Cellaring and Decanting Wine: Two intertwined topics - One is concerned with keeping a wine safe, well stored and away from air for extended periods, while the other is about deliberately increasing the exposure to air upon opening. I'll let you decipher which is which.
When we think of cellaring wine, the first thing that might come to mind is an underground cellar, or a wine fridge. Both of these options are fantastic for storing wine, but aren't necessarily practical for everyone. When storing wine in the home without one of these options, here are some important factors to consider:
- Temperature. Cooler is better, and also constant temperatures are best. It's best to find somewhere away from fluctuations and higher temperatures, so not next to the oven or on top of the fridge.
- Light, especially UV light from sunlight, can be harmful to wine, so finding somewhere darker out of direct sunlight is best.
- Vibration isn't great for wine, so just somewhere where it's not going to be moved around a lot. This should be relatively straightforward!
- Humidity can be a factor. Wines with corks can dry out from the outside if the air is too dry, but it's not always practical to control this.
- Speaking of wine with corks, these should be stored on their side so that the cork doesn't dry out from the inside (which can lead to air exposure). It's not necessary to store wine with other closures (eg screwcap) on their side, but it certainly doesn't hurt!
When it comes to decanting, there are less clear rules and guidelines. Decanting just means: pouring a liquid from one vessel to another - eg from a wine bottle into a decanter (which is like a purpose built jug, often made of clear glass). While there are less strict guidelines around this, there are a few clues and cues to watch out for to inform your decision. Time to get some advice from those in the know!
I decided to ask Nicola, the wine buyer from Leigh Street Wine Room, her thoughts on cellaring and decanting, and she's given us some really thoughtful answers informed by her experience from working in restaurants around the globe.
Why would a restaurant find it beneficial to cellar some wines in the short term and long term, and how can this affect the development/quality of the wine?
We are very lucky to have space to be able to "hold wines" back - aka cellar wines. Not every venue can do this. Cellaring wines can be seen as a bit of a luxury because not only does it take space, there is also the element of temperature control - whether that be by way of Vintec or specific wine fridge, as well as the airconditioning of the cellar space itself.
Then, of course, there is the cash flow concern: of buying something and not receiving your return on it within a relatively short amount of time.
What I've mentioned above is also very relevant for the winemaker/ producer as well. They cannot always hold onto their wines before selling them, so there are times that a venue will purchase wine from a "new" release... but that does not mean the winemaker is saying 'sell or drink this wine now' - it might just be they need the cash flow. When there is the possibility to store/cellar wines, we will.
An example - a lot of international wine travels by boat, and that continued movement can really affect the wines. A lot of distributors will therefore try to "rest" the wines from this kind of shipment, but again it's not always possible. If cashflow permits, I try to let any new arrival/allocations sit for at least 3- 6 months before we add them to our wine list; this way the wine has a solid amount of time to 'settle'. If the wines are still a fairly new release, and I know that the producer might ordinarily hold them back (i.e a 2021 vintage received now) I will try to keep them for as long as possible before we sell them. Anywhere from 9 to 18 months, depending.
What type of wines generally benefit from cellaring, and what type of wines generally don't?
From experience, red wines that have a lot of tannin, or whites that may have quite a bit of new oak influence; these generally enjoy a few years of bottle time before opening. This can allow the tannins and oak to soften and integrate somewhat. These wines young can seem quite aggressive, edgy or harsh but over time they seem to meld and melow to become more harmonious.
Which can be a lot more enjoyable for the drinker.
The science behind all of this; I am no expert. I would generally not want to cellar for a long time any red wines that have had a light skin maceration or direct press (i.e Rose/Tavel reds/etc) as these are, generally speaking, made to enjoy now - their structure is usually elegant and light so they don't have the length, acid or tannin structure to warrant the aging, or even to stand up to it. Petillant Natural is also something that is better to be enjoyed not long after release - these are wines with freshness in mind - to be drunk and enjoyed early, whereas Champagne is usually made to be more complex.
Which wines could benefit from decanting, and why?
Decanting wines can really depend on the wine - a young wine might need decanting so it has air to express itself, or if it has a touch of reduction this can 'blow off' from decanting.
A robust, full body wine can be decanted for a couple of hours and have a 'cellaring affect' in a way - the oxygen helps it mellow slightly. A white which may be of a fuller style (Marsanne, Chardonnay, etc) can also enjoy being decanted, especially if the wine is too cold. This can help it open up, allowing the more delicate flavours or nuances to come out.
An older wine (eg. something 20-25 years plus) may be better not decanted as it could fall apart; the cellaring and aging has done what it needs.
To get another perspective on decanting, we asked Alex Schulkin from The Other Right (who is also a researcher at the Australian Wine Research Institute) a little about decanting, and how this affects wine:
What starts to happen to a wine once the bottle is opened?
The most obvious thing that happens to a wine, once opened, is contact with air. Of all the gases air consists of, most are inert, that is, they don't react with anything that is in the wine. Except oxygen, that makes up for the lack of reactivity of other gases. Reaction with oxygen is called oxidation. It is not necessarily bad for a relatively brief period of time, but eventually it will lead to the wine's demise. However, it is not just the gases that make it into the wine, but also the ones that escape it. In short, it is the dissolved CO2, as well as volatile sulfides, aka "stinky sulfurs" (not to be confused with sulfites, preservatives commonly used in wine).
What is a good reason to think about decanting wine, instead of just opening the bottle?
There is a lot of experience and intuition involved, when it comes to whether or not to decant a wine. But there are a couple of pretty straightforward cues:
If the wine smells of rotten eggs, burnt rubber, onion, cabbage and the like, there is some sulfide action going on. Sulfides could dissipate upon decanting, leaving the wine purer and fresher than before. The less obvious one is CO2, that can be present in wine in various concentrations, from sub-spritz levels to outright sparkling. Depending on the wine, CO2 may have a positive or a negative impact. In the latter case, decanting might help solve that. In addition, there are wines that will taste better upon decanting for no obvious reason – that’s where experience and intuition really make a difference.
As a side note, some would decant a wine in order to draw attention to how much they splashed on it, but I don't consider that in itself to be a good reason for decanting.
What are some positive changes that can happen vs negative changes that can happen (to wine when decanted) ?
Wine can “open up” upon decanting, meaning it will be less stinky (literally), soften up or lose excessive carbonation. In addition, aromas can become more pronounced for less known reasons. The risk involved is that it can lead to oxidation, which manifests itself in a variety of ways.
Any other thoughts on the subject?
Once opened, every wine has its optimal time window of drinking. In extreme cases, it could be 0-15 minutes, which is potentially inconvenient. The other extreme is when the wine needs to "breath" for a few hours (or even days!) to reach its optimal drinking window. The best scenario is that the wine tastes great upon opening, and stays like that for days, but that is actually not that common at all! My advice is, open the wine and have a taste. If it feels like it might benefit from some time, come back to it in 20 minutes. If you can see an improvement, you're on the right track.
Well, this has been an educational edition of Hump Day Hero! We're cooking up some very exciting new plans to entertain and cultivate discussion and learning in the Australian wine space - and we look forward to sharing our new projects with you soon :) Until then, Juiceheads xx