SECRETS OF THE SOMMELIER
Chris Morrison, Wine Director, The Keystone Group
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Most wine is made today to be drunk young. The idea of ‘collecting ‘wine is deflected by new wine drinkers seeking a ‘hit’ of sweetness and alcohol. Growth in both diversity and quality of food and dining has led food and restaurant lovers to reassess what constitutes ‘quality’ in wine. The characters in wine they value include savouriness, acidity, less oak, less sweetness and are tastes and textures that are not only more compatible with food but are also incredibly responsive and easy to modify with oxygen.
Most of the history of decanting involved separating a wine from sediment but with modern winemaking practice and wine consumers seeking more complexity and texture in flavour and aroma, more of the rough parts of wine like skins, stalks and lees are left in contact with a wine for longer periods and filtered out prior to bottling, which is why decanting’s real purpose is to expose a wine to oxygen in a rapid manner and to allow these hidden nuggets of texture and taste to reveal themselves. I like a decanter with a narrow neck and wider base which comfortably fits in the palm of my hand. Remember the wider the base, the more of the wine is exposed to air. This can accelerate the effects that oxygen will have on the wine. All wines benefit from decanting. Be they sparkling, white, pink, orange or red.
‘Lees’ or dead yeast cells are also used to add character and texture to wines. When yeasts finish their job of converting sugar into alcohol (alcoholic fermentation is Sugar + Yeast = Heat, Co2 and alcohol) the dead yeast cells fall to the bottom of the vessel in which the fermentation took place. It could be an oak barrel, a stainless steel tank or even the wine bottle itself. As they accumulate the take the form of a milky substance known as ‘lees’. Lees have become a handy tool for winemakers looking to add texture, mouth feel and complexity without have to risk overdosing a wine on oak. The amount of lees character in a wine will largely depend on the amount of time the wine spends in contact with the yeast lees prior to final bottling, and how often you stir the lees or agitating the sediment, turning the wine cloudy for a brief moment but in doing so imparts more lees character on the wine itself. Lees are also an anti-oxidant and help preserve wines freshness during its maturation phase. This is why I love lees in wine; they add structure and texture without the need to add oak and it’s a natural part of the winemaking process.
TIP ‘Back lighting’ is a tool you can use as a ‘safety’ for sediment when decanting. Pouring a wine into a decanter with the neck of the bottle hovering over a lit candle or any direct light helps you catch any bits and pieces that may get into your glass.
TIP Decanting can act like a flashlight on wine faults. If you think there is potential fault with a wine in the form of an unpleasant aroma, taste or texture, exposing the wine to oxygen by decanting will reveal the character, good or bad, quicker than if simply tasting in it a glass.
TIP How many times have you heard someone say ‘I will just open it to let it breathe’. The only part of the wine exposed to oxygen is about the size of a small coin. It’s like asking someone to breathe through a straw. You need to get the whole wine exposed to air, decanting does the trick.