There is a great chasm between hard-core wine lovers and those who drink wine occasionally and informally, really never grasping or respecting the gravitas others place on the full enjoyment of the beverage.
All of the sniffing, swirling, pondering and pontificating is only so much empty pomp and circumstance to many casual wine drinkers who are quick to furrow their brow and roll their eyes as “pretentious” friends make weird sipping noises that in other circles at other times would be considered downright rude.
The reality of the theatrical performance, however, is that a lot of what is played out really adds to the exposure of the qualities of the wine – or at least is an attempt to coax subtlety from what was previously hidden. The Laws of Nature are not violated by those simple actions that provide clues about the liquid not often revealed by a label on the bottle.
Holding the glass of just-poured wine up to the light tells you something about the process and the beverage’s age, as well as how it has been treated. You can’t hide shoddy storage or filtration that is imposed on the wine along the way. Your nose tells you if the wine has not been loved, sort of like a puppy that cowers when you extend your hand to show it some affection. Your eyes can note a browning around the outer edge of the wine, which reveals a beverage that has seen some hard, maybe long, years or possibly, in the short run, heat.
Obviously, you can see if the wine is constructed from red or white fruit, but the depth of color is a “tell” even to the type of grape used in the blend. Lighter hues in a white wine could cause you to think of a light wine, like Pinot Grigio, Albariño or Gruner Veltliner. More golden hues move the needle to Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling. Again, these are merely indicators and are not the only criteria for judging what experience is yet to come.
In the red range, light cherry colors which allow you to see through to the bottom of the glass may indicate classic Pinot Noir or a Sangiovese from Italy. Moving toward darker expressions, you might be dealing with a Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon or a Syrah.
The label on the bottle may be shying away from information, but you have ways of dealing with recalcitrant winemakers. In America, in order for a wine to carry the tag of a grape varietal, the law says there only has to be 75% of that varietal in the mix and the winemaker is under no constraints to tell you all the grapes they used to create the wine. Imagine purchasing a Cadillac from America only to learn that 25% of your car is actually a Fiat from Italy.
There are so many other factors in the sensory review of your glass of wine that they can really overwhelm. But how do you make secondary qualities show themselves in a liquid that has been cooped up in a small space, sealed with a cork or a screw-cap, for many years? Here we involve decanting.
Yes, folks, for my next trick, using the magic of gravity, I will be moving the liquid now in this vessel into this weirdly shaped vessel, before your very eyes and at no times will my hands leave my body. Watch closely.
Likely, no aspect of pre-wine drinking enjoyment causes more confusion or discussion than decanting. When should it be done? With what kinds of wines? Why do it at all? And who the heck is going to clean out a glass container that has plenty of rounded corners at the bottom of a narrow neck?
Actually, decanting is something that simply can’t hurt wine. The only exception to the rule is a very, very old wine that may actually be too fragile to move around. These particular wines may not be good candidates for decanting. But other than that, splash away.
The reason for decanting is simple: wine shows better with exposure to air and nothing puts more air into wine than sloshing it from the bottle into a glass decanter. Decanters are designed to expose a maximum amount of the wine to air. They expand the surface of the wine to more square inches when compared to that cramped bottle. If you feel a wine would benefit from decanting, and most do, just pulling the cork accomplishes very little. There is still plenty of wine not receiving any exposure to air.
And when you decant, do so with gusto. Splash the wine into the decanter then give the decanter a little swirl when you are done. It’s actually a great tension reliever for you, too. There are some wines, and these are few and far between today, that have sediment, uninvolved bits of vine detritus that has not been filtered out in the course of making the wine. With these wines – and they are usually from Bordeaux, France – decant slowly, watching the “dregs,” as these bits are called, eventually collect at the neck of the bottle during the pour. Don’t include them into the decanter. Most are bitter and the wine has long since resolved itself with these added ingredients.
With a winemaker, we have even experienced the decanting of champagne. He thinks the release of the sparkling liquid into a decanter wakes up the bubbles and the wine.
Oh, and by the way, cleaning a decanter is easier than it looks. Fill the decanter with warm water and let it sit for an hour or two. Empty that water and fill it again, this time dropping a denture cleaning tablet into the glass container. Allow that to sit for a few hours then empty out that water, rinse twice more and store the decanter upside down to let it dry. You don’t have to scrub it all.
And as a further note here, never use soap in a decanter or even on your wine glasses. You can never get the soap completely off or out. Soap will leave not only a foggy residue behind, there will also be an aroma that lingers, positively ruining your next glass of wine. Washing wine glasses in plain hot water is fine. If you put your glasses into the dishwasher, be certain there is no soap in the machine, not even from a previous run.
When you remove the glasses from the dishwasher, dry them with a clean, non-lint towel. Otherwise simple give them a long rinse in very hot running water. Use your hand to remove any residue of dried wine, citrus pulp left behind from cocktails, or lipstick traces. Again, dry them well and store them upside down.
As for your friends that enjoy coaxing more from their glass of wine than just a hearty and refreshing drink, cut them some slack.