Missing The Boat

This article also appeared in Wine Spectator

Missing the Boat

By Bob Dickinson,
Miami Director and Wine Committee Chairman

Several years ago, eight friends were having a blind wine tasting.  As fate would have it, two fellows brought the identical wine, 1978 Ch Pichon Lalande, each of which was “bagged” in the distinctive covers of the tasters involved.  With two witnesses, the bags’ contents we’re switched by the author who had teased the other taster that his wines were not generally up to snuff.   During the tasting, the victim triumphantly declared his wine was superior in every aspect… only to find out it wasn’t his wine.  But, the point was made!

As consumers enjoy a greater availability of wine today than ever before and are paying increasingly higher prices for fine wines, the proper handling of wines deserves greater attention. In my opinion, too many wine lovers are missing the boat by mishandling their fine red wines.  Consider the following:

  • Folks bring unopened, sedimented reds to a dinner or a wine tasting.  For example, consider a gentleman bringing an unopened bottle of 1928 Chateau Latour to a wine tasting - - on the back of his motorcycle!
  • A five decade vertical tasting of a major Bordeaux collectable was seriously impaired because the wine was moved within only a few days of the event.

The most common “crime” however, is standing up cellared bottles for a few hours to several days prior to decanting the clean red wine off the sediment.  While this is supposedly a grand tradition, does it make any sense?  Of course not!  Think about it, the wine has been resting on its side, in gentle repose, for months or years.  The sediment has settled at the bottom of the side of the bottle.  Standing the bottle up releases the fine, dusty part of the sediment into suspension.  In most cases it takes months to re-clarify the wine.  This “dust” or “smoke” as it appears in a decanting light is inherently bitter and masks the fruit of the wine.  (It’s like looking at a gorgeous woman through a dirty window.)

The alternative is to use a wine basket, carefully removing the bottle horizontally from your cellar racking and easing it into the basket.  The slope of the basket is about 25-30 degrees - - just angled enough to allow the cork to be pulled without spilling the wine.  Decant slowly and carefully until you see the first hint of sediment (the dust) moving toward the neck.  (I have a halogen light installed flush with the surface of my decanting table… the dust is easy to spot in the brilliance of the light.)  At that point, decant the rest of the bottle (stopping at the heavy, mud-like sediment), through an unbleached coffee filter into another decanter.  (This is normally no more than 2 to 4 ounces.)  Never filter the whole bottle as this renders the filter useless and can strip the wine of flavor components. When complete, check the second decanter for clarity.  If it is as clear as the first bottle (about 98% of the time in my experience) combine the two decanters.

The same procedure works for larger format bottles.  But, handling them is tricky.  To decant a Bordeaux Imperial (6 liters or the equivalent of 8 standard bottles), I build a ramp using bath or beach towels to replicate the slope of the wine basket.  I then carefully transport the wine horizontally from the cellar to this jerry-rigged  “basket”.  After pulling the cork, I position empty decanters in such a way that I can pour from one to another with a minimum amount of sway - - to minimize the sediment dispersion.   If not careful, you can create a wave motion in these partially emptied large bottles with disastrous results.  It’s better to lose an ounce or two moving from decanter to decanter than to disturb the sediment by tilting the bottle too much.

If you are going to a wine tasting or restaurant, simply wash the inside of the bottle thoroughly with cold water and drain dry (inverted over paper towel works well).  At this point, you have the option of letting the wine “breathe” in the open decanter before pouring the decanted wine back in the bottle.  I reuse the spent corks of young white wines, to re-stopper the bottles, as frequently the original cork is unsuitable (too dry, broken, moldy, shrunk etc.).

For longer intervals (days, weeks, months) simply follow the above procedure but add clean, dry marbles to the bottle to replace the lost wine volume and restore the level of the wine into the neck before recorking.  In this way, the wine will not be subject to further air before reopening.  I’ve used this trick for long international trips for example,  involving frequent movement of the bottles (planes, cruise ships, trains, cars), with no adverse effect as the wine has already been clarified.

It’s great fun to bring a fine red wine while meeting friends for dinner, either in your home town or anywhere, knowing that the wine will be clean and show well.  All but the most fragile of wines can be transported in this manner.  By fragile, I mean a modest old wine in a poor vintage.  On the other hand, I’ve carried Beaulieu Vineyard Private Reserve cabernets going back to the ’50s and Bordeaux going back to the ‘20s around the country with no problems.

Why are poor wine handling practices so common?  It is because people don’t know any better:  they simply do not recognize that a wine’s taste may have been impacted by mishandling.  However, a side-by side comparison of the better method invariably wins the argument.  Try it and you’ll see!