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(First published in View from the Cellar, April 29, 2020; apologies that John's excellent photos are missing from this version!)
Learning From the Past
Thirty Years Of Evolving Wine Serving Philosophy
While I have been drinking wine now for a bit longer than thirty-five years, it is only over the last three decades or so that I have really paid attention to how to properly serve wine for it to show to its best advantage. Back in my university days in the first half of the 1980s, when the wine light was first going on, I used to imagine myself as one day being a fiction writer with a recurring character who was a Private Investigator, and who, when the case got particularly befuddling in the middle of the book, would stop in to the nearest fine wine shop to his office and purchased a serious bottle of red wine to help him look at the case differently and eventually solve it. For some reason, back in those days, I always pictured my main character as springing for a bottle of the 1978 Robert Mondavi “Reserve” Cabernet Sauvignon- why I do not know- but, this was always my recurring vision of how my private eye would properly bring things into focus. However, back in those aspiring fiction-writing days, I did not imagine my main character handling the wine properly, but rather, shuffling back out to the parking lot to his Saab Turbo convertible, putting the top down, pulling his corkscrew out of the glove compartment, and taking the first couple of slugs right out of the bottle before pulling out of the parking lot to get back to his office to work on the rest of the case and the bottle- now poured into a wine glass- and relax his psyche enough to properly solve whatever conundrums had been obscuring a path to the truth. Clearly, I did not know much about sediment or decanting back in those early days!
As my wine drinking experience really began to grow, and I was able to drink more wines of the caliber of the 1978 Mondavi Reserve cabernet sauvignon, I began to really appreciate how important it was to treat wines properly ahead of serving. Undoubtedly, much of my early appreciation in this regard was fashioned by many of the more experienced and senior wine lovers that I was part of tasting groups with back in the second half of the 1980s, as many of these folks had been savoring great wines for many decades more than I had at this point and they were very gracious with sharing their sage advice, not to mention happy to direct the most junior member of our groups (me) to handle much of the decanting duties for our tastings. It was not that they were handing off the “donkey work” to me (at least not completely J), but rather, they intuitively knew that the best way to understand how important proper preparation of wines was to their ultimate enjoyment was to be “hands on” and do the decanting and other duties oneself. It was an educational experience that I have come to very much value as the decades have rolled away and I often thank them for their having shown me the light in this regard from very early on in my wine career. Having been a member of several wine tasting groups over the years, where many of the other participants had a wealth of experience with fine wine, has been an amazing benefit that has allowed me to understand the service of wine in a way that is not always universally shared. For several years now I have thought about writing a piece on this aspect of wine appreciation for the newsletter, and given this spring that I am “sheltering in place” rather than on the road tasting in cellars in Burgundy, Champagne and Germany, it seemed like a propitious moment to finally tackle this article.
As many readers may already know, part of my formative years in the wine trade here in the US was as a sommelier at a pair of very good restaurants in New York during the second half of the 1990s. The exigencies of wine service during this time, particularly during my days at Gotham Bar and Grill, where we would serve three to four hundred diners per evening and I was the lone sommelier on the floor, gave me the opportunity to refine my wine service techniques in several ways. Not that I was ever a particularly gifted sommelier in terms of service- having not come up through the ranks of servers in restaurants, as is the case with most sommeliers, but having spent my first decade in the wine trade in its retail branch- so, it was a running joke at both my sommelier stops on how much more I was costing the owners in linen service because I could seemingly never properly pour a bottle without dribbling at least a spot or two of wine on the table cloth! Gifted servers can deftly twist the bottle at the precise moment to ensure that the wine rolls back down the neck, but I always seemed to time it perfectly to get a few drops on the tablecloth out of each and every pour! But, as I vastly expanded the wine programs at both of my restaurant stops, I did start to master a few aspects of decanting that were not necessary outside of the frenetic world of restaurant wine service. One of these was to learn how to present a bottle with considerable sediment on its side, without upsetting the sludge, and then opening and decanting the bottle while it remained on its side, so that the sediment never moved and the maximum volume of wine was served pristinely from the decanted bottle of old wine.
While I am not a trained winemaker and only understand the basic fundamentals of wine chemistry through the prism of appreciating what ultimately finds its way into the glass, I have been able over the years, due to the generous patience of winemakers who I have gotten to know well over time, to understand that the role of oxygen in winemaking is one of cautionary balance. It is necessary during the winemaking process to ward of permanent reduction, but at the same time, it must be kept far enough at bay to protect as much of a wine’s freshness and vitality for a long life in bottle. In recent times, due probably to the wide adoption of screwcaps and their attendant new issues with reduction of bottled wines, the role of oxygen in its early days after bottling is now beginning to be better understood. Prior to screwcaps being widely used for finer wines, it was widely thought that wines sealed with corks were essentially closed under anaerobic seals from the moment of bottling, and oxygen egress into the bottle was due to eventual degradation of corks many years down the road. However, as reduction issues started to crop up with wines sealed under anaerobic screwcaps, new research was undertaken and one chemist and winemaker, Alan Limmer of New Zealand, was able a few years ago to conduct a study on the oxygen egress of natural corks in the first year or so after they are inserted into a bottle of wine and to understand the dynamics of discreet oxygen exchange between a wine and its outside environment during those first handful of months in the bottle. In short, it turns out that natural corks do allow some discreet oxygen transfer through their internal capillaries of the newly-inserted cork during the first twelve to eighteen months after bottling (depending on the unique capillary system of each cork), after which the cork comes up to one hundred percent humidity and essentially seals off those capillaries as conduits for oxygen exchange. And, as it turns out, this limited oxygen exchange during the first several months after bottling is vital to keeping a wine from going into reduction in the bottle. Dr. Limmer’s research is truly ground-breaking in this regard.
While Alan Limmer’s study started charting a new understanding of how wines begin their evolutionary process post-bottling, it is not necessarily germane to this article. It simply serves to underscore that though wine is quite an ancient art by our modern day standards, there is still much that is not yet understood about it and that many things that are “known” such as cork being in essence an anaerobic seal from the moment of bottling, are not necessarily true. In the realm of wine serving, at the other end of the tunnel from bottling, there are similar accepted traditions and beliefs that I feel are perhaps not as rock solid as conventional wisdom would have them and my experience has taught me to modify or ignore some of these as not techniques which allow a wine to show optimally. To cite but a single example, one of the most commonly-shared (and wrong-headed in my opinion) wine service philosophies is that “red Burgundy is best served from the bottle, rather than decanted, as the wine is too fragile for decanting to improve it.” This still widely-held belief has been passed down for a long time in Burgundy-drinking circles. However, in my Burgundy-drinking experience, this has most emphatically not been the case and I am a staunch defender of the need to decant red Burgundy (and all pinot noir for that matter) prior to serving, regardless of its age. I might make an exception with a hundred-plus year-old bottle, if I was to cross paths with one again, but even dipping back as far as wines from the first few decades of the twentieth century, my experience has been that one is generally better off decanting a red Burgundy than pouring it directly from the bottle. And, for much younger wines, I am a very strident voice that red Burgundy must be decanted to have some true idea of the quality and nature of the young wine being served. I will go into the specifics of why I believe this is so a bit further below, in the section devoted to pinot noir and red Burgundy.
The last decade has seen a number of changes in the accepted wisdom of how wine should properly be served, brought about by things such as the wide adoption of screwcaps for certain wines, the natural wine movement, and the faster pace of modern life in general. We have seen the growth of the shared belief that many white wines should now be decanted (a belief I share), that sparkling wines should be served in anything but a fluted glass (a belief I generally do not agree with, but this does depend on the size and diameter of the Champagne flute in question, for if the choice is a very narrow flute or a white wine glass, then I would opt for the latter, but understanding that it is the lesser of two evils) or even that many sparkling wines show best if decanted for an extended period of time prior to service (this is sheer madness in my opinion). We have also come to reconsider the proper temperature that wines are served at, as the old precepts of reds at room temperature and whites served cold directly from the refrigerator has certainly been properly called into question in recent times. It is a time of dynamic reconsideration of many previously accepted wine service standards, and with this in mind, I hoped it might be useful to share my general approaches to the service of a wide range of categories of different wines. Some are in complete lockstep with today’s shared assumptions and some are quite far removed from today’s “group think” about wine service.
At its most basic, wine service really comes down to a handful of variables that need to be considered to allow a wine to show at its optimum: temperature, amount of aeration, type of aeration and type of glass to serve the wine. Additionally, when we get to red wines of a certain age, we also have to deal with how we choose to handle the sediment the wine has developed over extended bottle age. There may be other considerations that I am overlooking, but these should serve as a foundation for crafting a standard criteria on how best to tackle wine service across a broad spectrum of different wine types. What I have done below is to try to address each of these factors within a given type of wine, as there can be wide variations on how each of these facets of wine service can be best applied to a given wine. What follows is certainly not gospel, but simply what I do myself after all these years of wine drinking and serving, and which I have found has generally allowed wines to show at their best when being served. I have only touched upon the concept of “how long” to age a given wine type, as this seems like it would make a good topic for a full discussion at a later date, so that discussion is limited below and remains on the back burner for the moment.
White Still Wines
In my younger wine drinking days, which date back to the very early 1980s, white wines were generally pulled out of the refrigerator, uncorked and poured immediately, so as to keep them as cool as possible to begin wine service. The bottles were often returned right after pouring to the fridge to keep them cold, or plunged into an ice bucket to do the same. However, in the last several years, many enthusiasts and professionals have begun to rethink both how cold a white wine should be served at and whether or not it should be decanted prior to service. In both these regards, I feel that the changes were much warranted and have benefited the wines to be served. While I do not generally decant most of my white wines, the one factor that I do take into account in this regard, is how acidic the wine is, both in terms of the inherent acid structure of the grape variety and of the given vintage being served. In general, higher acid white wines are the ones that I will look to decant more often than not. In terms of relative acidity, the age of the wine also comes into play. In general terms, I am more likely to decant a chardonnay from Chablis than I am one from California, as the former is more likely to be a bit hidden behind its girdle of acidity. However, I will always taste a white wine first before I decide whether or not I wish to decant it (with a couple of exceptions, which I go into below), and let my palate be the judge as to whether or not I feel the wine needs decanting to show optimally.
Ironically, though it is generally the most high acid grape, I do not decant most of my Rieslings, though I do not know why this is the case. These days, I am more likely to decant a younger dry Riesling such as a Grosses Gewächs than I am an off-dry or sweeter example, and I have generally been quite content with how older Rieslings show when poured directly out of their bottle, though they almost all inevitably change rather dramatically in the wine glass over the first fifteen minutes of so after they have been poured. With other major white wine grape varieties, such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Godello, Albariño or the like, I am typically quite content with how the wine shows most times when just served from the bottle and I do not decant these wines with any great frequency. The notable exception to this might be young white Burgundy, which I often find structurally “tighter” in their youth than chardonnays from other regions and a half hour in decanter can often be beneficial for many of these wines if they are under five or six years of age. However, there are two types of white wines that I tend to almost religiously decant, and for far more extended durations, and those are wines made from Chenin Blanc and various blends of Rioja Blanco. Chenin Blanc is a grape that really demands aeration to show all of its underlying layers of complexity, so whether I am popping a three year-old Savennières or a fifty year-old Domaine Huët, the first stop after the cork has been pulled is into a decanter for me, and usually for a minimum of twenty to thirty minutes. Again, I taste the wine after decanting it, to get a sense of its structural chassis at this point in its evolution, but with Chenin, it is almost always allowed to blossom with at least a half hour in decanter. I should note that Chenin Blanc can be a wine that often demands decanting, not only because of its good girdle of acidity, but also because the variety will frequently show a distinct “dustiness” or “mustiness” when it is first opened. This is particularly apparent when a Chenin is in its first decade or so of life, where it needs plenty of aeration for this dusty quality to blow off and the fruit to emerge from hibernation.
As I mentioned above. I also routinely decant white Rioja, and often for as long or longer than Chenin Blanc, as I find an hour or two in decanter is often perfect for allowing these wines to properly blossom and drink at their best. The poster child for the need of decanting white Rioja are the beautiful white wines made by López de Heredia, which are tasty if poured out of bottle, but which so dramatically blossom and show additional layers of complexity with extended aeration that it is, in my experience, absolutely foolhardy to not decant López de Heredia Rioja Blanco, almost regardless of the age. For example, the last bottle of the stellar 1964 López de Heredia Viña Tondonia Blanco that I drank benefited dramatically from a solid hour in decanter prior to serving! Two other white wines that I will almost always decant for at least half an hour prior to service are the Sancerres from François Cotat and Edmund and Anne Vatan- though this is not a practice I extend to most other examples of Sancerre. Both of these estates produce Sancerres that are quite structurally unique for Sauvignon Blanc, probably due to their fermentation and elevage in ancient, crystal-encrusted foudres, and I invariably find that the white wines from both estates improve if decanted prior to serving. I do return all of these white wines to the refrigerator once they have been decanted, as I do not wish to serve them too warm, but I do want them to be able to stretch their wings properly in decanter before serving.
When it comes to my preferred temperatures for serving still white wines, I am in the more modernist camp that they need to generally warm up a bit from refrigerator temperatures prior to being served. However, there is a trend out there these days of serving white wines at cellar temperatures (fifty-five degrees Farenheit) and, in my experience, this is generally a bit too warm for most white wines and I like to serve my white wines a bit cooler than this. What I will generally do is try to pull out bottles or decanters of white wines about fifteen minutes before serving (if it is not a blazingly hot day) and let them come up in temperature four or five degrees from the refrigerator’s temp. In our epoch, most refrigerators range from thirty-five to thirty-eight degrees Farenheit in temperature, and to my palate, this is just a bit too cold for still white wines. Letting white wines come up in temperature to forty-two to forty-four degrees will generally unlock extra elements of complexity in the wines, while still allowing them to retain their optimal balance and sense of vibrancy. What I find with white wines that are served at higher temperatures (such as cellar temp) is that the wines lose some of their sense of equilibrium and get a bit blowsy and unstructured on the palate, though the slightly warmer temperatures do not necessarily diminish the aromatic enjoyment of the wine. In restaurants (if they ever open again), where white wines generally come out very chilled, I almost always ask the server to leave the bottle on the table, rather than putting it in an ice bucket, as I would rather track the temperature of the wine myself and put it back on ice for a short time if it is getting too warm, rather than have to warm it up again from bone-chilling temperatures from too long plunged into that ice bucket.
I generally will follow the same rules of thumb for most examples of Rosé as I would for the majority of the still white wines I discussed above. In terms of temperature, letting the wines warm up for ten or fifteen minutes from refrigerator temp will typically put them at an optimal serving temperature, and I would rather return the bottle to the fridge or put it on ice for a short time if it becomes too warm sitting on the table, rather than immediately putting it back in the chiller and then having to warm the wine up again prior to serving more to people at the table. Like white wines, there are a few Rosés that I feel demand decanting prior to serving, whereas the vast majority are just fine being poured directly from the bottle. Two of the Rosé exceptions that immediately come to mind as needing decanting prior to service are the Sancerre Rosé bottlings produced by the two Cotat cousins, Pascal and François. I am not sure of the reasons why these wines benefit so remarkably from decanting prior to service, but both Cotat cousins (each at their own domaine) make very long-lived and snappy examples of Sancerre Rosé and their wines do improve dramatically from having been decanted. Interestingly, I do not find that Pascal Cotat’s Sancerre Blanc bottlings demand decanting, as is the case with his cousin François, but Pascal’s Rosé is most emphatically better with decanting prior to service. I should also mention that I think of the aging curve of the Cotat family’s two examples of Sancerre Rosé as more like fairly-structured red wines, and so I am never tempted to open a Rosé from either cousin until it is at least a decade out from its vintage! I cannot think of any other examples of Rosé that share these characteristics with the Cotat cousins’ Rosés, but there may be some out there that I am unfamiliar with that fall into this category (or that I am simply forgetting while writing this piece).
The other aspect of wine service with Rosé that is important, at least to my mind, is the particular style of Rosé, as some can be quite a bit more “vinous” in style than others. Much of the wine world’s Rosé is a fun and juicy wine that can be at its best served as an aperitif or with a spread of different dishes served buffet style. But, there are some that are most emphatically “food wines” and are not really at their best served as aperitifs. I cannot really generalize in this regard, but when I taste Rosés that strike me as demanding cuisine to be at their best, I do try to mention this in my tasting note for the wines. Several of the very old vine Rosados I have tasted from the Canary Islands in recent times would fall into this category, or the Cotat cousins’ examples of Sancerre Rosé. One of my favorite settings to serve these more “vinous” or food-demanding Rosés is during the heat of summer, where I will serve them with grilled red meats in lieu of a red wine. I strongly recommend trying a bottle of Domaine Tempier’s Bandol Rosé or the like with a grilled steak or spare ribs, out on the patio as the mid-summer sun starts to finally sink towards the horizon and the temperatures start to ease up a bit and see what you think of Rosé with meats! It makes me think I have been transported back in time and have been invited to dine with Richard Olney at his home in Provence, dining al fresco on the patio and chatting happily with his myriad of interesting guests who always seem to have been gathered around his table, while Richard is inside flipping the Edith Piaf record over to the other side.
When it comes to wine service for sparkling wines, I am probably way out of step with much of the current fashion and quite unrepentantly so! First and foremost, I am most emphatically still a fan of drinking sparkling wines out of Champagne flutes, rather than white wine glasses. To be clear, it must be a proper Champagne flute, with sufficient diameter to allow proper aeration of the wine and release all of the wine’s aromatic complexities, but there are dozens of examples of these types of flutes produced by serious crystal wine glass producers and I see no need to eschew their larger flutes to drink my sparkling wine out of a wine glass. The reason for this is quite simple: one of the key fundaments of the quality of a given sparkling wine is how refined, tight and elegant is the texture of the mousse of the wine, and using white wine glasses (or even worse, red wine glasses) quickly dissipates the bubbles in the wine and makes this key ingredient in the wine far more transient than it need be. The magical cornerstone of sparkling wines is their bubbles, and the finer and more persistent that the bubbles are, the higher the quality of the wine in most cases. To use the apocryphal quotation often cited as hailing from Dom Pérignon himself, “I want to see stars” from the first to the last sip of my glass of sparkling wine and that means that retaining the mousse as long as possible is paramount. To do so requires selecting the proper stemware to allow those bubbles, put there so often by painstaking attention to detail and long aging, to last from the first sip until the bottle has been definitively and joyously drained.
To be clear, I would never choose to drink sparkling wine out of a very small, narrow Champagne flute. You know the kind- those that look like test tubes with a wine glass stem on the bottom and were probably designed with an eye towards not pouring too much bubbly per serving in a restaurant setting when the wine is being “sold by the glass”, but somehow have filtered their way out into general sparkling wine consumption as well. In restaurant settings where I am confronted with either flutes of this sort or white wine glasses for service, I will choose the white wine glass and just understand that the sparkling wine experience has already been compromised to some degree by the choice of a white wine glass over a properly large flute. In a similar vein, I most emphatically do not swirl my glass when drinking Sparkling wines, as again, all this does is dissipate the bubbles that have been so painstakingly placed there by the winemaker. I am also pretty particular in wishing to drink my sparkling wines at slightly lower temperatures in general than I do white wines, as I am always seeking to find the point of the most seamless balance for a given wine at a given temperature. I am fortunate in having to taste so many samples of wines each day, so that I have the opportunity to play with variations of temperature quite often and I have come to the conclusion that sparkling wines generally show at their finest if just a few degrees colder than still white wines. Temperatures right out of the refrigerator are perhaps just a touch too cold, but they are closer to the point where I want to drink sparkling wines than still white wines, and I try to often serve sparkling wines only a couple of degrees higher than refrigerator temperatures. If I am serving five or six people out of a bottle of Champagne, then I will serve the wine right out of the fridge, as pouring sparkling wine is usually a two-fold process, as one has to allow the mousse to settle down again after it expands with the first pour in the glass, so that one generally has to pour each glass twice to offer a properly full glass of bubbly. Working through five or six glasses with the first pour, allowing the mousse to settle back down, and then pouring each glass again to top it off, is usually sufficient to allow the sparkling wine to warm just a touch and I find that it will often show beautifully with only this very minimal amount of time out of the refrigerator. For this reason, I will also routinely return the unused portion of a bottle of Sparkling wine to the fridge to stay cold, rather than place it on the table, as I would for a still white wine.
Another very new fashion for sparkling wine service that I am far from comfortable with is the idea of decanting sparkling wines. It was such a trend for a while that the well-respected Champagne house of Henriot was actually designing a decanter with a crystal company (if memory serves me correctly it was Riedel) to be given to sommeliers at high profile restaurants for use with one of their top vintage-dated bottlings. The decanter was beautifully designed, but I never would have actually used it for Champagne if I was still wearing my sommelier hat and had been given one of the decanters! If I understood Henriot’s reasoning correctly, the idea behind the decanting of the cuvée in question was that it was still too young when first released and was not yet ready to drink, with a racy girdle of acidity that needed to be relaxed for the wine to start to show some of its secondary layering of complexity. While this was certainly true, I would never have willingly traded off the mousse of the wine by decanting it, and would have just tucked the wine away in the cellar for many more years and let the girdle of acidity lose some elasticity in that manner, rather than sacrificing those precious bubbles! I understand that in our modern, impatient world, many people do not have the patience to put wines such as this particular bottling from Henriot in their cellars for five to ten years and allow it to blossom fully, but if faced with drinking it with bubbles and a snappy spine of acidity, I would choose that over a wine that had softened up a bit in decanter, but lost almost all of its bubbles!
Pinot Noir and Red Burgundy
As I mentioned in the introduction, I am a very strong advocate of decanting virtually every example of pinot noir or red Burgundy that I drink and believe that there are few red wine grape varieties that benefit more from proper aeration than pinot noir. While I have no specific evidence to support this impression, I have long felt that the tradition of not decanting red Burgundy is based far more on the historical realities of the economic levels of most Burgundians back in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century, rather than in the inherent structural aspects of the pinot noir grape. I have long felt that the region’s relative lack of affluence (other than the economic comfort of a few large négociants and a very, very tiny handful of relatively wealthy estates such as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Domaine Leflaive) was the historical engine behind the region never developing a philosophy of decanting their red wines, as most Burgundians simply did not have all that much free cash on hand and the purchase of a decanter would have been an extravagance that few could justify in their inelastic annual budgets. However, if one looks not at the tradition, but at the structural aspects of pinot noir, I feel it becomes quite clear that decanting of this wine, whether it is young or old, is by far the more prudent approach to maximizing the enjoyment of a given bottle.
When pinot noir is young, its acidic structure is almost as important as its tannic structure, if not more so, and when drinking wines made from this grape, it is best to think about how to deal with its acidity to allow the wine to deliver all of its myriad layers of aromatic and flavor complexity. When young, pinot noir is often tight and somewhat masked behind its girdle of acidity, and working around this to allow the wine to blossom is really a necessity to see the true quality of the wine being served. I often read wine amateurs on bulletin boards write about how they were unimpressed with a given wine- say a fancy premier cru red Burgundy from the 2005 vintage (to cite just one example I paid cursory attention to a short time ago)- which the person writing about the wine felt was vastly overrated by the wine press in general because it was not showing much of anything when he opened it. Of course, he did not decant the wine and had to contend with all of the acidity of a top flight 2005 red Burgundy, which served to quite effectively mask much of the underlying nuances in the wine. I have absolutely no doubt that if he had opened the same wine (still woefully too young for primetime drinking, but that is another matter) and decanted it for thirty minutes before tasting it, he would have found a lot more nuance, depth and complexity than just opening it and pouring it directly from the bottle. Whenever I read “popped and poured” for pinot noirs, whether young or old, as part of an amateur’s tasting note, I simply cringe.
For far older pinot noirs and red Burgundies, I understand some of the rationale that has evolved over time about trying to retain as much of the aromatic nuance in the now far more delicate wine by not decanting, but though the philosophical structure of preserving these elements by not decanting has been around now for a long time, I have never actually been impressed in point of fact by these differences. When very old pinot noirs are served (say fifty to seventy-five years or more of bottle age), I have invariably found that there is no diminution in the aromatic nuances presented by the wine if it is decanted right before serving. There are differences yes, but elemental ones of different scents presenting themselves as the more assertive, rather than qualitative ones where the non-decanted wine is inherently more aromatically complex than the one that has been decanted. To be sure, one ought to choose a proper decanter, as a classic “Captains’ Decanter” with a very wide base that maximizes air surface for the wine is not one I would choose to pour a wine such as the 1966 Grands Echézeaux from Maison Joseph Drouhin into, but I would never, ever consider serving the wine directly from the bottle if I had available a properly smaller decanter to handle the service of the wine. I would decant it immediately before serving, taste it, and probably pour it fairly soon thereafter, but I would not just “pop and pour” without decanting. First of all, I would not want any of my guests to have to contend with the sediment in the bottle, which will become more agitated with each glass that is served. Certainly, the bottle cradles that are made to minimize the agitation of the sediment during service are helpful to mitigate this effect to some degree, but they are most emphatically not superior to a gentle decanting right before serving.
Pinot noir is blessed by having fairly unobtrusive sediment, which may be another one of the reasons how a tradition of not decanting the wine evolved over the last century or so. But, it still “muddies” the enjoyment of the second half of the bottle served without decanting, and I really do not see the logic or intelligence of damaging the pleasure of the lower half of the bottle to ensure that the top half shows well (and again, in my experience, there is little qualitative difference between old pinot noir poured from the bottle and those decanted right before serving). I remember vividly a big weekend of Burgundy tastings that I was invited to back in my Burgundy-slurping early thirties, where our host was a very boisterous and persuasive champion of not decanting old Burgundies (he was an attorney by trade and well-versed in constructing a convincing argument). We were eight to ten tasters around the table for that series of tastings. When I suggested the very same line of reasoning as I have gone into above, he dismissed it as wrong-headed, so I politely then suggested that he serve himself last from each bottle of old red Burgundy that we were to drink, as he was the host, rather than first, as proper etiquette should see the guests served ahead of the host. We then proceeded to decant all of the remaining old bottles of red Burgundy consumed over that weekend of tastings!
Perhaps no red wine demands proper decanting more than Nebbiolo- particularly its most powerful and refined examples from Barolo and Barbaresco. With Nebbiolo, the need to properly decant these wines is required for both the primary reasons for decanting: to remove the wine from its sediment and to allow proper aeration to unlock the underlying layers of complexity in the wine. Nebbiolo’s sediment is probably one of, if not the, most bitter of all sediment, and even a wisp of it in an older example can mar the wine with backend bitterness and astringency. Sediment is simply the solid form of tannin, as the tannins in solution in the young red wine eventually bond with any stray oxygen molecules that find their way into the sealed bottle over the wine’s life in the cellar, with the extra oxygen molecule that the tannins pluck out of solution attaching to its molecular chain and changing the tannin from a liquid to a solid, thus precipitating out of the wine as sediment. If one keeps in mind how astringent a young Nebbiolo can be on the backend, because of its youthful tannins, then avoiding sediment in the service of the mature wine becomes self-evident. But, it is not only to avoid the influence of Nebbiolo’s sediment in the service of the wine that requires decanting, as this grape is also quite dependent on its acidity for structure and one has to also relax that girdle of acidity (which is always part of the structural equation when drinking Nebbiolo, no matter how many decades the wine has been resting in bottle) though proper aeration prior to serving.
There are many stories of seasoned Nebbiolo drinkers decanting an old bottle of Barolo or Barbaresco for many hours prior to serving, and for those with less experience drinking these wines in their grand old age, they are often treated as apocryphal. But, over the years I have come to be firmly planted in the long decanting camp for Nebbiolo. I do believe most emphatically that these old Nebbiolos, particularly the most structured examples from Barolo and Barbaresco, demand several hours of aeration before serving, even if they or forty or fifty or sixty years of age. I do not have as much experience with really older wines from the upper reaches of Piemonte, such as Valtellina or Gattinara to have a proper feel for how long they might demand in decanter, but my gut feeling is that it would be somewhat less than Barolo or Barbaresco, given that they do not start out life with anywhere near the same structural firmness. But, at least with Barolo and Barbaresco, I now have a solid base of experience with the wines and this has now become my practiced method for serving these wines once they have reached maturity. I prefer to decant my old Barolo or Barbaresco now in the early afternoon of the day I am going to serve it. However, I do not generally leave the wine in its decanter this whole time, but tend to decant the wine, taste it, and then pour it back into its original bottle (properly rinsed out of sediment) at some point and allow it to spend the remainder of its aeration time in the bottle, with a smaller surface area for oxygen exchange, rather than in the decanter. If, when I taste the wine right after decanting, it still seems pretty snappy with acidity, I will often leave it in decanter for thirty minutes to an hour, prior to returning it to the bottle for four or five more hours of gentle aeration (with the cork removed from the bottle). If the acids seem relatively tame (for Nebbiolo), then I will often pour it right back into the bottle after decanting, and then stand the bottle back up in my cellar with the cork out until I plan to serve it.
One thing that I do not let worry me at all with older Nebbiolo is the relative color, or lack thereof, with older wines when I open then and decide on their decanting regimen prior to service. Nebbiolo has very fragile pigmentation in general, and it is often not rare to find a wine at age forty or fifty that is the color of onion skin, rather than the more reddish hue one would find with equally venerable bottles made from different grape varieties. Even if the wine is a pale onion skin color, I will decant the wine, taste it and usually put it back in the bottle for at least three to four hours of gentle oxygenation with the cork out in my cellar. In my experience, the relative color of an old Nebbiolo is not all that important in judging the soundness of the wine, and the brilliance of the wine is often a far better way to predict its provenance than the wine’s actual color. Even, onion skin-colored, pale Nebbiolos will be bright and vibrant in decanter, if the wines are still sound, and it is really wines that are dulled in appearance (whether pale or still more red in hue) that are the more suspect of poor provenance. I should also take a moment to discuss how I prepare my Nebbiolo, or for that matter, all of my older red wines that have sediment, for decanting, as I have evolved my strategy as the years have rolled by for how best to handle sediment in old red wines.
Handling Sediment Prior to Opening a Red Wine
This is probably a bit out of place to be going into this here, when we still have several more important red grape varieties to go into below, but as sediment is such a tricky thing to deal with when it comes to older Nebbiolo, I thought I would tuck this section in here, rather than further down in the article. As I mentioned above, I first began developing my style of handling old wines with sediment when I was a sommelier at Gotham Bar and Grill in Manhattan. At that time, I had expanded the wine list from the two hundred and fifty selections I inherited from my predecessor to somewhere between seven and eight hundred, and I simply did not have room in my storage at the restaurant to stand up any large number of old wines with sediment. So, I learned how to open the wines on their sides prior to decanting, so that I would not need to stand them up, and with a bit of practice, it became quite easy to open a bottle while still on its side and not disturb the sediment at all prior to decanting. These days, I never stand anything up (other than vintage Port, as the bottles are often so dark that I cannot see through them to gauge where the sediment is when I am decanting them) in my cellar and open everything on its side before I decant it. With a good corkscrew (I have long preferred a Screwpull because of its very refined bit), or better yet, these days, a Durand, the technique is quite easy to open a wine on its side and keep the sediment still lying along the bottle in the same place it has been during its hibernation in the cellar. I simply tilt the neck of the bottle up a little bit, to keep the wine from pouring out when the cork is removed, cut the foil capsule with a foil-cutter and then remove the cork with the bottle angle still fairly close to ninety degrees. For those that have a wine cradle, this works even better than trying to keep the bottle at this slight angle by hand, but if one does not own a cradle (I have never gotten around to buying one myself), it is really not all that difficult to do.
Once the cork is removed, I then decant the wine without ever having stood it up and I find that the line of sediment will seldom budge during these maneuvers, once one has had a bit of practice opening bottles up on their sides. A good way to practice this technique is to open some bottles of white wine in this manner, as then there is no sediment to worry about and one can get the feel for opening bottles in a horizontal position. Once this decanting approach is mastered, one no longer has to stand bottles up in advance to let the sediment get to the bottom and it no longer becomes a complicated bit of calculus to decide which older bottles to stand up to drink in the coming weeks and months. However, for those that still would like to stand up some bottles to let the sediment settle, let me run quickly through what I have found over the years to be the necessary amount of time to stand up a bottle and let the sediment settle back to the bottom prior to drinking the wine. I often read of people that say they stood up a certain wine for three or four days to let the sediment settle out, prior to opening it, but in my experience, no matter what grape variety the wine is made out of, this is nowhere near sufficient time for the sediment to properly come back out of suspension after an older bottle has been stood up. I would put the minimum time required to be two weeks for older red wines that have quite a bit of sediment, and this would be even for wines made out of grape varieties with relatively mellow sediment, such as Pinot Noir or Gamay. For wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon or Nebbiolo, I would not think of opening them until they have stood for a full month, so you can see why I am such a partisan now of decanting older red wines on their side, without ever standing them up, as I no longer need to plot out my mature red wine drinking schedule a month in advance!
Syrah is another grape that I decant routinely, whether it be young or old. It is a grape that tends to be fairly reductive in the bottle when young, so extended decanting time if opening a young example is often very rewarding and almost de rigeur for any bottles that have started out their lives more reductive in nature. The grape does not generally have the same acid structure as Pinot noir or Nebbiolo, so I am less concerned with loosening up the acidity in the wine with aeration, but so many examples of Syrah start out reductively when first opened (even wines that are ten or fifteen years of age) that it is now habit for me to decant almost every example of Syrah that I drink or taste, no matter how old it is. As each example will have a range of reductive aspects to it, I do not have any hard and fast rules when it comes to decanting a Syrah-based wine prior to serving, so I tend to decant them and then taste, to try and get a feel for how long a given wine might wish to spend in decanter prior to service. The style of Syrah that I tend to love best, which is made with plenty of whole clusters and little or no new oak, will obviously often need the longer aeration time prior to serving, but as this style of wine is becoming the majority of Syrah produced these days, even here in the US (I cannot overstate how happy I am to see the evolution of this grape variety in America, as there are now so many truly excellent producers today making wines that pay stylistic homage to the greats of yesteryear in the northern Rhône Valley and eschew the monster truck style of American Syrah that was so vociferously championed by Robert Parker in the later, darker days of his career), this decanting methodology seems now to be universally useful for Syrah. As a general rule of thumb for examples of Syrah that are a bit on the reductive side when first opened, thirty minutes is usually a good timeframe for their stay in decanter, prior to serving. But, it is easy enough to taste the wine during its period of aeration and decide for oneself (as long as you do not utilize those three or four ounce sample pours!) when it might be good to consider serving the wine.
Grenache and Mourvèdre
While I have a small cache of Bandol resting comfortably in my cellar, I no longer have more than a smattering of Châteauneuf du Pape bottles down there, as this is a region that moved decidedly away from what I valued in wine during the decade of the 1990s, and other than a few holdouts like Éric Texier, I do not know who is still making wines in the region that would dovetail with my tastes. So, when discussing how best to serve Grenache-based wines, my perspective is tempered by the passage of time, as it has now been quite a long time since the wines from the southern Rhône took up a significant percentage of my cellar space. However, there was a time when this was not the case and I bought and cellared a lot of Châteauneuf du Pape and drank the wine with quite some regularity, but the last vintage that I bought heavily was the 1990 vintage and all of those wines and those from the top vintages between 1981 and 1990 here are now long gone from my cellar. It is too bad, for if I knew that the region was going to veer off stylistically from my tastes, I might not have drunk those wines with so much frequency back in the day and I might still have a nice cache of them down there to ease my passage into old age. In any case, back in the day, other than removing the wine from its sediment (once it had started to form), I had always found grenache-based wines to be pretty easygoing when it came to service and not particularly insistent on extended aeration in decanter to show at their best.
These days, most of my grenache experience comes from Spanish wines made from Garnacha (or Garnaxta for those growing the grape in the Catalan section of Spain), or the growing number of really good examples being made in Oregon or California. I still like the grape when crafted in these regions, which seem to understand what was lost stylistically when Châteauneuf du Pape went off the rails. In my experience, grenache is a beautifully transparent wine down to its underlying soil, if allowed not to get too ripe, but I generally find that this is quite straightforward in terms of handling and its charms are quite evident once the wines are opened and they do not take hours to blossom, as can be the case with some other red varieties. If others, who may dip their toes in the grenache waters with more frequency than I have different conclusions, I would certainly be open to hearing them, for as I said above, I do not have much in my cellar anymore. Mourvèdre is a grape that behaves a bit more like syrah than it does grenache- or at least this has been my impression- and I routinely give mourvèdre-based wines quite a bit of aeration before thinking about serving them. Usually thirty minutes to one hour in decanter serves these wines nicely, particularly once they have gotten to be ten years of age or older (which is when I start to think about drinking them), as I find that it takes quite a bit of oxygenation to let the core of black fruit in these wines rise up and take center stage in the wine. This is also true of the one Châteauneuf du Pape that I think of as a mourvèdre-based wine, Château de Beaucastel, which was always the one Châteauneuf du Pape in my cellar that I would give an hour in decanter prior to serving.
As readers already know, I drink a lot of Beaujolais and really like the Gamay grape. However, I like it best when it has had at least a few years of bottle age, as I like to let the wine get beyond its exuberantly fruity youthful period of cranberries and cherries and mellow into a far more complex personality that includes many more aromatic and flavor elements in its personality. It is really only in the twenty-first century that vignerons in the region, beyond a few domaines, have really begun to understand just how beautifully their wines can age and started to keep more back in their cellars for personal consumption at age fifteen or twenty. Prior to this new millennium, estates such as Château Thivin or Domaines des Billards, where the family proprietors kept plenty of old wines in their cellars, were the exceptions, rather than the rule in Beaujolais, and even proprietors in the top vineayrds of Crus such as Morgon and Moulin-à-Vent would often drink up most vintages in their own cellars before their tenth birthdays. With older Beaujolais, the wines need to be decanted to remove them from their sediment, but I generally do not give them quite as long in decanter after removing them from the deposit before I serve them. I find that they generally show very well as soon as they have been decanted, and though they do not show signs of degradation with an hour or more in decanter (if we can manage to not finish the bottle over that time), they generally do not need time to stretch their wines at age ten or twenty and show pretty complete profiles soon after they are placed in decanter.
I do not drink a lot of young Cabernet Sauvignon these days, for much like Syrah, the style of Cabernet Sauvignon that I put in my cellar is classical in nature and built for long-term cellaring and I have little desire to waste bottles drinking structured young cabernet sauvignon out of my cellar when they are only a decade or so in age. And I do not drink or cellar any “modern-styled” examples of cabernet sauvignon, so obviously the service suggestions that follow for this varietal would not be necessarily applicable to those wines. But, for classically-styled and proportioned cabernets, either from Bordeaux estates along the Gironde or in the New World, decanting is necessary in my opinion prior to drinking these wines. I have a lot of cabernet-based wines in my own cellar and drink them with great frequency when the volume flow of samples allows me to dip my toe in my own cellar, and I always decant these wines. In my experience (and, of course, this is based on the styles of wines that I personally cellar), I tend to not even think about opening a bottle of cabernet-based wine until it is at least twenty-five years of age, if the wine hails from a successful vintage. The grape variety does generally not have the same issue with acidity as pinot noir or nebbiolo, so my primary purpose in decanting cabernets is to remove the wine from its sediment. However, this is also a variety that needs some time to stretch its wings after decanting, so my general rule of thumb will be thirty minutes in decanter prior to service, for wines that range from twenty-five to forty years of age. Wines older than this, I will do my customary decanting and taste the wine, to see how long I feel it might need in decanter. If it seems a bit delicate structurally, I just return it to the rinsed out bottle and put a cork back in it until it is time to serve.
While cabernet sauvignon is not generally a grape where acidity plays a key role in deciding how to handle the wine prior to serving, on some occasions, a vintage will come along where the acidity is unusually high in general terms for cabernet, and in these fairly rare occasions, I find that the acidity should be taken into consideration with projecting an aging curve for the wines of the vintage, rather than in how long to leave them in decanter when one is finally ready to drink them. For example, the 1966 vintage in Bordeaux was rather atypically high in acid for a successful vintage on the Gironde, and this affected their aging curve more than how to serve the wines to best advantage. Where I mentioned above that twenty-five years out from the vintage is a good place to start thinking about drinking traditionally-made cabernet-based wines, this guideline was not useful for the 1966 clarets, which took longer to develop than lower acidity, ripe vintages from this era, like 1962, 1964, 1970 or 1971. It was really not until the 1966s started to reach their fortieth birthdays that they really started to fully blossom (at least for the higher level classed growths) and show all of their qualities. Prior to this, they were certainly complex, but always a bit sinewy in structure, due to their surprisingly resilient girdles of acidity, and it was not really until the dawn of the new century that the acids relaxed enough for the underlying mid-palate richness of these wines to really show and the wines to nicely flesh out and start to drink optimally.
There is a genre of cabernet-based wines that I am really out of touch with these days, which are those known as Super Tuscans, so I do not know if my preferred techniques for drinking cabernets cited above are any longer applicable to this category of wines. My preferred approach would have certainly worked with these wines back in the decade of the 1980s, when I drank and cellared them with some frequency, but I have lost contact with the wines in my journalistic days and do not really know what would be the best way to handle them now. I would certainly decant them, to remove them from their sediment, but in terms of how long I would allow them to aerate in decanter, I really do not know. On one hand, many would benefit from some aeration to allow more complexity to emerge with oxygen exchange, but on the other, the role of new oak in these wines has to be considered. The combination of higher alcohol levels in many contemporary Super Tuscan bottlings (due primarily to global warming), and their high percentages of new oak (due to the fashions of international tastes) can make extended aeration problematic when drinking these wines. The tannins from new oak barrels leech into solution in red wines faster at higher alcohol levels, making it more difficult at higher octanes to properly control the influence of oak tannin in the finished wine. This can be covered up to some degree by the plushness of fruit that accompanies young cabernets at higher alcohol levels, but as this initial puppy fat fades away, the handling of the wine to hide the oak tannins becomes more difficult. I have drunk several maturing wines of this nature where they start to show well after fifteen minutes or so in decanter, but by the thirty minute mark, oak tannins have started to become uncovered on the backend of the wines and often I cannot finish the bottle, as they have become astringent and out of balance from their wood tannins drying the backend of the wine.
Any discussion of proper serving techniques for cabernet sauvignon-based wines needs to talk a bit about a few of the outliers in this category that merit special attention. The two that immediately come to my mind are Château Latour and Mayacamas Vineyards during the long career of Bob Travers. Both of these wines were built for a far longer haul than any of their contemporaries, and my twenty-five year rule of thumb for a good time to start drinking these wines was most emphatically not appropriate for either of these two wines, from a top vintage. I have some old Mayacamas cabernets in my cellar from the decade of the 1970s that are now drinking well (1970, 1973 and 1974), but the 1975 and 1978 are still not even ready yet and are still fairly tannic! And none from the decade of the 1980s are even remotely ready to drink, so clearly one has to add a decade or two to my rule of thumb for Bob Travers’ versions of Mayacamas cabernet sauvignon. Similarly, Château Latour is an estate that was famed for more than a century for the longevity and leisurely pace at which its wines matured. This was certainly true through the first half of the twentieth century and up until at least the decade of the 1980s, when there was some gentle criticism that the wines were being made in a more “forward” style. However, certainly in the last quarter century, the estate has returned to its very structured, classical style (if it ever really wandered away from this!), and forty to fifty years of age is probably again the proper age to start thinking about opening up a bottle of Château Latour in a great vintage of recent times.
In my experience, there are the wines of Pomerol, the 1981 Kalin Cellars Merlot “Reserve” (which remains by quite some margin the single finest American example of Merlot that I have ever tasted), and everything else made primarily from this grape (at least if we remove the wines of St. Émilion from the discussion for the moment, as they often rely as much or more on Cabernet Franc as they do Merlot). I have been curious in recent years about a few of the old California Merlot specialist bottlings from estates such as Duckhorn Vineyards and Matanzas Creek Vineyards from the vintages of the late 1970s and first half of the 1980s, and a couple that I have drunk have also been quite good and serious examples of the variety that have stood the test of time, so perhaps there is a wider playing field of top flight, cellar-worthy wines made from Merlot than those which I mentioned. But, our discussion of how to best serve this grape is best focused first on the wines of Pomerol, as these remain the ultimate expression of high quality that the variety has realized. As far as serving, I generally handle these wines as I do traditionally-styled cabernets, letting them get to a minimum of twenty-five years of age and then decanting them and generally letting them have at least a half hour in decanter prior to serving. In terms of aging the top wines of Pomerol, there are a handful of estates that have deeper clay soils than others, and I have found that these wines, such as Châteaux Pétrus, Trotanoy and Lafleur, often need much longer than twenty-five years of bottle age to really reach their plateaus of maturity and start to drink with optimal generosity. Those with less deep soils, such as La Conseillante, l’Evangile, Lafleur-Pétrus and the like, tend to really start to sing around age twenty-five. The singular and superb estate of Vieux Château Certan does not really fall into this category, as it included a significant percentage of cabernet sauvignon in its cépages up until quite recently, and in my experience, it generally needed a bit more than twenty-five years in the bottle to start to show at its peak- at least when cabernet sauvignon was still a key building block in the wine.
Beyond the reach of the very best wines of Pomerol (and the aforementioned 1981 Kalin Cellars bottling, which has remarkably aged along the lines of these top Pomerols), merlot is not really a grape that I have all that much recent experience with, as I have not drunk any of the more commercially-oriented and less structured wines from this category in a very long time. Perhaps they are so commercially out of favor after the movie “Sideways” that most are no longer even produced? In any event, they are beyond the scope of this article, as are the simpler, commercial examples of cabernet sauvignon and the like that are also made for early drinking and were not discussed in the preceding section. However, the Cabernet Franc grape is a completely different topic and deserves its own section.
Generally, we have two important regions for Cabernet Franc: the central Loire Valley and the wines of St. Émilion. As the second region is comprised of blended wines, that also include merlot and sometimes cabernet sauvignon, I will turn to them second in discussing service. For the central Loire Valley and its great appellations of Chinon, Bourgueil and Saumur-Champigny, we have wines today that are generally made at the top estates for long and positive evolution in the bottle and both cellaring and proper decanting are necessary. These wines are a bit unique in our discussion, as they have undergone a sea change of style since the decades of the 1960s and 1970s, when the vast majority were crafted to emulate the early appeal of Beaujolais at the time and only the most traditional and top tier producers were still making wines for long-term aging. However, the overall stylistic pendulum for the wines of Chinon, Bourgueil and Saumur-Champigny started to swing back to the older school, more cellar-worthy style of wines in the decade of the 1980s (which also saw the origins of climate change- perhaps not coincidently) and for several decades now, the top wines produced in these appellations have been built for the cellar. With these wines, decanting is a must in my book for a couple of reasons, with the first obviously being that they develop considerable sediment once they are past ten years of age. The other reason I like to decant them is that they can be a bit funky when first opened, and the sweet black fruit tones found in most of these wines can sometimes take thirty minutes in decanter to start to stir, even when the wines are twenty or more years of age.
Cabernet Franc grown in the central Loire Valley can be grown on a wide variety of soil types, from the chalky tuffeau the region is so famous for, to clay, gravel and primarily sandy, alluvial soils. Each soil type influences this grape rather dramatically, helping to shape its eventual structure and potential longevity, as well as how the wine shows when first opened at maturity. The wines grown on alluvial or sandy soils tend to be the easiest-going structurally and also the most fruit-driven in personality, so they will seldom show any of the slightly funky elements of cabernet franc grown on other soils when they are first opened. They will generally drink nicely from age six or seven (depending to some degree on the style of the vintage) and generally do not demand extended time in decanter to blossom. The chalky tuffeau-based examples of cabernet franc usually show more inherent structure, as they have better acids in general than those grown on sandy soils, and so a bit of extra time in decanter to let the wine blossom a bit more from behind its good acidity is merited. I like to give these wines thirty minutes in decanter before serving them and will not generally open up these wines until they are a minimum of ten years of age, if the wine hails from a top estate who is aiming to make wines for the cellar. Cabernet franc grown in gravelly or clay soils are the ones that are most inclined to show those funky or animal notes when first opened, and these are the wines that really demand at least a minimum of thirty minutes in decanter (an hour is often better), as the fruit elements (inevitably black fruity in tone) in these wines can really be hidden until they have had sufficient aeration. A typical example of this style of cabernet franc would be any of the top examples from the Chinon vineyard of Les Cornuelles, which has a lot of clay in its soils and really needs time in decanter to properly blossom.
In the Loire Valley, cabernet franc is also the most important red wine grape in the Anjou region, and here, the wines need both extended bottle age and time in decanter prior to serving to show at their best. They are not as inherently elegant as the finest red wine appellations of the central Loire Valley, but with a decade’s worth of bottle age and thirty minutes of time in decanter to let them stretch their wings, they can be very satisfying in their own right. Moving onto the region of St. Émilion, where cabernet franc is generally blended with merlot or a bit of cabernet sauvignon, the wines tend to age very much along the lines of most of the cabernet sauvignon-based wines of Bordeaux, and I tend to treat them similarly in terms of what age I like to start drinking them and how I handle them prior to service. But, as was the case in our section on cabernet sauvignon, when I speak of the wines of St. Émilion, I am confining my comments to the wines made in a traditional style, as I do not willingly drink any of the new, modern-styled and dullard wines concocted by the Über Consultants of the Right Bank, most of which taste stillborn to me in any case and neither bottle age or proper handling is likely to help. In the US, wines made by Chris Camarda at Andrew Will Cellarers in Washington, which are varying blends of cabernet franc, merlot and cabernet sauvignon, are styled very much like the best old school wines of St. Émilion, and treating them to similar times in decanter prior to serving seems warranted. There are also some very good pure cabernet franc wines starting to be made here in the US- not all that many yet, but some very good ones that strike me as harbingers of even better things to come in the coming years. One of my favorites in this regard is the absolutely stellar new Sunbasket Vineyard bottling of cabernet franc from Cathy Corison. As most are relatively recent phenomena, I do not yet have a really strong sense of how to handle them when they are fully mature and ready to drink, but I suspect that letting them age fifteen to twenty years is going to see them into their sweet spots of peak maturity and thirty minutes in decanter is going to be a proper amount of aeration for them prior to service.
The proper place to have inserted the discussion of Mencía probably should have been right after Syrah, as it too seems to be best handled along the same lines as that grape. I often find that young mencía-based wines can also be a bit reductive if drunk in their youth, so thirty minutes in decanter is often very rewarding to let the wines open up and show all of their layers of youthful complexity. As the red wines of Galicia are really only starting to come into their own in the last decade, as the region was not even really a commercially viable wine-producing region for these beautiful red wines until the twenty-first century, I do not yet have a lot of experience with how to handle mencía-based wines at full maturity, but I have plenty in my cellar and will eventually understand far better how to serve them to their best advantage when the wines have had sufficient bottle age. Within Galicia, we also have the issue of many of these vineyards being very old and having only recently been reclaimed from the encroachment of the wild, so many of them are actually field blends that may be Mencía-dominant, but also include several other grapes such as Brancellao, Sousón, Alicante Bouschet, Mouratón, Caiño, Garnacha Tintorera, Merenzao and a host of other possibilities, so there is no hard and fast rule about how to serve wines here that could be composed of such blends. My experience with younger wines made from these field blends is that they are not all that dissimilar structurally from bottlings produced from pure Mencía, and so they respond quite well to thirty minutes in decanter before drinking them.
A further permutation with the beautiful red wines of Galicia has to do with the soil composition of a given vineyard, with those planted on soils dominated by slate or granite tending to be more pure in their fruit expressions, while those with more clay in the soils can share some of those funky or animal overtones when they are first opened that are found in cabernet franc vineyards planted on clay or gravel in the central Loire. I would say that when it comes to these variations based on the soil type of the vineyard, wines made solely from Mencía again behave similarly to those made from field blends that may include several other grapes, and all of these benefit from aeration prior to serving when the wines are on the younger side. In general, for these younger wines, I try to give them all thirty minutes in decanter to let them properly blossom, and will probably approach older ones in my cellar (somewhere down the road) in a similar fashion, with my customary methodology of decanting the wine and then tasting it to get some sense of its structure at this point in its evolution, and adjust time in decanter according to my impressions. I should also mention that I have tasted some very, very promising examples of Mencía produced in Oregon, and it may well be that this will be a major red wine variety here in the coming decade or two. The younger ones that I have tasted from Oregon have also benefited from some time in decanter prior to serving to really blossom.
Tempranillo is another grape that I invariably decant prior to serving- regardless of its age. This may seem counterintuitive, as the traditionally-oriented bodegas in Rioja are well-known for their very long barrel aging regimens for their wines prior to finally bottling them, and it would seem on the surface that wines that have enjoyed long and leisurely elevages in barrel prior to bottling would not really be in need of aeration prior to serving. However, as acidification has often been practiced in Rioja, one will often find rather tangy wines here, even thirty or forty years out from the vintage, and due to the acids in the wines, decanting is often a very rewarding experience with these older vintages of Rioja, as it will often let the aromatics and flavors blossom more completely, and it also unlocks that velvety palate impression that classic Rioja is so well-known for and can be masked if just poured directly from the bottle. As old school Rioja often spend a long time in barrel prior to bottling (though the number of years traditional Rioja spends in barrel these days is shortening from what was the case a generation ago), with the wines typically racked once or twice a year during their elevage, they do not generally throw as much sediment as a similarly aged cabernet sauvignon-based wine. However, I still do not like drinking these wines with the sediment still in them, so beyond the need to often unlock the acids a bit, I try to steer clear of serving the wine with the sediment still in the wine.
With the new style of Rioja, where the wines spend much less time in the cellars prior to release, are generally aged for shorter periods in a higher percentage of new oak (often in French barrels as well), the guidelines mentioned above may not be applicable. As most of those wines are relatively recent phenomena and still emphatically too young for drinking (at least to my classically-inclined palate), I do not have a lot of experience with how best to handle them, but my gut instinct is that the serving suggestions for cabernet sauvignon-based wines are probably going to also work well for these wines. I have not yet bought too many for my own personal cellar, preferring to devote my Rioja purchasing to traditionally-styled estates, it may be some time before I have a better sense of how to best serve these wines at full maturity or even what timeframe is reasonable to anticipate said maturity. Beyond Rioja, my serving preferences for tempranillo from regions such as Ribera del Duero, I would generally peg the vast majority of the top bottlings of these wines as being ready to drink between ages fifteen and twenty-five and best decanted thirty minutes before service. As I went into in some depth a couple of issues back, I would make an exception for Vega Sicilia’s Único bottling, which often needs more like forty or fifty years to really start to reach its apogee and which benefits rather dramatically from extended time in decanter. In many ways, I handle Vega Sicilia Único much as I do older Barolo or Barbaresco, rather than other tempranillo-based wines.
Barbera, Dolcetto and Aglianico
There are so many different red and white grape varieties in Italy that I could not address every single one of them in this article, even if I let it run to book length! But, let me at least take a look at three more of the more important ones in the country, as I feel that they are often not properly handled. Starting with Dolcetto, which is frequently (and misleadingly) described as the “Beaujolais of Italy”, I have seldom been served the wine in what I consider a proper fashion. First and foremost, it needs decanting when drunk young, to let it relax a bit behind its usually pretty bouncy acids and to let the wine move beyond its simple “fruitiness” and show more layers of its personality. A minimum of fifteen minutes in decanter is merited for Dolcetto. I should also mention that I like my Dolcetto with a bit of bottle age, seldom preferring the newest vintage release to a bottling that has been in my cellar for at least a few years. When we move onto Barbera, my expectations for both the quality of the wine and its potential longevity grow exponentially. This is a grape that I feel is dramatically underrated for its absolute quality, and I cellar my Barbera bottlings for at least three to five years before starting to drink them. I also routinely decant them for a minimum of thirty minutes prior to serving, not only to get them off their sediment (as I am letting my bottle age), but also to unlock the wine from behind its girdle of acidity, which can often be just as strident as wines made from pinot noir or nebbiolo. With Aglianico, most importantly, the grape of Taurasi, extended aeration when the wine is ready to drink is very often rewarded in my experience. Twenty to thirty years out from the vintage is a good place to look for full maturity with Taurasi. I do not treat mature Taurasi to as long in decanter as I do mature Barolo, but usually an hour in decanter seems to be my customary timing before I serve a mature example.
Zinfandel has become such a stylistically schizophrenic grape since the 1990s that I really do not know even how to talk about its service needs today. If we ignore the Monster Truck, super high octane and sweet wines that form one end of the stylistic spectrum (which I do not drink ever, if I can help it) and just look at the wines produced that attempt to adhere to the older style of the wines from Joseph Swan and Ridge Vineyards back in the 1970s and 1980s, we still have a fairly wide range of style to try to cater our service parameters to and allow the wines to show optimally. As Rod Berglund, winemaker and owner of Joseph Swan Vineyards today, pointed out to me many years ago, the zinfandel grape has a pretty unruly acidity structure and getting those acids to start to ripen up and back off is often the chief goal of a given growing season. Sometimes, this takes letting the sugars in the grapes accumulate to pretty heady levels before picking can commence, and in some recalcitrant years, they never really budge sufficiently and the wines remain aggressively tangy for their entire lives in bottle. Due to the high acids found in “traditional” styles of zinfandel, I generally try to err on the side of extended aeration for most of my zinfandels, at least up to a certain age. I will often try to anticipate how long in decanter a wine may need by its alcohol level: wines in the thirteen to 13.5 percent range (low octane in the world of zinfandel) often will want a good hour in decanter to blossom. Those from 13.5 up to 14.5 may need less time, so I try to taste the wines right after decanting (focusing mostly at the acidity when I am tasting at this point) and try to tailor the amount of time in decanter to my perception of how tangy the acids are when I first taste it after opening.
I do look for and drink a bit of much older zinfandel, when I can find well-stored bottles at auction from the decades of the 1970s and 1980s, as I find that the old school style of zin back then aged far better than most commentators suppose and I have had some truly beautiful bottles of old zinfandel in recent times. Not too long ago I brought a bottle of the 1974 Cuvaison Zinfandel, which was made by Philip Togni, to a BYOB tasting with one of my wine groups here in the New York area and it ended up being the wine of the tasting, so one can see that the grape variety can produce some serious longevity if made in the style of yesteryear. When I contemplate buying older zinfandel at auction from this era, I am rather particular about alcohol levels in the wines, and generally steer clear of anything above 13.5 percent, as in my experience, though those wines may have been flat out delicious in their first decade or so of life, they do not generally tend to stand the test of time and reward twenty or thirty or more years of bottle age. On the other hand, wines like the 1974 Cuvaison, which was closer to thirteen percent (if memory serves me correctly) had aged brilliantly. With really old zinfandels of this ilk, I tend to not give them any extended time in decanter, once I have opened them and decanted them off of their sediment. It is my impression that zinfandel is a fairly fragile wine structurally after long bottle aging, and so, I tend to serve the wine soon after decanting and not let it start to collapse from too much oxygenation in decanter.
Port, Madeira and Sauternes
I obviously decant vintage Port with regularity, as once it has had sufficient bottle age, it is probably the one wine that can compete with Barolo for having the most bitter sediment. As I mentioned in the introduction, it remains the one wine that I routinely will stand up in my cellar for a month prior to decanting, as I find that it is often bottled in nearly black glass bottles that prove to be very, very difficult for my flashlight or candle luminosity to penetrate. In terms of how long to give it in decanter, once it has been opened, prior to serving, that tends to be tailored by both the age of the wine and the style of the vintage, in combination with the house style of a given Port lodge. A Taylor-Fladgate, Fonseca or Dow’s vintage Port at age thirty or forty is going to be given more time in decanter prior to service than a comparable vintage from a house such as Croft or Sandeman’s, simply based on house style. I am also going to give significantly more air to a 1977 than I am to a 1970 vintage, for example, based on the general structure of each vintage, rather than the seven years that separates the two years. As a rough rule of thumb, I tend to like to give vintage Port a good hour in decanter before serving, if the wine is in the thirty to fifty year range, and I will often go this long as well with wines that are in the fifty to seventy-five year range as well. I also never worry about finishing off a bottle of vintage Port on the first day that it is opened, as in my experience, it will easily keep a week to ten days before fading, if I double decant it back into its washed out bottle after serving it the first evening.
Sauternes is a wine that I generally do not decant (unless I am going to serve it double blind to one of my tasting groups), as I find that it tends to drink very nicely when served directly from the bottle. Occasionally, a very old bottle will have some fine sediment or some tartrate crystals that have filtered out of solution and I will then decant the bottle to provide more elegant service, but this is a pretty rare occurrence. In terms of temperature for service, I like to try to keep it cooler than cellar temperature, but not too cold. So I will pull a bottle of Sauternes out of the fridge about fifteen minutes before I am going to serve it, to let it come up in temperature a bit, and try to monitor its temperature and not let it get too warm (for instance, setting it on the table after pouring), as I find that many examples can get a bit structurally blowsy if they are served to warm. With Madeira, I generally do not decant these wines either, but I do open them a week before I really want to think about serving them. I will open the bottle, often pour just a bit in a glass to give a bit larger surface area in the bottle for oxygen to work its magic, and then leave the bottle in my cellar for a week or more before coming back to it. When I put the freshly-opened bottle back in my cellar, I put the cork back in the bottle, but I could imagine a bottle of Madeira sitting in the cellar with its cork out for that week and also not really degrading at all. It is not that the wine is not drinkable when it is first opened, but I find that it often is a bit volatile and has some bottle funkiness that it needs to work out, and given how beautiful these wines can be when they have stretched their wings properly, these days I just open up a bottle, pour a little out, and return it to the cellar for a week before I start to serve it in earnest. I also keep my bottles open for quite a long time in my cellar, and I have some that have been open now for a couple of years and I do not really feel that they have faded over this time. The wines certainly shift in personality over such long periods of being open, but Madeira is such a relatively indestructible wine in the first place, that I do not tend to worry about it being open for quite extended periods of time. Which reminds me, I have a couple of bottles that have been open down there for a long time now, and I am going to wrap this article up and see if I can find them…