Decanting Perfection: How and When to Decant Wine

Between 1968 and 1972, Steve Blass was one of the best pitchers in baseball. He was an All-Star, with consummate control.  In 1973, all of that control seemingly evaporated. There was no injury or explanation and as Steve Blass worked tirelessly to regain the control that was once among the best in baseball, it remained elusive. In 1975, he  retired from baseball.  This sudden deterioration of skill has come to be known in baseball circles as "Steve Blass Syndrome", which is somewhat unfair, because he is far from the only one to suffer from it. Many others -- Steve Sax, Chuck Knoblauch, and Rick Ankiel, to name a few -- have felt the same immense frustration that is known more broadly as “the yips.”

Doctors studying the yips have not been able to nail down the exact cause, but the working theory is that for the affected individuals, the perfect has become the enemy of the good.  With each errant throw, pressure mounts to perform better the next time until mental block forms that cannot be moved no matter the effort.

The yips are by no means confined to the throwing of a baseball.  They manifest in all arenas where people feel the weight of opportunity, be it in sports, art, writing, or even wine.  With wine, the repercussions may be less significant, but thinking too much can undermine what should otherwise be a simple pleasure.  One such point of potential paralysis is the quest for the perfect pairing.  Another area of fixation that can trip up those looking to maximize their enjoyment of wine is the question of whether to decant.

There are two reasons to decant.  The important one is to minimize the amount of sediment that reaches the glass.  Everyone has had the experience of getting the last few ounces out of a bottle only to find that their glass filled with what looks like used coffee grounds.  This sediment tastes bad and has a texture of sand, which is a particularly unpleasant finishing note for a good bottle of wine.  Decanting allows this sediment to remain in the bottle and ensure that every glass of wine is enjoyable.  If you know that the bottle has sediment -- which you can tell by holding it up under to a light and looking for it -- then you can gently pour it into a decanter and stop right before the sediment begins to flow out. 

But, aside from dealing with sediment, the decanter is rarely brought out for a weeknight bottle.  Instead, it is dug out along with a bottle of significance -- a gift or something special to mark an anniversary or celebration.  Wineries and merchants peddle the idea that truly special wines somehow undergo a mystical transformation when they spend a few hours in a decanter.  What is actually happening is a degree of oxidation.  Once the cork is pulled, the wine inside the bottle begins a slow and inevitable transformation to vinegar. However, along the way, other changes happen to the wine as well.  Oxidation comes with what is often referred to as "opening up," where the tannins soften and aromas evolve and strengthen. 

Opinions vary widely as to how to achieve the best results.  Do you decant the wine gently or rapidly?  A half-hour, two hours, four hours before serving?  What kinds of wine warrant decanting is up for question, with some saying that even certain types of champagne can benefit.  A well-respected wine publication, fittingly enough called Decanter, wrote a series of articles between November 2013 and January 2014 titled: “To decant or not? That age-old dilemma is resolved in our unique test” (behind paywall).  After thousands of dollars of high end wine were examined by the palates of nine leading wine experts, the general consensus was ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.  Yet the mere fact that so much research, analysis and opinion is devoted to the question underlines the uneasy relationship wine consumers and even professionals have with decanting. 

So, before the decanting yips can develop, it’s important to realize that wine is not an absolute, but relational.  What really matters is the perception of you and your guests.  If serving wine in a decanter seems more special and heightens the occasion, by all means, go for it.  And if you still have doubts, my approach is to open the bottle that I’m going to serve with dinner when I start to cook.  I pour myself a small glass, smell it, taste it and set it aside.  Occasionally, while cooking, I return to the glass to see if it smells much better or largely the same.  Finally, just before serving the wine, I have another taste.  If the wine has improved dramatically in the glass, I will decant it before serving.  If it’s pretty much the same, then I won’t.  It’s as simple as playing ball in the backyard.  No pressure, no expectations.  After all, remember, it’s just for fun.