Retailers and wine snobs may go on about giving your red wines air before you serve them, to tame their tannins and bring out their inherent complexity. Yet with most bottles, there's more to lose than to gain. With white wines, I invariably just uncork and pour. (Of course, I don't serve whites straight from the refrigerator because the extreme chill would mask their texture and aromatic complexity.) And in the case of lighter, more delicate reds, I wouldn't decant for fear of letting their fresh aromas dissipate before I had the chance to enjoy them.
Sturdier, more tannic young wines like claret, Barolo and Barbaresco, and syrahs from the northern Rhone Valley are another matter. If you insist on committing infanticide, young wines will benefit from time in a pristine (odor- and soap-free) carafe, but keep in mind that your wine glass also functions as a decanter, and even brutish reds can soften noticeably in the time it takes you to down a bottle.
I like to err on the side of underdecanting. If I'm enjoying a bottle over a leisurely dinner, I like to watch the wine evolve in the glass and bottle over the course of an hour or more rather than miss those first aromas.
Generally speaking, the older the wine, the less breathing time it needs; rather than benefit from aeration, a venerable bottle may simply hyperventilate and drop dead. I've had generations-old Bordeaux that were ineffably complex on first pour only to expire in the glass within minutes. But even with young reds and most whites, too much aeration can cause the wine to lose its exhilarating high notes and vibrancy even as it gains in texture and breadth. That's a tradeoff I'm rarely willing to make.
Under normal circumstances, I reach for the decanter only if there is sediment in the bottle and it's necessary to separate the clear juice from the muck at the bottom. (Most serious, tannic red wines will throw a deposit as they approach maturity.) To decant a wine with sediment, stand the bottle up for at least a couple of hours first--the longer the better--then carefully pour it into the carafe in one continuous motion, stopping when you see the first sign of solid material passing through the neck of the bottle.
Then too, if a young wine displays what members of the wine business term "bottle stink" (you'd smell funny too if you were trapped in a closed container), give the wine a stiff dose of oxygen by decanting it, to encourage those untoward aromas to disperse. A double-decanting is often helpful here: pour the wine into a decanter, rinse out the bottle with clean cold water, return the wine to the bottle using a funnel, then back into the decanter again. Rather than risk setting my eyebrows on fire by pouring off the wine over a candle, I slide a Mini Maglite flashlight into the neck of a 375-ml. bottle saved for this purpose and decant over its penetrating beam. A vigorous double-decanting is also advised if you're bothered by a spritz of carbon dioxide when you first taste a bottle.
Here are some wines that don't need decanting, although all of them should gain in complexity as they open in your glass and none of them is in danger of running out of gas anytime soon.
Pale straw. Intense, mineral-accented aromas of grapefruit, lime pith, ginger and quinine, along with a fresh floral quality. Taut and nervy, with bright citrus zest flavors complemented by intense mineral and floral notes and building spiciness. The citrus and mineral notes repeat on the racy, persistent finish. (JR)
Glass-staining purple. Lively, faintly medicinal aromas of cherry, blueberry and licorice, plus hints of smoky herbs and flowers. Juicy and expansive, offering sweet, deeply pitched bitter cherry and dark berry flavors supported by a taut spine of acidity and fine-grained tannins. Finishes with powerful spicy thrust and suggestions of candied flowers and woodsmoke. This could pass for a northern Rhone wine, and a really good one at that. (JR)
(done entirely in stainless steel; bottled in June of 2011): Good full, deep ruby-red. Bitter cherry, crushed black fruits, leather and flowers on the perfumed nose; conveys an outstanding impression of noble rusticity. Juicy, very fresh and pure, with outstanding density to its dark berry and licorice flavors. Wonderfully sappy, energetic barbera with a rich, long, almost saline finish featuring firm tannins for the variety. This very strong barbera invites you to eat and drink. (ST)
(includes 6% carmenere and 1% petit verdot): Inky-purple. High-pitched aromas of black raspberry and cherry are complicated by notes of sandalwood and cola. Deeply concentrated but light on its feet, offering sweet red and dark berry flavors and good tangy acidity. Repeats the red fruit note on a long, sappy, smooth finish. This wine is built to age but offers a lot of sex appeal now. (JR)
Region: South Africa
(aged in 40% new French oak; from 38-year-old bush vines): Full yellow-gold color. Wild aromas of orange blossom, honeysuckle, peppermint and clove oil. Very rich, exotic and spicy, with superb chewy depth of flavor. Already showy and sexy but a bit more time in bottle will bring more complexity and refinement. Finishes with impressive length. This is fermented with wild yeasts and the owners play baroque music in the vines 24 hours a day. (ST)
(the vines here are 60 to 70 years old; done entirely in stainless
steel): Bright ruby. Primary aroma of medicinal black cherry.
Concentrated, rich and sweet, with dark fruit flavors lifted by a floral
element and pungent white soil notes. Smooth, ripe and very long. A
terrific dolcetto. (ST)
(100% monastrell): Deep, bright ruby. Aromas of black raspberry, cola, oak spices and black tea. Musky and penetrating, offering spicy red and dark berry flavors that show a suave blend of richness and vivacity. Fine-grained tannins add grip to the long, smoky finish. (JR)
Light yellow. High-pitched citrus fruits and white flowers on the nose, with hints of anise and juniper. Racy and nicely focused, offering zesty orange pith, green apple and lemongrass flavors along with a strong note of white pepper. Very clean and stony on the persistent finish, leaving behind notes of quince and chalk. (JR)
Moderately saturated medium red with a hint of amber at the rim. Scented, subtle nose offers raspberry, cherry, dried rose and minerals. Complex and refined for Rosso di Montalcino, with a savory complexity and lovely inner-mouth lift to the silky flavors of red plum, spices and tobacco. Finishes with very smooth tannins. It would be nice to find sangiovese like this from California! (ST)
Pale straw-yellow. Fascinating, inviting aromas and flavors of apple, pear and dusty herbs, complicated by a suggestion of redcurrant. Suave on entry, then concentrated and broad in the middle, with atypical palate presence for vernaccia. Round but quite dry, with an extra textural dimension that comes from stirring of the lees in large oak casks. Finishes with excellent youthful grip and sneaky length. This should be very flexible with fish dishes or white meats. (ST)
(a blend of 45% syrah, 30% carignan and 25% grenache): Bright red-ruby. Precise aromas of blueberry, dark plum, violet, medicinal herbs and crushed rock. Juicy, sweet and energetic, with an urgent intensity to the flavors of black fruits and licorice lifted by pepper. At once smooth and light on its feet. Gives a classically dry impression despite its full ripeness and really scrapes the palate clean on the persistent finish. (ST)
Region: South Africa
Bright medium yellow. Crystallized lemon peel, peach, nutmeg, minerals and toasty oak on the lively nose. Then minerally, firm and backward, combining lovely grip and a light touch. Quite bracing for a chardonnay from Thelema, due in part to the cooler vintage. With its fresh acidity and strong underlying minerality, this very persistent chardonnay will be interesting to follow for the next several years. (ST)
Deep ruby. Pungent aromas of black raspberry, smoke, licorice and dried flowers, with a hint of white pepper in the background. Fleshy but focused, featuring spicy dark berry and cherry flavors and a seamless texture. Blends New World fruit expression with Old World restraint and finishes with impressive clarity and lingering sweetness. (JR)
Since 1985, Stephen Tanzer and his team of renowned, widely published regional experts have spent months of every year on the wine trails of the world, having their passports punched and tasting tens of thousands of wines annually, the best of which are reviewed in the independent, critically acclaimed, bimonthly International Wine Cellar (IWC).
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