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Wine Tip: To Decant or Not to Decant?

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from author John Hailman’s book The Search for Good Wine which will be available for purchase September 2014 from the University of Mississippi Press. This particular chapter was written on October 21, 1988.
I always try to give my wife gifts I will also enjoy myself. Champagne, videos, and chocolates are good examples. Another relative success has been wine decanters.
Before the mass-produced bottle was perfected, most wines were served in decanters. Some decanters were made dark brown and green to hide the things floating int eh wine, or its lack of proper color. Nowadays, all wines look pretty good, so do we still need decanters? The answer is a solid Yes, for several reasons.
hWhy decant? One reason to decant wine is that it looks good in crystal or clear cut glass. Most bottles are still colored to protect the wines from light while they age – or away being drunk – and decanting lets you look at what you paid for.
Sediments. The most practical reason for decanting is to remove the often-better sediment from old wines. To do this, stand the bottle (usually of red wine) upright for a day or three before opening. Obviously this requires people who think ahead. Then, disturbing the wine as little as possible, uncork and pour it into the carafe, preferably above a candle or light bulb, stopping just before your each the cloudy-looking sediment in the bottom of the bottle. They sell expensive cradles and baskets for pouring wine from its side, but I have never found these to work too well; most serious wine people consider them useless pretensions.
Decanters for whites? White wines, usually filtered, rarely have sediment, so why decant them? One reason, again, is just to look at them. If that seems lightweight, there is the pragmatic reason: to chill them and keep them chilled. If you are like me and forget in the morning to chill a white for that evening, there are decanters, glorified pitchers actually, which have ice cylinders in the center for keeping wine cold while it sits on your table. You don’t have to run to the fridge for refills, and your white doesn’t get watery.
Bargains. Best bargain decanter is one that I found years ago at Antoine’s restaurant in New Orleans; most of the best restaurants there still use them as water jugs. It is clear cut glass and looks much like the same items you see in Paris. It costs a mere $10, but looks like $100. Most restaurant supply houses should have them.
Offsets. Another reason for decanting wine is to let it “breathe”, i.e. for its volatile esters to combine with oxygen, thus in theory “freeing” its bouquet. I actually believe it, as do most experience wine tasters. To breathe best, the wine must be exposed to the most possible air. For this, a broad, wide-bottomed decanter with a broad mouth is advisable. For another $150, you can get a lop-sided “offset” decanter called a Crystal Magnum.
Wine Ducks. More offbeat, and also ancient, is the so-called “wine duck”, so named by Thomas Jefferson’s grandchildren because the thing looks like a duck. It neither quacks nor waddles, but does have a long neck and a bill-like opening. Technically, it is a recreation of an ancient Greek askos, or wine skin, which Jefferson had copied in silver at Nimes while he was on tour in France. They used to cost several  hundred dollars, but there is now an Italian version available in lead crystal with a silver-plate bill for $79.

Wine Duck
Wine Duck

Our duck please not only my children, but even my wife, who usually thinks wine gadgets are wasteful; it is an outstanding decanter. Jefferson occasionally let his grandchildren keep their marmalade in his, but old Bordeaux is much better.
hailmanJohn Hailman of Oxford is a regular contributor to HottyToddy.com on two subjects: Law and Wine. Now retired from both his “day job” as a federal prosecutor in Oxford after 33 years and his “night job” of 25 years as a nationally syndicated daily columnist in more than 100 daily papers on wine, food and travel for Gannett News Service and the Washington Post, Hailman will cover both topics under the titles of The Legal Eagle and Wine Tips of the Week. HottyToddy.com will also run periodic excerpts from Hailman’s upcoming book of humorous legal stories, From Midnight to Guntown: True Crime Stories From A Federal Prosecutor in Mississippi. Hailman now teaches Federal Trial Practice and Law and Literature at the University of Mississippi.

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