If we imagine ageing in bottle as the wine’s final repose, a deep sleep in a cool, dark place where it can dream about its elaboration while snoring through its cork, then the moment of serving is the wake-up call. While some wines are ready to go, right out of the bottle, others need some time to stretch their limbs before the big event. This difference calls for separate methods of serving the wine, by pouring straight from a bottle, a carafe or a decanter.
The Carafe and The Bottle
“Carafe” is the French name for a glass container used to serve wine, water and other beverages. A “jug” is similar, but has a handle to facilitate pouring. These containers are common in restaurants and homes to serve table wine, which is the lower of the two official quality categories into which European wines are grouped. A wine served in a carafe is considered an approachable beverage to be shared. It is not uncommon to add cubes of ice to bring a carafe wine to the right temperature on a warm summer day. When wine is served in a carafe or jug, it often means that the bottle from which it came is either not labelled (meaning it came directly from the producer and/or was never commercialised) or that the label is not of particular importance in the enjoyment of the wine. Some carafes – notably the stunningly elaborate, organic “Strange Carafes” of Etienne Meneau – serve a decorative purpose and are sometimes displayed along with the bottle for dramatic effect.
If the etiquette serves as an indication of quality and can in any way improve the tasting experience, the bottle should be displayed at the tasting. In fact, many restaurants serve wine through a traditional ritual involving the waiter or sommelier and the guest who chose the wine. The server will bring out the wine, display the bottle to the guest before removing the cork, offer even the cork for inspection, then pour a sip and stand silently holding out the bottle while the wine is tasted. While these practices were originally meant to help ensure guests that they are receiving the wine they ordered (and are paying for) instead of a lower quality replacement, today they also add a sense of ceremony to the enjoyment of a precious bottle. Observing the label and acknowledging the place of origin, the classification, the vintage and the producer rounds out the experience of tasting a rare wine. It’s a bit like examining the wine’s birth certificate, while enjoying its colour, aromas and flavours.
More than just an elegant centrepiece on a table set for a special occasion, the decanter serves as a tool for improving the tasting experience of a wine even further. When a wine is properly (slowly and carefully) poured into a decanter, it can more easily separate from its sediment, which contains bitter and gritty particles that can mix into the wine and hurt the overall quality. This is especially true for older wines, as sediment develops gradually over time. When phenolic molecules in the wine combine, they form tannin polymers which fall to the bottom of the bottle. The presence of sediment may also indicate that the producer did not filter (trapping sediment) or fine (binding sediment) the wine before bottling. Young wines without sediment can be decanted simply, while pouring older wines requires a bit more finesse. To learn more about how to serve old wine, stay tuned for Millesima Tips #8.
The second benefit of a decanter is that it allows younger wines to “breathe” a bit before they are tasted. The act of pouring a wine aerates it by forcing it to mix with oxygen. If a wine seems inexpressive or “closed” at first, allowing it to sit in a decanter for a longer period of time can open it, improving the tasting experience. The process can soften astringent tannins and release fruity aromas. It is crucial for the decanting to be performed by someone familiar with the wine and how it evolved. Older wines generally should not be decanted for more than 30 minutes, as they have already had enough time to develop and are more susceptible to oxidation. Leaving even a young wine out too long can result in oxidation, and a “faded” quality that signals that the wine has lost its personality and its panache. And that’s really just a shame.
Intricate decanter shapes and what they mean
With the vast variety of glass and crystal decanter shapes available, one may think they are strictly decorative. Does a decanter really need that extra twist or to be shaped like a duck? To some extent, yes. The wider the decanter bowl, the larger the surface area of the liquid exposed to oxygen, the faster the wine changes, the less time it needs to decant. Any twists in the neck increases the agitation when the wine is poured into the decanter, which also leads to more oxygen exposure and faster decanting. The width of the opening is also crucial, as it regulates how much air can get into the decanter in the first place. Old wines or lighter bodied reds (Pinot Noir, for example) are best kept in a decanter with a relatively narrow opening and base, while younger and full bodied red wines (like Cabernet Sauvignon and Monastrell) should be kept in a decanter with a wide base and a wider opening.