Taming your Tannins

A step-by-step guide to decanting.

I poured the tannic, unfriendly wine slowly into the decanter and hoped it would fruit up and become more approachable. Mixing with oxygen often softens rough, bitter wine edges, but it doesn't always achieve nirvana. Sometimes, the wine just sucks. But hell, it's a $50 Napa cabernet, so it's destined to taste better than this astringent mess, right? Hmm . . .

Nothing happened. Yet. It still smelled of oak (vanilla), earthy greenness (fresh leaf tobacco), but absolutely no fruit. Wine without fruit is like a sundae with no hot fudge. Of course, some oddballs prefer a mouthful of dirt and wood, but I need something to slip my tongue and taste buds into. And for $50, I should feel the flavor in my toes too. Let's hope decanting improves this gnarly beast.

Decanting — the act of moving wine from its original bottle to another vessel — exists for two reasons. One is to introduce oxygen to change our perception of tight tannins. The air alters the wine's chemical makeup, molding it into a fruity, more approachable beverage. This will take an hour or two. Wines that benefit include cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, big Spanish (Rioja, Ribera del Duero), as well as Italian reds (Barolo, Brunello, Barbaresco), syrah, and well-made merlots. Young, strong pinot noirs improve with a few sucks of air, but swirling the wine in your glass works just as well. Pretty much all others you can uncork, serve, swig, and repeat.

Thirty minutes in, the beast hasn't changed. I continue my quest for fruit.

Only the lucky experience the reason number two: to separate sediment from an older bottle. Reserved for the elite with cellars and restaurants with foresight (and for those with fabulous friends), aged wine can be a glorious treat. But it can also be messy. After eight or so years, the tannin in red wines starts to break down, releasing a flaky black sediment into the bottle. Some only give off a few flecks, but others, like aged port, can amass a quarter-inch of inky gook. Although completely harmless, a mouthful of this chewy, astringent mess tastes supremely nasty.

Before opening an old bottle, allow it to sit upright (assuming it has aged on its side) for at least two hours so gravity can push the suspended sediment to the bottom. Carefully pour the liquid into the decanter, but stop before the sludge slides down the neck; if necessary, use a candle or small flashlight to watch through the bottle. To wallow in laziness, fashion a scrap of coffee filter in the mouth of the decanter. Once the wine belches its bog, return it to its rinsed original bottle, or leave it in its new home but consume within eight hours, or it will morph into really expensive vinegar. One word of caution: Due to their delicate state, decanting older pinot noirs can kill the flavor, so pour straight from the bottle, remaining vigilant of the sediment.

As for decanting vessels, skip the overpriced crystal. I have some from Target that cost $20. Although the more expensive ones look and feel decadent, their size and material are mostly hype and profit. Any clean, wide-bottomed, or fat glass pitcher or carafe will do.

An hour later, the formerly shy Napa cab awakens from its shell. Aromas of black cherry, bittersweet chocolate, with a whiff of ripe plum. Mmm . . . starting to smell like something good. Patience is a virtue I rarely possess, but this time, patience pays off. 

Recommended Wine

Ménage à Trois 2006 Red California Fruity and meaty, bursting with cherry jam, tart cranberry, and soft, elegant tannins. A dash of spicy black pepper as well. Amazing value. $12. 

Krems 2006 Gruner Veltliner Ried Sandgrube Kremstal This Austrian white smells like fresh, clean sheets sprinkled with lime juice. Medium-bodied with red apple, almost ripe peaches, and slight diesel fuel. Easy acids make it an all-day quaffer. $18. 

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