In early 1985, I began to offer the first in a series of Advanced wine courses. These were meant to cover in detail the wines and vineyards of a given, classic area. One of the first was a course on Burgundy, a personal fave. We focused on every sub-region dealing with producers, terroirs, traditions, histories, vitivinicultural practices, etc. For the 4 out of the 5 weeks we dealt with what vintages were on the shelves at the time. For the 5th session we had a series of blind tastings of older wines to show the students what age brought to these incredible red – and white – wines.
While normally only serving bread and water with these wines, per the professional vein, what I offered the students for the 5th session was an option to stay after class and pair special wines with foods. So anyone who wanted to do this brought potluck food which we all ate with a wine that everyone was to bring blind to enjoy. “Blind” just means each student brought a wine in a brown paper bag (ironic, I know) and everyone else was supposed to taste it and guess. It was the first of many successful Advanced courses.
One very affluent student raided his father’s cellar for the occasion. He brought a great red Burgundy, possibly one of the greatest devotées of Burgundy can imagine: an older, fine vintage Romanée-Conti. He arrived shortly before the class with the greatest of proud smiles and presented me with the bottle to hold for the tasting. My mind leapt to the obvious conclusion: he had taken the bottle from his dad’s collection (never heard about those repercussions), put it in the back seat of his car upon leaving work for the morning, and had driven around with that wine, rocking it back and forth in the process. Won’t hurt a dog or cat, most would say; but, for a red wine of classic origin and handling…let’s just say, it's a no-no.
Why? This is a little less pertinent today because of production methods, but classic red wines throw a sediment with enough ageing. This sediment is not poisonous, but it tastes silty; and it takes away from the pleasure of consumption. What do folks do to avoid that? They decant!
Before they put the bottle into the car to take it to be enjoyed, they decant it to separate the sediment from the clear liquid, thus making the final experience more pleasurable.
You’d have thunk that, in the 27 years since this has happened, that folks would have picked up on decanting, especially folks in the wine trade. Well, NOOOO!
Went to a great trade dinner recently where I think I was the only one to decant my older red wine. Could not believe it. 1982 California Cabernets, 1990’s Bordeaux, 30 years old Vintage Portos: none decanted beforehand. Think of it this way: decanting is like taking a shower and brushing your teeth before a date. Or maybe better in case you prefer rustic trysts, decanting a great wine is like snorkeling in a clear ocean setting as opposed to a stagnant river bottom. It also gives a wine that has been in an oxygen-free bottle a little time to “wake-up” and perhaps dissipate off-odors. One proviso: keep that decanted wine in the trunk while driving.
Take that special wine you have been holding for all these years, carefully separate it from its cork and with a light source in the background to check wine-flow, pour the clear liquid into a decanter (or a clean bottle using a funnel) and wait to see the sediment start to flow. When it gets to the neck of the bottle, stop pouring. You’ll have 1 or 2 ounces of “dirty” wine left. Don’t discard it; use it to deglaze a pan, to add to a stew or sauce. Or drink it if you want to see what I mean. Don’t recant: it’s bad for the soul. Decant: it’s great for your old wine and your palate!