Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Great Decanting Experiment

I’ve posted previously on decanting wines in order to enhance their appeal, so called aeration. Its something I do not do as I don’t believe that it has a positive effect on very many wines. Others, of course, disagree but when comparisons have been made between decanted and undecanted wines its usually the undecanted that have proven fresher and more attractive. The noted French oenologist Emil Peynaud describes a comparison between a decanted and freshly poured 1962 Médoc Cru in his The Taste of Wine: The Art and Science of Wine Appreciation. The decanted wine had lost “finesse and elegance” even though decanting had made it seem fuller, while “the undecanted wine was livelier, fresher, less thick but also less fleshy”.

Decanting, in order to allow a wine to reveal more of its character following exposure to air, is different from allowing the wine to reveal itself in the glass by swirling to expose the wine to air. Decanted wine is usually left to sit for a period of time so that a large surface area of the wine is exposed to the ambient environment. Decanted wine may or may not be sampled during this time to see if aeration is having the desired effect. Pouring wine into a wine glass has one aim, that of consuming the wine in an appropriate container and so the wine, if free from fault, is usually sampled until the glass is empty. Wine tasted over time from a glass, especially if its well made, may change its aroma/bouquet. In fact lingering over a glass of wine is done in the expectation that it will reveal more of its complexity. My concern with decanting, especially for hours, is that the chance to appreciate the evolution of the wine in a glass may be lost. This assumes that a wine will change over time, many do not.

Testing whether decanting has a positive or negative effect on the appeal of a wine is not a straightforward procedure as there is no standard protocol for such an experiment. After having given it considerable thought I’ve arrived at the following approach as the most practical (for me) to test the hypothesis that decanting wine does not improve its aroma/bouquet and/or taste. Two bottles of wine are used; in most of the tests to be done these will be half-bottles (375 ml) simply to reduce expense. One bottle is opened and poured into a decanter (Reidel) and the other is left unopened. After a period of time the second bottle is opened and the decanted and freshly opened wines poured into opaque (black) tasting glasses. I’ve chosen opaque glasses as its possible that the period the decanted wine will be left to sit may be as long as 24 hours, and its my impression that many wines darken with such lengthy exposure to air. The opaque glasses will hinder the influence of color change on the assessment of the wine.

Seeing as I am the taster in these tests and because I have a stated bias, (I do not believe that decanting affects wine in a positive manner), three glasses (labeled A, B and C) of wine will be poured. The pouring will be done by my able assistant Miranda (my wife) and she will pour the wine while I am out of the room. She can pour the wine in any combination she chooses as long as one glass has decanted wine and another undecanted wine; the third can be either decanted or undecanted wine. Miranda must record which glasses received which wine before I am allowed to taste the wine to see if I can determine which glass contains which wine. I decided on using three glasses because it means that if there is a difference I have to be able to detect it in two of the three glasses. I have to declare what wine I believe is in each glass before the order is made known to me.

Wine #1 2003 Turkey Flat Shiraz ($17.99USD, 375ml), 14.5% alcohol.
The first wine to be subjected to the great decanting experiment is the 2003 Turkey Flat Shiraz from the Barossa Valley of South Australia. The wine was decanted for 2 and half hours.

Glass A: A little subdued with rich blackberry, licorice and smoky oak notes. On the palate, this is a very astringent wine with nice juicy acidity but little carry of flavor.

Glass B: Similar to glass A but with added presence of stewed prune, tar and plum aromas. Palate very similar to glass A but there is more carry of flavor onto the palate.

Glass C: Aromas are very similar to glass B with more blackberry. Palate the same as glass B.

My opinion: A is undecanted and B and C are decanted.
Reality: B is the undecanted wine.

Conclusion: Although the differences were not pronounced I was quite confident that I had correctly differentiated between the decanted and undecanted wine. However it seems that you can decant this wine for a few hours without ill effect, or you can simply pop and pour!

Score: Decanters 0, Non-decanters 0

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