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CHICAGO WINE JOURNAL: Decanting can put blush back in an old bottle

Submitted by on Mar 23, 2015 – 3:39 pm

By Lawrence B. Johnson

Aeration in a decanter brings out the best in any wine.To decant or not to decant? To my mind, that isn’t even a question. Any wine, new or very old, gains from time in a decanter.

The common view is that decanting is for young wines, which typically lose some of their tannic aggressiveness with a bit of aeration. While I don’t dispute that, long experience has taught me that wines that have rested years or even decades in my cellar invariably blossom after the aeration that comes with decanting.

I’ve rarely decanted an older wine when the last gulp from the carafe was not the best. Indeed, I have opened bottles that I feared might be past their prime, and initially offered a pallid hint of disintegration, only to see them regain weight, focus, depth and integrity after an hour in a decanter.

That said, however, decanting cannot lend a wine immortality. Once aerated, an old wine may turn into Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Present, its time short upon the earth. Only by trial and error, with the occasional crushing disappointment, can you get a feel for how long some venerable juice should be exposed fully to the air.

My most ambitious decanting always occurs during the holidays when our extended, meaning large, family gathers for Christmas night dinner at our house. I love that opportunity to pull out a wide range of wines from the world’s great vineyards, watch folks enjoy and conduct a survey of their favorites. I seldom include new vintages, but plunder the cellar for Bordeaux from the 1980s, Burgundy and Brunello di Montalcino from the 1990s, Australian Shiraz and Napa Cabernet Sauvignon that have 10 or 15 years on them.

Wine-filled decanters add to a dinner party's festive spirit.Arrayed in assorted decanters on the kitchen counter, the poured wines identified by the bottles behind them, the whole glistening presentation exudes the joy of the season. The decanting takes place in one high-intensity blitz a couple of hours before dinner time. Once I’ve conducted guests through a tour of options, and the sipping-with-appetizers begins, everybody gets into the game of trying as many as possible, gauging the wines’ evolution and declaring their favorites.

I’ve rarely known one of these wines to fall apart – anyway, not until well after the guests have departed and the vessels stand mostly drained.

My zeal for decanting also goes where I go. Whenever I take my own wine to a restaurant, I always ask to have it decanted. And I’ve found that most restaurants that allow wine to be brought in are happy to make that accommodation. I know my old wine will be the fresher for it.

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