In tackling the topic of whether or not to decant wine, the question that begs to be asked is, I think, “Would Kant decant?” Unfortunately, my memories of reading Critique of Pure Reason are hazy and the only Immanuel Kant I can muster is that he believed that we could never truly know “things-in-themselves.” Since the “thing-in-itself” is, in this case, wine, my conclusion is that when it comes to decanting, Kant wouldn’t really give a shit.
But you, my friend, should care about decanting. Why? Well, because let’s face it: you are a hedonist. And as a hedonist, you care about how your wine tastes.
Most wine tastes better after it’s been decanted. This is not, generally speaking, a popular position, because people who write and think too much about wine tend to be stuffy and resistant to change. They believe that only old wines should be decanted. Why? Because old wine has sediment—those yucky tannin particles that fall from wine that is (typically) a decade old or more. Decanting is a good way to insure that the funky bits of floating junk don’t make their way into your wine glass.
But how often do you drink wine that’s more than 10 years old? If the answer is often, then bully for you. Yet, I’d suggest that decanting makes more sense for young wines than for old.
All I’m talking about is the act of opening a bottle of wine (usually red) and pouring it into a large glass vessel, typically a carafe or decanter. The vessel itself doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive; the carafes that cheap bottles of Paul Masson wine are sold in work great. Decanting serves three purposes: First, as mentioned, it’s a way of filtering sediment from red wine. Second, it’s a way of aerating wine. That is, exposing wine to air, which can be a good thing. Third, decanting looks cool.
It’s that second purpose—aerating wine—that you should pay attention to if, like me, you mostly drink cheap, young wine. Generally speaking, young red wines tend to be somewhat tannic—especially Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux, Zinfandel, and Syrah/Shiraz. Exposing those wines to air, either in the glass or in a decanter, has the effect of softening the tannins in red wine and making the wine less harsh. (This is what wine geeks are doing by constantly swishing the wine in their glass.) If you don’t believe me, just try this experiment: Buy two bottles of identical wine. (Don’t buy Champagne.) Open one bottle of wine and pour it into a decanter. Leave the other bottle corked. Wait for an hour, open the corked bottle of wine, and taste the two wines side by side. You will find a notable difference.
Most young red wines will benefit from an hour or so of decanting. But even just a few minutes will help. For brutally tannic wines like Barbaresco or Barolo, you might need as much as 4 hours of air exposure in a decanter before they begin to soften.
While most fancy restaurants have a dusty decanter or two in a closet somewhere for those occasions when a high-roller orders a $200-plus bottle of Burgundy or Bordeaux, very few restaurants decant wine as a general practice. Two exceptions I know of are Fleming’s and Easy Street Brasserie (see Dining, p. 35). Fleming’s goes as far as to pour their wines-by-the-glass into mini-carafes—a nice touch. And speaking of white wine, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Most white wines will also improve with a little air.
I just remembered something else from college metaphysics: Immanuel Kant criticized utilitarianism on the grounds that to act in the pursuit of happiness is arbitrary and no more moral than acting on the basis of greed. So no, I don’t believe Kant would decant!