Wine Know

Decanting Wine 2


One is often told that red wines should be allowed to breathe before they are served. Have you heard that too? Some critics believe that it is a rather pretentious practice, and unless you are a professional wine taster or a true connoisseur (how does one recognise this select breed anyway?!), it is nigh impossible to tell the subtle difference. Should one or shouldn’t one? Why on earth do red wines need to breathe? Does it honestly help? I decided to do a bit of investigating to try and resolve the issue.

The other inseparable component of red wine service is `decanting’. Another hotly debated topic. Incidentally, the first English dictionary defined a `decanter’ as a `glass vessel for pouring off a liquid clear from its lees’. Lees are the deposits thrown by wine during the process of maturation. In the early days when wine making was not such a fine art, most wine came murky with sediment. It was essential that the clear wine be separated from the deposits which called for siphoning it into a glass decanter. The decanter showed the colour and brilliance of the wine to perfection and everybody was happy. With advances in technology, young wines do not have deposits any more. Why then is decanting still recommended? Again, its the `let it breathe’ funda in action.

Exposing the wine purposely to air was a custom established by the British. There seem to be two main benefits. A bottle of wine which has been maturing for a number of years in a cellar tends to build up `bottle stink’ in the small airspace inside. A few minutes of breathing helps to dissipate the stale air and let the wine `open up’, thus enhancing its bouquet. For how long it should breathe or which wines can withstand decanting would depend on the age of the wine. The French are very specific on this subject. A well matured wine represents a wonderful but fragile equilibrium which can be easily destroyed by over exposure to air. So, a few minutes of breathing or decanting gently (it almost inevitably will have sediment) by pouring the wine down the `sides’ of the decanter should prevent unwanted aeration.

A safe practice is – the younger the wine, the longer it can breathe. Similarly with decanting. The newer wines tend to benefit most from aeration. In cooler climes, one could even decant the wine several hours before serving, then stoppering it till it was time. Unfortunately, we can’t do that in Mumbai or for that matter in most tropical countries. It’s much too warm. Delhi in winter would be perfect though. Most of our Indian wines, and indeed all young wines (1-4 years) are best cool, which means a couple of hours in the refrigerator. Should the refrigerator be absolutely odour free, it is safe to open the bottle half an hour earlier and leave it un-stoppered inside. If you are even slightly uncertain, wrap the bottle with a hand towel dipped in cold water while it breathes outside. This will help retain its coolness. If you prefer to present it in a decanter, then transfer the wine around fifteen minutes before service. And you don’t need to pour it in gently.

Now if you have managed to get your hands on some exciting French, Californian or even Australian vintage wine, 4 -5 years old, you’re in for a treat. I’d tell you to try each step one by one. Oh yes, these need to be cooled as well. And you’d be better off drinking them at home rather than in a crowded, noisy, smoke-filled restaurant. Try the first glass immediately after opening, always pouring to fill 1/3 glass. Drink in the aroma and feel it in the mouth. Let it breathe a while in the bottle, keeping it cool with a wet towel, and try and detect the changes in the second glass. The bouquet will be a hint accentuated, the taste a mite softer on the palate. Now pour it into a decanter, letting the wine have an increased contact with the air. Glass three might find itself livelier with a distinctly rounder nose. You may not be able to tell all the subtleties instantly, but if you’re even a quarter as obsessed as I am, you’ll pick up fast enough.

Say you are at a restaurant, the chances are you will be presented a red wine at room temperature. I’m hoping my consistent barraging in the trade journals might change that but that’s sure to take more time. In the mean while, don’t be embarrassed to ask the steward to cool your bottle. And if he gives you a supercilious “don’t you know red wine is drunk at room temperature?” look – sock it to him! I will go as far as to say, mildly cool (10 mins. in a wine bucket to about 18-20 degrees C) even the best wine while it breathes and you’ll be surprised. The aromas of a wine’s bouquet are released according to their volatility and the temperature at which they are served. Served too cold, it will release little, if any bouquet. Served too hot, there is danger of oxidation, destruction or a combining of the highly volatile aromas or a loss of the aromatic elements. Warm red wine, unless drunk as mulled wine, can taste flat and indifferent.

Since we’re on the pointer trail, here’s another handy hint on how to cool a bottle of red wine if you are in a hotel room which cannot provide you with a wine bucket. Wrap it in a wet hand towel and stand it in full blast of the air conditioner. !5 mins should do the trick nicely. At home, even a bottle of white wine can be cooled fast enough if you wrap it in a wet towel and chuck it into the freezer for a similar time.

Why doesn’t the breathing rule apply to the whites? Because most of them do not contain tannin (barrel aged whites being exceptions), thus no great quantity of  intense volatile essences that need to be developed. White wines rely on their inherent freshness to please and that is their endearing quality.

DECANTING: To Remove Grape Deposits

Tools:  corkscrew, decanter/carafe/clean bottle, candle or flashlight, clean, odourfree plastic tube (3 – 4 feet)

The first thing to do is to stand the bottle upright for a day to let the sediment settle. Then opt for one of  two methods.

1) The essential ingredients are a steady hand and clear view of the wine passing through the neck of the bottle. This means shining the candle or flash from under the neck upwards. Pour the wine gently but continuously into the aiting receptacle until you see the formation of an opaque arrow that indicates the sediment. Stop right there.

2) This is simpler. The decanter or carafe is held or stood at a slightly lower level than the bottle. Immerse one end of the tube into the wine and suck at the other end until you can see the wine  3/4th down the tube. Pop it into the waiting decanter and let it flow until the level of the bottle reaches about an inch above the sediment. Pull the tube out of the bottle.

Now that we have dispensed with the technicalities we can return to simple conversation. I’m hoping that all this is the sort of info you guys want on wine. In the weeks to come, we’ll figure out wine regions of the world, their grape varieties, what their labels tell us, choosing the right wine while travelling abroad, ordering a decent one in a restaurant. All very practical of course. And should there be something special you want to know, I’ll be glad to oblige. Should this be boring you to death, I’d like to know that too. Go on then, put pen to paper and let it out. I’m waiting.

PS: Hugh Johnson’s `How To Enjoy Your Wine’ is a good book to have. For the more serious student, try and get your hands on the 1996 edition of The Culinary Institute of America’s book on wine. Terrific.