Decanting old wines
By Aymeric de Clouet
I recently lost my nerve on a social media following a post regarding decanting and old wines, and I sure should not have. The post was published by a sommelier who considered that 1990 was an old vintage, proving that he did not even know what he was talking about !
I only got upset because I feel in pain for all those wines, all those producers who work hard, all those merchants who select and keep the wines with care, to find them slaughtered by an ignorant consumer after 30 years of cellaring! Yes, an old wine needs decanting, even more so than a young wine.
The reason may be difficult to explain, but the experience is easy to have: open two bottles, decant one two hours in advance, the other just when dinner begins. I mean any Bordeaux, except 1978 (please do not ask why: 100% of 78s that I drank were worn out after 15 minutes, not even decanted). Any wine ! 1928, 1945, 1990… Any area: Médoc, Saint-Emilion, Pessac and of course Sauternes… Sometimes, even poor vintages like 1973 can better in a decanter (they cannot get worse anyway).
I unfortunately cannot count anymore the number of old wines that I opened, but it is well over 3,000… The number of wines that I regretted to have opened too early is exactly four, all of them 1978, and I can recall each one : Duhart-Milon, Haut-Batailley, La Lagune, Pichon-Comtesse. Very good wines, but not over 15 minutes after opening.
I am not here to solve the 78 mystery but I want to try and prevent the old wines’ massacre with this message: do not listen to Cassandras and try for yourselves. The rule is to put a bottle standing at least four hours before decanting (best the day before), and to open it two hours before dinner time. Decant immediately, which you can do with a candle or an electric light, it is not as traditional but virtually the same.
If the cork is hard to extract, and you could not do it without a lot of crumbs in the wine, ideally filter with silk. Unfortunately, silk filters are not produced any longer, I guess I have two of the few remaining in the world. A paper coffee filter will do, but it is so unfortunate to let so much wine be absorbed! Then you can either but a glass stopper to the decanter or not, it is not essential, as long as the wine surface in contact with air is wide enough. Serve after two hours: the wine is clean, the nose is fresh, the mouth is well balanced… Nothing you can get from a freshly open bottled.
We always recommend decanting any wine, in particular old wines, to get the most of them. You might be surprised at how the taste and flavour could marvellously change if properly decanted.
Lastly here comes a short video showing how to decant old wines. You might be surprised at how simply it can be done. What you need is just a decanter, a flat candle, and… a bottle of wine.