Parsing Chardonnay

I don’t like Chardonnay.” she said.
So you don’t want any of this Puligny Montrachet les Folatieres?” he replied.
Of course I do … but that’s White Burgundy.”
Which is Chardonnay.”
So why do I like White Burgundy but not Chardonnay?”
That’s a good question . . .

If you’ve ever asked that question, if you’ve ever wondered why wines taste the way they do, the answer is that it is because of where they’re from (place) – and where they were made, what they’re made from (grapes), how they’re made (technique, tradition, and even law), who made them (person – which, in fact, has a lot to do with how), and when they were made (vintage). So Chardonnay from Chablis will taste different than Chardonnay from Puligny and Chardonnay from Puligny will taste different than Chardonnay from Carneros – which will taste different than Chardonnay from the Sonoma Coast.

If you have a good knowledge about wine and you taste a Chardonnay, you may (or may not) be able to come to some conclusions about the where, the what, the how, and more. And, if you know the technical information about (the where and what and how, etc.) a particular wine, you may be able to (maybe should be able to) predict what the wine will taste like. That’s why we (the “collective we” of all of us wine geeks) go to the trouble to taste a lot of wine and learn about wine: we want to be able to more accurately pick wines we will enjoy drinking.

Just so you know: In the US, more people drink Chardonnay than any other kind of wine. Over 19% of all the wine purchased from Spec’s says “Chardonnay” on the label – and that doesn’t include any of the French Chardonnays labeled with place names like Puligny Montrachet or Pouilly Fuisse, Meursault or Macon, Chassagne or Chablis. This, even though many if not most people who are professionals in the wine business or who write about wine drink little if any wine labeled Chardonnay. Oddly enough, as they drink so little Chardonnay, many if not most of these professionals are not qualified to recommend Chardonnay. Many are not even comfortable talking about Chardonnay.

If we’re going to look at Chardonnay, lets start with “What.” Chardonnay is a green skinned grape yielding clear juice, likely native to France’ Burgundy region, used to make white wine. A crossing of Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc (an almost extinct white variety that has served as a parent to several better known varieties), Chardonnay is the second most planted white wine variety and may soon pass Airen (grown only in Spain and used mostly to make brandy) to take the number one spot. Chardonnay is planted in more wine producing regions around the world than any other variety. While it is a fairly neutral variety that shows the influence of place and technique, there are some Chardonnay fruit characteristics. In the coolest climates, Chardonnay can offer a lemony citrus component along with green tree fruit (apple and pear) and green banana. In more moderate climates, more ripeness can bring a broader range of citrus with riper tree fruit, occasionally some stone fruit (peach is possible) and even some melon and other tropical notes. In the warmest areas where Chardonnay is grown, the fruit can get into the pineapple, mango, and ripe banana range without necessarily loosing all of its citrus freshness. One of the telltales for Chardonnay is a nuance of banana fruit anywhere on the scale from green to over-ripe. Maybe it easier to define in the negative: All other things being equal, Chardonnay is less grassy than Sauvignon Blanc, less juicy than Riesling, less fat than Viognier, less fresh than Pinot Gris (Grigio), etc.

Moving to where, if Chardonnay is cropped at reasonable yield levels (say from under 2 to 4 tons per acre) in a balanced vineyard (one where yields are in balance with the vigor of the vines and the soil), Chardonnay will reflect the character of the place as much as any other white wine producing grape. If the yields are too low, Chardonnay can lose its place by becoming overly extracted and even gritty tasting. If yields are too high (some Australian vineyards have “achieved” from 12 to 20 or more tons per acre), place disappears into simplistic pineapple popsicle fruit. Which is not to say that all places are good places or that all or even most places even have a recognizable character. It’s just that if there is a distinctive mark of place to be found, good Chardonnay is most likely to show it.

As Chardonnay’s spiritual home is Burgundy, it seems clear that Chardonnay should grow well in chalky soils (Chablis, and coincidentally, Champagne) and on limestone (the Cote d’Or, Cote Chalonnaise, and Macon) – and it does. What is amazing is how well Chardonnay can do in other areas where the soils range from sedimentary to volcanic in origin or even on some of California’s (and Chile’s) granitic soils. Outside of Burgundy, “great” Chardonnay has come from Texas (clay over limestone), Carneros (marine sediments), New Zealand (especially Marlborough and Central Otago), and various parts of Australia (especially Margaret River). Each of these places can have a unique gout de terroir (smell of place) that can (in the best cases) mark the wine making “Where?” an answerable question.

As to how, if it is a white winemaking technique, it has been tried on Chardonnay. About the only thing that seems never to work is trying to make Chardonnay into a sweet dessert style wine. To oversimplify: If you start with 22.5% sugar, higher acidity grapes and ferment slowly in cool stainless steel tanks and block malo-lactic fermentation and minimize subsequent air contact with no barrel aging, you get a completely different result than if you start with 25% sugar, lower acidity grapes and barrel ferment (with, let’s say, at least one third new barrels) and age the wine with lees-stirring and full malo-lactic fermentation in those barrels for 12 or so months. The first sort (as made in Chablis) offers a steelier, more focused style with fresher and maybe leaner fruit and usually (at least in Chablis) a sort of chalky-limestone minerality. The second sort (as made in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley) is likely to offer riper but less intense or even ill-defined fruit flavors with lots of milky-buttery-creamy aromas, flavors, and textures accented by an almost sawdust oak component and a toasty (from the lees) richness. The first sort is all about the fruit and the place. The second sort is at least as much (and often more) about the winemaking (technique and style) and the stamp of the winemaker as it is about fruit or place, especially as both fruit and place can so easily be overwhelmed by technique (aka “winemaking load”).

Technical Considerations (The Vineyard)
Where to plant, rootstocks, genetic material (whether clones or a massal selection), row orientation, and even trellising systems are all early on decisions that can affect the wine for many vintages. Healthy vineyards are rarely replanted before they are 30 years old and often (in the best sites) not before they are 75 or more years old. Farming techniques such as sustainable agriculture, organic agriculture, or even biodynamic farming also have a large effect but those effects are more immediate than which variety is planted.

When working the vines, are horses or tractors used? Horses are gentler and less compacting to the earth and often leave something beneficial behind. Tractors are faster and easier but they compact the ground and leave behind diesel fumes.
Picking date is a different “when” than “vintage.” Picking earlier gives more acid (and lower pH) and brighter fruit with potentially lower alcohol. Of course, picking too early leads to under ripe or even green flavors. Picking later brings lower total acidity and higher pH, more sugar (and so riper fruit flavors and higher potential alcohol) and other, not always positive, possibilities.

Technical Considerations (The Winery and Cellar)
How much sorting was done in the field and in the winery? (Sometimes too much sorting can lead to boring, homogenous wines.) Were the harvested grape clusters crushed and de-stemmed, just de-stemmed (whole berries), or left to go into the press as whole clusters. Was sulfur-dioxide used to kill any native yeast or other microbes from the vineyard before fermentation?

Was a basket, bladder, or screw press used? (Too clean juice is the current most popular villan in the effort to find the cause of “prem-ox” or premature oxidation in white Burgundy.) What “cut of the juice” was kept to be fermented into wine and what percentage was rejected as being too phenolic due to too much pressing? Was the pressing super-gentle resulting in light clear juice (again a prem-ox issue) or was there enough violence to it to put some solids from the pulp and skins into the juice. Was the juice run from the press straight into the fermenting vessels (whether tanks or barrels or even concrete eggs) or was it first run into a tank to settle and maybe even to oxidize before it was moved to the fermentation vessels.

Were those fermentation vessels temperature controlled stainless steel tanks, oak barrels, or new fangled concrete eggs? If they were oak barrels, how big were they 225 liters (a standard barrel or barrique)? 300 liters (a puncheon)? 500 liters (also called a puncheon)? Or even 600 liters (demi-muids)? And what percentage of the barrels were new? The bigger the barrel, the less flavor it imparts. And the newer the barrels, the more flavor it imparts. If the wine was fermented in tanks, were oak chips or inner-staves added to layer in an oak nuance to a non-barrel-fermented wine. Wines made with no oak contact (from barrels or chips or inner-staves) are called un-oaked or un-wooded.
If oak was used, where did the wood for the barrels (or chips or stave) grow? Some forests have tighter grain and some looser which effects the density and porosity of the wood which effects both evaporation rates and how much flavor the wood imparts. How long was the wood allowed to air dry before coopering? Two years is standard, three years is better, four to five years is best. Longer air-drying means more of the harsher elements have been leeched from the wood and so the longer air dried staves impart a more subtle and somehow cleaner set of flavors. Which cooperage(s) made the barrels? Some coopers (barrel-makers) – such as François Freres – are known for heavier toasting or a distinctive style imparted by their barrels. In some cases it’s possible to discern the cooper in the finished wine.

Was naturally present yeast utilized for fermentation or were the tanks or barrels inoculated with a cultured yeast mix. Natural fermentations sometimes develop more flavors but they may stick (as in stop before all the sugar is fermented) or develop off aromas. Inoculated fermentations are safer and better controlled but sometimes may result in bland or “corporate” tasting wines. Which yeast are “naturally present” can have a lot to do with both where the grapes were grown and how they were farmed and with the location and conditions at the winery. Organic or biodynamic farming would seem to be more conducive to a healthy yeast population in the vineyard. Chemical intensive commercial farming might not. A modern steel and concrete winery with temperature and humidity controls that was designed to be clean and sterile may not develop or maintain a beneficial yeast population. An old gravel-floored, stone and wood building that is naturally cool and humid will develop a diverse population of natural flora including yeasts and malo-lactic bacteria – and a variety of molds. Because these sorts of cellars and their flora are unique, that older-style cellar can add a further sense of place to the wine.

After the alcoholic fermentation, was malo-lactic fermentation (often “ML” or sometimes “malo”) blocked, allowed, or encouraged? If blocked, how? A blocked malo can emphasize fruit but reduce complexity. If allowed, how long was the time gap between the end of alcoholic fermentation and the onset of ML? How long did the malo-lactic fermentation take? Were the wines sulfured and racked after malo finished? ML can add richness and complexity but too much malo-lactic character can hide the fruit and make a wine too rich (too buttery, too creamy, too milky) and even blousy. Was malo stopped before it completed? If so, how? A partial malo-lactic fermentation can give the best of both worlds in adding some richness while retaining some fruit flavors. If ML was encouraged, how – and how soon after the end of primary? Later malo-lactic fermentations tend to “set the fruit” better than earlier malls.

Were the lees stirred? If so, how vigorously and how often? Lees stirring can add richness but as with malo-lactic fermentation and new oak barrels, not all wines have enough fruit to handle that level of winemaking load.
How long was the wine left to age (in barrels or tanks) before assemblage? The longer it was in oak barrels, the more exposure it has had to air. That controlled oxidation makes it a bit darker and a bit richer but also a bit less fruity. To get one thing, you give up a bit of something else.

Was the wine fined and or filtered? Fining can help clarify the wine by removing proteins and other elements that can give it a haze so that it is bright in the bottle. Filtration can do the same thing as well as remove other detrimental elements such as Brettanomyces (a detrimental yeast that can lead to earthy, barnyardy, or even fecal smelling wines) but filtration has the potential to strip some flavor if used too aggressively.
Was the wine cold stabilized? Cold stabilization is the process of chilling the wine in tank before bottling to encourage it to precipitate its tartrates (tartaric acid) in the form of crystals in the tank before bottling. I don’t see where cold stabilization has any possible negative effects but some producers wont do it.

How was the wine bottled? Was it beat up on a high pressure, high speed bottling line or coaxed into the bottle by gravity flow, or somewhere in between.

Was it given more aging in the winery’s cellar after it was bottled?

Tasting can tell you (generally in broader strokes but sometimes in precise detail) the answers to many of these questions so in tasting wine you can often deduce a lot about how it was made. Knowing this sort of information about a wine (especially a Chardonnay) before you taste it allows you to predict how the wine will taste and the more you know, the more accurately you are likely to be (picking wine you like) in making your choices.

The Who of a wine becomes important because someone has to pick which grapes to use (what and where), when to pick, and how the wine will be made. That person’s education, experience, and personal preference is the focusing force that allows the wine to become what it is. Some winemakers are all about the place and others are determined to make the wine into what they want it to be.
It used to be that the more expensive the wine was, the more it tended to reflect the place. With the advent of superstar winemakers and big name consultants (Paul Hobbes, Helen Turley, etc.), a winemaking style may supersede place, which – if the place is very good – is often a shame. There has to be a guide or a shepherd to get the wine through the process and for better or worse, that person may leave his mark whether subtle or obvious.

Do you prefer more fruit and less “winemaking load?” Then you want a cooler climate, more focused Chardonnay fermented and aged in tank with blocked or maybe partial malo-lactic and little or no lees stirring. Or do you prefer a rich buttery-oaky-ripe style of Chardonnay layered with complexity and nuance? Then maybe you want a Chardonnay grown in a riper appellation (place) and fermented in mainly (or even all) new oak barrels with full malo-lactic and extended aging (10-14 months) with lees stirring in barrels – which can all be a lot of “winemaking load” so the quality of the fruit that is the starting point becomes paramount.

So let’s look at two wines that are made with essentially the same techniques: no sulfur at reception, whole clusters pressed with some solids making it into the juice, no settling, a naturally present yeast barrel fermentation (in high quality four-year air-dried, medium-low-toast French oak barrels from tight grain interior France forests made by top coopers) in a cool environment followed with some but not a lot of batonnage (lees stirring), a subsequent natural (un-inoculated) malo-lactic fermentation in those same barrels with sulfuring and racking after ML is complete, another 5-to-8 months in those same barrels before assemblage and bottling un-filtered and un-fined but with cold stabilization on a gravity fed-bottling line.

You might think these two wines have a lot in common – and they do – but let’s also look at the differences. One is made from biodynamically farmed Chardonnay grapes planted in clonal blocks and trellised with a double cordon using vertical shoot positioning (VSP) grown in sedimentary soils (southwest facing) in Carneros in California. The grapes were picked with a potential alcohol of almost 15% and the wine was made in a modern “warehouse” (steel and concrete) winery with concrete floors and complete climate control.

The other was made from Chardonnay grapes organically grown in Puligny Montrachet on east-facing rocky limestone slopes planted to a massal selection (lots of genetic diversity) and trellised with a single cordon and minimal catch wires (but still essentially VSP) with minimal soil. The grapes were picked with a potential alcohol content of 13.5% and the wine was made in an old stone-and-wood-cellar (under-ground in the cool natural rock) with gravel floors (to allow the humidity of the earth to keep the cellar damp which naturally slows evaporation) that has been used for winemaking for over 300 years.

Both wines are from the same fine vintage, let’s say 2009.

So how will the wines taste? Both will be excellent but there will be distinct differences.

Our Carneros Chardonnay will be fairly open and easy to evaluate and appreciate. The fruit profile will show riper citrus layered with tropical fruit. It will be riper, higher in alcohol, and a bit lower in acidity. The sense of place will be there and may manifest with a certain mushroom earthiness. There will be a lot of richness, a creamy texture, and a distinct carpenter-shop oak note. A chef might say the wine is “deconstructed” in that everything is there to see. The wine is of obvious high quality and it is certainly not “Cougar Juice.”

Our Puligny Montrachet is a bit less ripe (but not under-ripe) and so offers a more citrus and apple fruit profile. The sense of place comes through as a sort of limestone minerality (which combined with fruit profile, lower alcohol, and higher acidity might – hopefully – tell me in a blind tasting that this wine is from Burgundy. It is tightly integrated and, even though the wine was fermented in all new oak and went through full malo-lactic fermentation, neither technique is obvious. Maybe it needs decanting. Finally with a fair amount of swirling, it begins to open and show layers of slowly evolving flavor.

Both are excellent and give a high level of pleasure. One may be more of a muscular sports car and the other more of a refined sedan. In terms of longevity, I think the sports car is more fun to drive (initially at least) but will look dated while the sedan (which is still fun to drive) will age into a classic. I actually enjoy both and would be sad if I had to choose only one or the other.

What made these two wines made using essentially the same techniques so different? Place. The stamp of place in both cases was more important than all the winemaking and even the who.

What good is all of this to you? If you know what you like or what you are in the mood for, you can pick the perfect wine by picking the wine from the right place made using the right techniques to yield the combination of flavors, character, and textures you want. Parsing through the details (the Ws) helps you pick the right wine for you – and that is what wine education and wine tasting is all about.

GENERIC TURKEY WINES

So you need to buy a bottle (or 3 or 4) for Thanksgiving but you’re not really clear on the menu? You know there will be turkey but you don’t know how it will be cooked and you don’t know which sides will accompany it? You’re flying blind; I’m here to help.

All other things being equal, Pinot Noir is the best wine to serve with the traditional thanksgiving meal with all its regional and familial variations and permutations. Traditional New England? No Problem. Pit-roasted Turkey with jalapeño cornbread oyster stuffing? Ditto. Deep-fried Turkey with a Cajun spice injection? Out-a-sight. Turduken? Uh-Huh. Pinot handles ’em all even as it deals with all the oddball spicy, sweet (candied yams, cranberry sauce), salty, or gloppy (overcooked green beans served in casserole with canned mushroom soup and French’s fried onions) side dishes better han any other red. And, if served at 55-58°F (which is ideal cellar temperature), Pinot will actually help a slightly dried out turkey (of which there are far too many) taste better.

My picks (in three different price ranges) are all from France because these wines are lower in alcohol and a bit higher in acidity (freshness) making them better partners at the table.

Le VERSANT Pinot Noir, Vin de Pays d’Oc, 2012versantpn
100% Pinot Noir, grown on north and east facing slopes in the highlands near Puisserguier & Cazouls in Southwestern France. Fermented using rack-and-return (most unusual for Pinot) and aged 5 months in 90% Stainless Steel tanks and 10% in older oak barrels.   Sensory Note: Deep-red color with well formed legs; dry, medium-bodied with freshly balanced acidity and medium phenolics.  Supple dark red cherry and some berry fruit with accents of cola, a subtle earthiness and a bit of black pepper along with spice and a dark floral note. Bear Note: Lovely in the mouth This is the value-priced, food friendly, everyday Pinot Noir you’ve been looking for. Grows on you as you drink it. Shockingly good for the price. BS: 90. ($12 SRP)

LEONCE BOCQUET, Rully Rouge, 2009
100% Pinot Noir (from Rully in Burgundy’s Cote Chalonnaise) aged 14 months in a combination of 50% used oak barrels and 50% tank.     Sensory Note: Red-violet in color with well formed legs; dry, medium-bodied with freshly balanced acidity and medium phenolics with a longer finish.    Supple darker red cherry-berry fruit and even a hint of cocoa to complement the cola and dark floral notes.    Bear Note: Complete. Drinking very well now. This is Chalonnaise Pinot Noir at a high level.  BS: 91. ($24 SRP)

HENRI de VILLAMONT, Savigny les Beaune Clos des Guettes 1er cru, 2011
Tech Note: 13% Alcohol. 100% Pinot Noir fermented using open-top tanks and punch-downs (classic for Burgundy) and aged 14 months in French oak barrels (40% new).   Sensory Note: Red in color with well-formed legs; dry, medium-bodied with freshly balanced acidity and medium phenolics.  Shows fresh red cherry and berry fruit. Lots of cola and spice but on an elegant and even ethereal structure. Vivid in the mouth with a lingering finish that comes in waves.   Bear Note: YUM. Precise, pure, refreshing; alive-in-the-mouth. BS: 92+. ($35 SRP)

And maybe you’d like to bring some bubbles? Everybody may like the guy who brings donuts or breakfast tacos but everybody LOVES the guy who brings the bubbles. You can be that guy. Don’t know what to grab? Gotcha covered there too:

Castillo PERELADA Brut Reserva, Cava (Spain), NVPerelada500x500
Tech: 11.5% Alcohol. A blend of Macabeo, Xarel·lo and Parellada together with Chardonnay and Subirat Parent, Garnatxa Tinta, and Monastrell. Fermented using Methode Champenoise and aged at least 18 months on the yeasts in the bottle. Sensory: Pale-gold-straw in color; dry, medium-bodied with fresh acidity. Cheap Cava that both smells and tastes better than its price. Toasty, yeasty earth with citrus and tree fruit along with some earthy red fruit. Good grip in the mouth, quite long. So much better than it has to be at this price point. BS: 90+. ($10 SRP)

JANSZ Brut, Tasmania, NV
Tech Note: 12% Alc. A methode champenoise blend of 58% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir, and 2% Pinot Meunier aged two years en tirage (on the yeasts) before disgorgement and finishing. Sensory Note: Pale green straw in color and fully sparkling with a nice bead even in the larger Riedel glasses. Plenty of fizz. The yeast-and-fruit nose was evident even as I was pouring the wine. In the glass, I found yeast and toast notes along with citrus and floral as well as a bit of red fruit. There is even a Champagne-like mineral component along with enough richness to make this work well with food. (I continued to sip it after we were seated with some of La Vista’s excellent mussels.) It is crisp and fresh with a fine balance and very long finish. Bear Note: Delicious. I think Carol has a slight preference for the Jansz Rosé but I find them both to be excellent. And I think this was better with the mussels than the Rosé would have been. BS: 92+. ($25 SRP)

GOSSET Brut Excellence, Champagne, NVimages-1
Tech: 12% Alcohol. A blend of 45% Pinot Noir, 36% Chardonnay, and 19% Pinot Meunier sourced primarily from Grand and Premier Cru vineyards. Gosset bases this blend on three vintages and then adds 20% reserve wines (wines aged in a sort of solera with many vintages blended together). The wine spends over 2.5 years en tirage (resting on the lees before disgorging). Sensory: Medium straw in color with a hint of green highlights. Dry, light-to-medium-bodied with crisp acidity and scant phenolics. Focused, classy, classic, and delicious. Tart lemon-citrus fruit with some some subtle red fruit notes along with lots of toast and a lot of minerals. Fine style. Gets richer and more satisfying as it warms and flattens (which I like very much). Delicious. BS: 92. ($41)

HAPPY THANKSGIVING

Decanter Rules

IF YOU TALK TO THE WINE EXPERTS (that would be me and pretty much everyone else who thinks he is), at some point someone will tell you that you need to decant a particular wine. It might be a young red or an old red. It might even be a young white burgundy or, perhaps rather shockingly, an old bottle of Champagne. You will note that at the most basic level, there are two reasons to decant a wine: because it is young and because it is old. As you might guess, each gets different treatment.

Reidel Duck Decanter

Young wines are often decanted because the need air. The need air in the sense of oxygenation as opposed to oxidation (but of course too much oxygenation leads to oxidation. When many wines are young, they often show “tight” or “closed” which is to say that they don’t show much at all. They need aeration to help work some oxygen into the wine and allow the volatile gasses that make up aroma and flavor to emerge. You can achieve this through pouring the young wine into large glasses and swirling but enough swirling of this sort to really open up the wine can be tiresome. Rather than swirling in the glass, it can be better dump the bottle in to a large decanter where a large surface area allows a lot of air contact. The two most common vessels for this sort of decanting are Duck Decanters and Captain’s or Ship’s decanters. Both have large surface areas and each has it’s own advantages. Duck decanters are much easier to pour.

Bormioli Captain’s Decanter

Ship’s decanters can be swirled to further enhance the oxygenation of the wine they hold. Duck decanters are not at all suited for swirling. And Ship’s decanters can be awkward to pour, especially as you get toward the end of the wine. At home I sometimes use a simple one liter glass carafe as a decanter for a young red that needs a rough splash of oxygenation. The technique here is to pour the young wine (usually a red but a tight young Chardonnay from Burgundy’s Cote de Beaune or Chablis or even a top California Chardonnay such as Hanzell or Stony Hill can be a candidate) roughly into a large container with a bit of splashing. For a really young red, you might roll it from the first decanter into a second decanter for another splash of air. Then the wine can sit in the decanter breathing for another hour or more. (Please see below for a note on “breathing.”)

Older red wines need to be decanted not to add air but to remove sediment, or more precisely to move the wine off of the sediment. As red wines age, the phenols (tannins, anthocyans, flavonoids) polymerize (link up into molecular chains) which ultimately get too big to stay in suspension in the liquid and so precipitate out into a grainy or even gritty dark sediment or deposit. There is nothing wrong with this and it certainly won’t hurt you to ingest it but it is ugly in the glass and can cloud the wine if it is swirled up into it. And the texture in the mouth is not all that pleasant either. So it is best to decant older wines that have “thrown a sediment” in the bottle. Who are the candidates for decanting? Vintage Port and red Bordeaux are the first things that come to mind but any age-worthy red with eight or more years in the bottle can be a candidate. As these wines are older and have (we hope) developed with bottle age, the do not generally need any aeration. Some, especially wines based on Syrah and, to a lesser extent, Cabernet Sauvignon can be a bit “reduced” (Please see note below on Oxidation and Reduction) so they may need a little air to open up even after some years of aging but that aeration can generally be better gained in the glass rather than in the decanter.

Godinger Dublin Decanter

So how do you go about decanting an older wine? In addition to the bottle of older wine and a good corkscrew, you’ll need three things: an appropriately-sized decanter, a small flashlight, and a decanting funnel (not to be confused with an aerating funnel). An “appropriately sized decanter is one that closely approximates the capacity (if not the shape) of the bottle you are decanting. Ideally, you are decanting a 750ml bottle into a decanter that can hold a smidge more than 750ml. (A “smidge” is less than a “skosh” which in turn is less than a “bit.”  But I digress …) Use a single bottle decanter or, in a pinch, use an old clear wine or Champagne bottle. The small flashlight replaces the traditional candle on which I have occasionally singed a finger. A flashlight may lack the romance of a candle but a good one is brighter and more effective at showing you when the sediment begins to move in the bottle from which you are pouring. The proper decanting funnel has a crook at the end of the spout so as to guide the wine to the side of the decanter to run down to the bottom thus avoiding splashing and unwanted aeration. Someone decanting a particularly old bottle may want to first purge the air from the decanter by spraying in an inert gas mixture such as those found in “Private Preserve” or “Vineyard Fresh.” By replacing the air in the decanter with inert gas, you further reduce the possibility of oxidizing a precious older vintage.

If you know well in advance that you are going to open a particular bottle, stand it up for a day or even two before the big event. Even a couple of hours up right is a good thing. Ideally, this standing will take place in your temperature-controlled wine storage cabinet, closet, or cellar. When you stand the bottle up, be gentle and make note of which side of the bottle was down when it was laying in the rack, box, or bin. Just before you open the bottle, make sure the decanter is clean and dry with no off smells. If you are going to, now is the time to gas the decanter. Stand it up and then put the funnel into the mouth of the decanter. Now gently open the bottle taking special care with the cork. Generally, I prefer to use a “pull-tabs” corkscrew but when opening older wines I prefer the Screwpull waiter’s model. Whatever you do, don’t jar or knock around the bottle as you are likely to cloud the wine with too much movement. After the bottle is open, gently turn the bottle so that the side that was down in the rack is closest to the decanter. Now lift and gently, slowly, steadily pour the wine from the bottle into the decanting funnel as you shine the flashlight up from below the shoulder of the bottle to illuminate the wine as it passes. When sediment begins to move toward or into the neck of the bottle, you will see it. At that point, stop pouring and gently set the bottle down. If all went well, you have about 90% or more of the contents of the bottle in the decanter and the decanter is filled up into the neck. Now stopper the decanter and the wine is ready to be moved to the table or to a sideboard for service.

As to Champagne, why on earth would you decant Champagne? Well, it turns out that not everyone likes ALL that fizz and many may appreciate Champagne as much or more as a wine as they do as a sparkling wine. Gently decanting Champagne as described for aged reds above will reduce the fizz by 15 to 20% (but by no means eliminate it) and give the wine a chance to take on a bit of air and so open up which increases its “vinousity” or wine character. I don’t do it often (especially not at home as my wife is a fizz fan) but I have been known to decant champagne both young and old. One of my dirty little secrets is that I like my Champagne a bit less fizzy and a bit warmer (say 50-55°F) than the accepted norm. Decanting can help me get there.

Why decant? Because young or old, red, white, or sparkling, decanting can increase your enjoyment of the wines you drink. More wines will benefit from decanting than you may realize so it’s a good idea to keep a couple of basic decanters or even just a few clear empy bottle and glass carafes around. Just be sure to use the right size and shape decanter and the right technique for the age and type of wine you are preparing to enjoy.

BREATHING

The point of long bottle aging of certain wines (such as red Bordeaux and Burgundy, Vintage port, Northern Rhone Syrah, Chateauneuf du Pape, Rioja, and others) is to let them naturally develop from aromas to bouquet, from simple to complex, and from youthful freshness to fascinating maturity. These wines can be said to be age-worthy. Not all wines develop in this way and so these others should be drunk young. Also, we sometimes want to drink age-worthy wines before they are fully mature. In either case, young wines should be treated and served differently than mature wines.

Since these young wines have not had a chance to develop in the bottle, they will often benefit from air contact. Working air into a young wine, whether by an intentionally rough decanting, extended breathing, or swirling the wine in the glass allows the aromas and flavors to develop more than simply pouring the wine into the glass and tasting or drinking. As the wine is exposed to the air it develops and “opens up.” While this is the beginning stage of oxidation, many in the wine trade call this beneficial air exposure “oxygenation.”

For many younger wines, swirling the wine the glass may be sufficient. If the wine is particularly tight or very young, more vigorous swirling, a rough decanting, or an extended period of breathing – either in a decanter or in the glass – may be called for. More vigorous swirling is fine for tastings but may not be the best solution for a wine to be enjoyed at the dinner table.

OXIDATION & REDUCTION

When oxygen combines with compounds in wine, those compounds can pick up one or more oxygen atoms and become “oxidized”. These new compounds have different sensory characteristics. For example, when ethanol (the main alcohol found in wine) is oxidized it becomes acetaldehyde – which in turn can be oxidized to form acetic acid. Each smells different.

Similarly, polyphenols (tannins, anthocyans, and flavonoids) can be oxidized to quinones, and metals such as copper, iron, and manganese can be transformed from Cu+ to Cu2+, Fe2+ to Fe3+, and Mn2+ to Mn3+, respectively.

Reduction is the opposite of oxidation; it is a process whereby compounds lose oxygen atoms. Since wine fermention is an anaerobic process (without oxygen), a number of “reduced” compounds are produced. Reduced sulfur and nitrogen compounds such as hydrogen sulfide and mercaptans, are well-known for the negative “reduced” or “reductive” characteristics they give to wines. A little aeration after opening the bottle often cures what ails’em.

WINE PRESERVATION

Gently decant them into a clean decanter or clean empty wine bottle. There are two types of decanters: those for aerating young wine and those for decanting older wines that would be damaged by aeration. If you use a decanter, use the kind for older wines. YOu do not want the decanted wine to have a large surface area.

Rinse the original bottle very thoroughly with cold water and thoroughly drain it.

With minimal splashing, return the decanted Port to its original bottle.

Pour the wine and then gas (with Private Preserve or other nitrogen and/or argon-based wine preservation gas) and stopper what is left in the bottle.

Or you can decant and then pour from and gas the decanter, as long as it has a stopper. Gassed and stoppered decanters can keep the Port as well as a gassed and stoppered bottle. Or, if you know you will drink half the bottle, you can fill (from the decanter) a half bottle and then gas and stopper it and save this half bottle for another day. As long as you gas the wine early and seal it, it will keep for at least a week. It will keep even better if you keep it in the refrigerator (but not in the door).

You can use these same techniques for decanting and preserving any bottle of wine. The key to success is to expose the wine to as little air as possible. Decant gently using a funnel that runs the wine down the side of the bottle rather than one that sprays the wine out. The truly concerned wine geek might gas the empty decanter before decanting to displace the air from the decanter to further diminish the effect of oxygen. It is best to use a decanter that will be filled into the narrow neck to minimize surface area where the wine can be in contact with air.

I’ve tried every other technique I have heard of to preserve opened wine. Gassing and refrigerating the wine is the way to go.

Alternative Chardonnay and Pinot Noir

WE DRINK a lot of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. By “we”, I mean all of us wine drinkers in Texas. Using Spec’s sales data, wine labeled Chardonnay is the number one selling wine category and Pinot Noir is the number three selling red wine category (number five overall). Even so, a lot of the best Chardonnay and Pinot Noir Spec’s sells is not included in those numbers as it is not labeled Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. Rather, these wines are from Burgundy – which is both the spiritual and oenological home of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – and are named after their places of origin rather than the name of their grape variety. Except for tiny amounts of Aligoté, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Gris (all white) and Gamay (red), all the wines of Burgundy are either Chardonnay or Pinot Noir.

Even though Burgundy is the home of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, I feel the need …

For more, got to Alternative Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from SPEC’s UPDATE.