A little air can do wine a lot of good. That's why we're so often admonished to let a bottle breathe before we begin drinking.
Trouble is, the usual approach to this—pulling the cork and letting the bottle sit—doesn't work all that well.
That's because two things happen when wine meets air—evaporation and oxidation. The former allows the dispersal of compounds, including sulfites, that otherwise contribute off aromas to wine.
The latter involves actual chemical reactions as the oxygen interacts with and changes some of the flavor and aroma compounds in the wine. Changes that we can notice as heightened fruity and nutty notes.
But simply removing the cork allows only the faintest breath of air into the bottle. Even a few hours of such breathing won't accomplish much.
You could lay out for one of those aeration gadgets, but these are both fussy and unnecessary. But there is a better way: Learn the art of the hard decant. This simple maneuver can pump air into a wine fast, accomplishing in seconds what otherwise happens in hours.
It’s not the kind of slo-mo drizzle you’ve probably seen a white-gloved butler perform in an old movie. That move draws an old wine off sediment that accumulates on the bottom of the bottle. Not much of a problem these days thanks to advanced filtering techniques and a trend toward younger red wines.
Rather, a hard decant is a topsy-turvy slosh-fest that violently flushes wine out of the bottles, mixing it with oxygen, in the process softening textures, diminishing funky notes and taming acids. What’s more, it's great table-side theater.
Take a clean glass or ceramic pitcher (in a pinch, I’ve used a flower vase) large enough to hold the contents of a wine bottle with room to spare. Remove the cork and, holding the bottle at its base with the tips of your fingers, invert it into the pitcher in one quick motion so that it is vertical. Don’t be dainty about this. It’s waterpark-level action you’re after, so let ’er rip.
Any sturdy wine, red or white, will generally benefit from a hard decant, but not every performance will produce startling results. Make a habit of tasting first, decanting, then tasting again to gauge the results. Little by little you’ll learn when a splash is called for.
You should immediately notice a boost in the aromas and flavors of a decanted wine and a softer, more agreeable texture. If none of this happens, you can dispense with the technique for the same wine next time around.
Are there any situations where decanting is a bad idea? I think twice if the bottle won’t be finished the same day. A decanted wine may not be as durable if you need to recork it for another time.