever for the modern-style coming out of Rioja, with riper fruit profiles, softer tannins and lots of new French oak. Ugh. So for me, the answer is “no.”

  7. Dennis Tsiorbas

    John, you wrote some things I’ll take with me:
    “I value the more gradual change in a bottle of wine as it opens up in the glass over the couple of hours it takes us to drink it. . . What I have seen is that decanting will kill an aged wine that otherwise would have shown an elegant and dignified slow demise in the glass.” I say this, because I heard a wine distributor say: “Always decant a Red wine.”
    And, something you said elsewhere: “I may be engaging in optimistic idealism here, but I believe that a farmer can define a brand by providing quality products, personal relationships and excellent service to just a few clients without ever increasing the acreage farmed. That farmer is not competing with Sysco, much less Cargill or ADM. Same with a small wine brand.”

    I have nothing against Gallo, or Concha Y Toro, or what other Giant sells wines, but if I lived next to smaller wineries, “I’d walk a mile for a Cigar-box and just sit with that East Bench overlooking the Ridge Estate, or maybe Chateau Montelena.
    Thanks for the good writing and the informative venue.

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