While dining at a winery restaurant in Ontario’s Niagara region a number of years ago, I asked that the bottle of cabernet franc I ordered be decanted. It was a youthful, tight and tannic red wine that would have benefited from exposure to oxygen.
The server refused, explaining they only decanted more expensive bottles from the winery’s top range.
That was the first time I’d ever heard the notion that only pricey bottles of wine deserved decanting. It has since come up numerous times at wine tastings and seminars.
My typical response is to suggest that the best way to make a $10 wine taste like a $20 bottle is by decanting it. The rapid exposure to air should release beneficial aromatic and flavour compounds of a white or red wine. Some believe oxygen also works to soften a red wine, although research suggests that’s not the case.
Even if decanting has little effect on a wine’s taste, it can change the way it’s perceived. Seeing a golden or ruby-hued wine presented in a stylish crystal decanter looks impressive on the table, even if the bottle that was poured into it wasn’t particularly remarkable.
Context can really influence how we appreciate the aromas and flavours of wine. Don’t believe me? Just ask anyone who brought home that supposedly stunning bottle of wine from a holiday only to find it tastes less than impressive without the accompanying vista of a breathtakingly beautiful landscape.
But which wines actually benefit from being decanted?
According to José Luis Fernández, Ontario’s reigning top sommelier and assistant food and beverage manager at the Hamilton Golf and Country Club, it’s often a matter of the wine’s body.
More than its price or colour, the weight of the wine is the determining factor, Fernández says. “Lighter and aromatic styles of wine won’t benefit as much from decanting as something bolder, like a Barolo or Super Tuscan," he says.
“For example, I don’t usually decant lighter styles of wine, like pinot noir, unless it’s a full-bodied style. A bigger pinot noir from the Russian River Valley in California or a youthful premier cru or grand cru from Burgundy.”
He says most of the wines he decants are young and need to open up. “I pretty much decant everything,” he says. “Even whites, they get better with decanting. You’re looking for a wine to show its full potential.”
Fernández, who expects to compete for the title of best Canadian sommelier in 2021, doesn’t decant his young and fresh Niagara rieslings, but many other whites get splashed into a decanter. Chardonnays from Napa or Sonoma or bolder whites from the southern Rhone Valley in France are sure to benefit.
Older wines are decanted to separate the wine from any sediment that’s developed. While natural and harmless, sediment might add an unpleasantly gritty or bitter flavour to the wine. Note though that some lighter red wines might be too fragile to decant as they age.
Fernández won the title of Ontario’s best sommelier in April after winning a competition conducted by the provincial chapter of the Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers.
The day-long final saw competitors faced with a series of skill-testing theory questions and a blind tasting of three beers and three wines to identify their style and origin.
The final stage required role-playing with various tables in a restaurant setting. One of the tables was a business party which had preordered a special bottle of 1972 Chambolle-Musigny to celebrate a big deal. Fernández didn’t decant that. He explained to the table that this delicate old wine wouldn’t benefit from such extreme exposure to oxygen.