Earlier this year, I accidentally “decanted” a small serving of Champagne. I had poured some of it into a standard white glass, but because I was getting my house ready for dinner guests to arrive, I forgot where I set the glass down. I was eager to taste the wine, so I poured myself another glass, knowing the first one would turn up sooner or later. Fresh from the bottle, the wine was a chewy young vintage that was broad and full-bodied. However, when I found my original glass (almost an hour later), I discovered that the wine had completely changed after being exposed to the open air. It tasted like an aged Chardonnay, having replaced some of its bubbly energy with mellow creaminess. It was delicious.
Sommeliers, winemakers, and collectors have noticed that some Champagnes do indeed improve with a little aeration. Although most of us were taught never to decant Champagne, some experts are bucking tradition with positive results. To decide whether to decant Champagne, you should understand the potential issues and closely consider the vintage’s style.
The Dangers of Decanting Champagne
There’s a reason why wine experts have frowned upon decanting Champagne in the past. To start, as you know if you’ve ever drunk a soda, the longer a carbonated beverage sits in the open air, the less fizzy it becomes, and with wine, this can happen in as little as one hour after pouring. In addition, the wine continues to aerate as you drink it. That means if you pour an entire bottle into a decanter and let it sit for an hour, your first glass might show an improvement in flavor, but your next glass or two will begin to taste overly aerated and warm. These effects only multiply the older the bottle gets. Mature Champagne like a 1976 Dom Perignon begins to lose some of its chewiness and bubbles as it ages, and if you open it today, it will lose almost all of its carbonation within a matter of minutes. Never decant mature Champagne.
Temperature is another major snag in your Champagne decanting plans. Most Champagne is best served anywhere between 43 and 48 degrees Fahrenheit. To achieve this goal, you need to decant Champagne while also keeping it cool, either with an ice bucket or a fridge. Complicating things, though, most standard decanters will shatter if they’re exposed to too much cold. It’s best to invest in a shatterproof decanter or expect the wine to have a less-than-ideal temperature when you serve it.
Look Closely at Vintage
The best Champagnes to decant are young, slightly closed vintages with complex flavors. The joy of aging Champagne is that those underlying, complex flavors move to the forefront, while bubbles become secondary. By decanting young Champagne, you’re giving it some of the qualities of an older wine. It’s the same reason why some sommeliers have stopped serving sparkling wines in flutes. The narrow shape of the glass keeps the bubbles lively because they can’t escape as easily, but it also prevents you from experiencing the full force of the wine’s aroma, and the excess bubbles get in the way of the underlying flavors. Decanting allows the young wine to spread out, offering up its aromatics more fully and replacing some bubbles with other flavors.
I recommend only decanting vintages that are fewer than five years old, because their structure can withstand more than a fragile, mature wine can. Generally, avoid decanting the 2011 and 2013 vintages, since these had an especially early and late harvest, respectively. Because many of the wines from these two vintages had flaws or problems with balance, decanting will only highlight these issues. The 2015 and 2014 vintages are great candidates for some decanting overall, since they are slightly riper, richer, and more alcohol-heavy than usual, allowing them to stand up to some contact with air.
How to Decent Champagne Safely
To properly decant your Champagne, follow the steps listed under the type of vintage you have.
A Young, Chewy Vintage (e.g. a young Krug)
- Store your wine in a regular refrigerator set to about 35-40 degrees for at least 12 hours before serving, but no more than 24 hours.
- Pour your wine into a lyre-shaped decanter to spread the liquid out as evenly as possible.
- Allow your wine to decant at room temperature for about 30-45 minutes.
- Serve your wine immediately when it reaches an ideal serving temperature (about 45 degrees)–your decanting time will vary depending on how cold your wine was when it was poured into the decanter, and how much aeration it needs to become more aromatic.
Alternatively, you can keep a shatterproof decanter at the ideal serving temperature from the start, and serve your wine as soon as some of the bubbles dissipate.
A Young, Soft Vintage
For this kind of wine, you should avoid decanting, since the wine’s delicate flavors might dissipate after being exposed to the open air for too long. Instead, follow sommelier Aldo Sohm’s advice:
- Find a set of large white wine glasses, and pour a small serving size of wine into as many glasses as you need, until half of the bottle is about empty (usually about 2-3 glasses).
- Serve the remaining Champagne as usual, keeping the single-serving glasses off to the side for about 30 minutes.
- Return to the “decanting glasses” and see how the wine has evolved.
Sohm adds, “Most Champagnes will get better as the night goes on. My approach is to stretch the life of the wine for as long as possible in the glass.” Using this method, you can slowly add more aeration to your wine without the risk of a full decanting session. You can also use this method for your sturdier Champagnes. The method allows the wine’s more intense flavors to slowly mellow in the glass, resulting in a young vintage that tastes as if you aged it in your cellar for decades.
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