Wine / Airs, graces and decanting

“You decant for two basic reasons: to give wine a chance to breathe and to see off any deposits that might clag up the taste. It’s reds you decant; whites rarely benefit,” writes RICHARD CALVER

FOR my September birthday, I was given a spectacular gift: a Waterford crystal decanter shaped like a tortured swan. It evokes the tale of Leda and the Swan and that stirring WB Yeats poem of the same name with its extraordinary ending lines:

Richard Calver.

So mastered by the brute blood of the air,

Did she put on his knowledge with his power

Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

I stifled these thoughts when expressing gratitude for the gift; it’s not particularly PC to celebrate art inspired by the rape of a human by the God of Gods who has come down to the earth in animal form.

The friend who gave me the gift said: “Not sure when you are supposed to decant wine but I think you’ll use it, won’t you?”

“To be frank, I’m not sure that I will use it other than as a decoration,” I replied.

And to confirm this stance my son, on a later visit, indicated that he wasn’t sure he liked the new glass sculpture that now dominates the dining room table. “Ahh,” I said. “It’s a decanter.”

“Oh,” he said, “I thought it was an art work.”

“I think it is. But there are sound reasons to use it, over and above its elegant presence on the dining table,” I explained. “Even if I never take that step…

“You decant for two basic reasons: to give wine a chance to breathe and to see off any deposits that might clag up the taste. It’s reds you decant. You could decant whites but they would rarely benefit.

The crystal decanter… shaped like a tortured swan.

“The younger more tannic red wines need longer to breathe and the term that is used when they have reacted to the air is that they become more ‘expressive’.

“Yes, here in this book that I love to read ‘The Art and Science of Wine’ it says: ‘The bouquet of a young wine will be powerful, still dominated by the smell of its fruit. It reacts positively to air and hence to decanting. Normally its bouquet will increase in the decanter for three to four hours in a short burst of polymerization and esterification.’”

“What?” he says.

“Fancy words for the creation of chemical compounds,” I say.

Did I see a yawn from my offspring? He has his phone out…

“Anyway”, I harrumph, “It’s counter-intuitive, but older wines need less breathing time. That’s because hopefully in the bottle the aroma of fruit and the esters that have been produced will already be intense and not in need of air.

“But those older wines need decanting to get rid of the sediment that forms. It’s a crust that forms in the bottle and also may be floating at the bottom of the bottle.

“The particles are yeast cells, left over grape solids, you know stems, seeds, bits of skin. You also get tartrates or tartaric acid crystals, especially in white wine. Then there are other solids left over from the winemaking process, including from the fining process – when you check the label of some wines you’ll see ‘may have traces of egg white’ as a disclosure because they use egg whites to force the particles to the bottom of the vats before they pump out the wine.

“Anyway, decanting leaves behind the sediment. That’s why it’s best to have a light behind the decanter so you can see the flow of liquid and leave behind any sediment as you pour the wine out of the bottle.”

“Hmm” he said,” I still don’t like it.”

“Well, it’s just like wine: we all don’t like the same flavours. Judgement differs in relation to art, too. I even like the old classics and Greek myths,” I say staring hard at this new adornment.


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