Every wine store has a story about a customer who has complained about "something in the wine." Although I once found a fly in a bottle of wine, most other solid objects in wine are perfectly natural, and nothing to avoid. In fact, gunk in a bottle of wine can be a good sign. It can mean that the wine has been made with a minimum of processing and filtering. Most red wines will throw a sediment as they age.
Although sediment in itself is nothing to fear, it should be removed from the wine. Clear wine tastes better than cloudy wine. That is why the gods created decanters. Decanting wine is a simple ritual that is shrouded in mystique and misinformation, so let's set the record straight.
There are two common forms of sediment in wine, tartrate crystals and powdery sediment.
Tartrate crystals: If you find crystals in your wine, they are not sugar. Sugar would dissolve almost instantly. These crystals are potassium bitartrate, formed from natural tartaric acid in the wine. They are frequently found on the underside of the cork and in the bottom of the bottle. The wine maker usually removes them by chilling the wine before bottling and then filtering them out, a process called cold stabilizing. Some purists refuse to cold stabilize by any method, maintaining that it damages the wine.
Powdery sediment: This most difficult and misunderstood precipitate appears as a purple or brownish powder. Sometimes it will even form a thin film, or crust, on the sides of the bottle. Powdery sediment is most common in red wines that are more than seven years old. It feels sandy or powdery in the mouth, and can taste bitter. Powdery sediment must be removed. There is no point in aging wine if you don't remove the byproducts of aging before serving.
Powdery sediment starts as fine particulate matter suspended in the unfermented grape juice, which contributes to the flavor of the wine. Most of the powdery sediment is removed by siphoning or filtering before bottling. After bottling, some of the unfiltered particles and molecules in the wine slowly oxidize, and combine with other molecules, and settle to the bottom. This form of sediment is a byproduct of aging and it is desirable.
In a pinch you can run the wine through a cheesecloth or coffee filter. Use filters as a last resort, however. Their main drawback is that they never do a thorough job. Most wine sediment is so fine that filters cannot remove it. In addition, the process of filtering often aerates the wine excessively, a traumatic experience for the delicate flavors of older, mature wines.
The best thing to do if there is a powdery sediment or crust is to decant, or pour the wine off the sediment. Decanting, the most efficient way to remove precipitates, is fairly simple if done properly. It may sound difficult, but it is not. If you are unsure, try it first on a bottle of water with a tablespoon of sand to simulate the sediment.
Before you decant, you should give the bottle at least one to three days rest in order to allow the sediment to precipitate and collect in one spot. The angle of the resting bottle is crucial, because you want to compact the crud along the side of the bottle near the bottom. Most books and wine educators tell you to stand the bottle upright for a few days before decanting. Wrong!
Regardless of what you might have been told, the bottle must be laid down at an angle prior to candling. It should not be stood upright. When the bottle is upright, the sediment settles evenly along the bottom of the bottle. As you tilt to pour, the air bubble rushes to the bottom and stirs up a wispy veil of the sediment that will cloud the wine.
Lying the wine on its side is acceptable, but a horizontal bottle may collect a tiny bit of sediment in the neck that will pour off with the first few ounces. A wine cradle or pouring basket is ideal for holding the neck up a few inches and keeping the sediment on the side of the bottle. If you don't have a basket handy, lay the bottle on its side and prop up the neck with a book, or lay it in a shoe box.
Wine should not be served from baskets unless the sediment has already been poured off. If you serve undecanted wine from a basket, the repeated tilting will most assuredly and effectively stir up the gunk, unless you are very steady-handed.
Before you place the bottle in the basket, you should remove the capsule covering the cork and neck. Do not wait until just before opening, or you will jiggle some of the sediment back into solution. The top of the bottle and the entire neck should be wiped clean of all mold, dried wine and other glop that might have been caused by the small amount of normal seepage the cork has allowed. Foreign material on the lip can give the wine an unpleasant smell and flavor. When in a restaurant, watch the waiter carefully, and make certain the top of the bottle is properly cleaned.
When it is time to release the reclining refreshment, find a clean wide-mouthed pitcher or decanter. Most fancy, expensive crystal decanters have very narrow mouths. Trumpet-shaped mouths are better because they act like a funnel, and it is harder to spill while pouring into them. My favorite decanter is a martini pitcher because of the pouring spout.
Now light a candle, or better still, stand a flashlight so the beam is pointing at the ceiling. Turn out the overhead light. Raise the neck of the wine bottle slightly until you feel certain that no wine will spill when you extract the cork. If necessary, stand the bottle up for a moment while you pull the cork. Try not to shake the bottle while removing the cork. A gentle corkscrew, like the Screwpull brand, is best.
Hold the bottle horizontally over the light so that you can see clearly through the shoulder and the neck of the bottle. Place the decanter under the neck and pour slowly and gently, but fast enough so the wine doesn't trickle down the inside of the decanter. When there remains only an ounce or two of wine, a thin ribbon of powder will begin to make its way toward the neck. Stop pouring. Throw the dregs into a marinade, a vinegar barrel, soup stock, or blend it with a cheese to make a flavorful spread. You should now have a decanter of crystal clear liquid. Candling aerates the wine, so serve it immediately, because most reds are not improved by breathing, but that's a whole other article ...
Wine Find Mumm Cuve'e Napa Brut: This is a white sparkling wine, made in the original champagne method (fermented in the same bottle in which it is sold). It is dry (no noticeable sweetness), and ready to drink now, but a few months (not years) will see this wine blossom. Although this is a white sparkling wine, there is the unmistakeable salmon tint of a wine made with red grapes (60 percent of the blend is pinot noir, 35 percent is chardonnay, and 5 percent is pinot blanc). On the nose it is deep, yeasty, like rising bread, meaning it is still a bit young, but similar in style to top French champagnes like, well, like Mumm. In the mouth it is fullish (but certain to expand with a few months).
Serving: There is no wine more versatile than sparkling wine. While wine writer Fred Cherry once said, "If ever I am served champagne with some dish and find they do not go well together, I will leave the food and drink the champagne," it is highly unlikely with this wine.
Price: Suggested retail of about $14 per bottle, about $10 less than comparable French champagnes. Actual price may vary significantly. Wholesale supplier is Washington Wholesale Liquor Co. (wholesale suppliers cannot sell direct to consumers, but your wine merchant can buy from wholesalers).
1988 by Craig Goldwyn International Wine Review magazine