QUESTION OF THE WEEK
I am wondering how one knows when to decant a young wine. Older wines are rather obvious, but young wines vary a lot more inwhat is the best time to decant before serving. We have all had the experience of liking a bottle on the first sip but loving it after it sat in my glass for an hour.
Decanting is the process of pouring a wine (usually a red wine) from the bottle into a pitcher or open-top decanter to let it "breathe" before serving. Breathing is supposed to allow the flavors to soften and the aromas to open up, and to take the rough edges off a young wine. Although the actual benefits of breathing are less than most people assume, by and large it's worth doing.
With young wines, an hour in the decanter is usually enough, and as you point out, the wine will often mellow further in the glass, especially if it is gently swirled to release the bouquet. There is no real downside to decanting earlier, as nothing truly bad can happen to a sturdy young red, even after several hours in the decanter.
However, I don't think there is anything obvious about decanting older wines, as you seem to suggest. Aside from the simple fact that older wines must be decanted to pour off a sediment that has usually formed at the bottom of the bottle, the rest is actually pretty tricky.
I've had older wines blossom magnificently for five minutes after decanting and die in the glass 15 minutes later, leaving little more than a tired brown liquid. Other wines have started off funky and dull, only to burst forth after an hour or more of breathing. My rule of thumb is the older the wine, the shorter the decanting and breathing period. For a 10-year-old wine, 90 minutes should do it; at 20 years, a half-hour to 45 minutes is appropriate. For so-called ancient wines (pre-1960 vintages), decant and serve immediately, to make sure you get a taste before the party's over.
Finally, when decanting older wines off the sediment, don't try to get every last drop of clear wine out. Gently raise the back of the bottle in a continuous motion until there is no less than an ounce remaining. Although you may lose a bit more wine than you would with more elaborate procedures,what you get will be crystal-clear and deliciously smooth on the palate.