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Decanting

Decanting a wine may be done for several reasons. However, the most common are to remove sediment (filtration), aerate the wine and for presentation.

Aeration: A young tannic red tastes better once it has been given time to 'breathe' - the exposure to air softens the tannic bite allowing the wine's complexity to show through. Although this can be done simply by removing the cork, the exposed surface area of wine is minimal so it may take several hours. The preferred method to improve the wine's taste is to decant the wine into a wide decanter. The decanter's shape exposes more of the wine to air, which reduces the need for aeratation (recommended times vary from 10 minutes to an hour).

Filtration: Aged wines, primarily reds, may have some sediment which should be removed before serving. The actual process here is the same, although some preparation is needed. First, the wine bottle itself should have been stored on its side, and not rotated or agitated for some time: this causes the sediment to collect along one side of the bottle. Then 24 hours before serving the bottle should be stood upright allowing the sediment to collect around the punt at the base of the bottle. Once opened the wine should be decanted (carefully) in the same method as above, stopping, however, the wine before any sediment drains into the decanter. It's often useful to remove the entire capsule from the bottle before decanting and to do so under good light. This allows you to decant as much of the wine as possible by pouring until the sediment just reaches into the neck of the bottle. One caveat is that the wines that most need decanting (fine aged wines) are often also the most delicate and thus susceptible to rapid oxidation. In this case you should decant to remove the sediment, but you don't want to let it stand (decant and serve immediately). An extremely delicate old wine may oxidize only 10 minutes after decanting.

Presentation: Put simply, wine looks more elegant when poured from a fine decanter! Most whites do not need decanting as they don't have the tannin of a young red nor do they undergo much bottle aging. However, certain whites may have sediment or wine making faults and could benefit from the aeration provided by decanting.

Host a Tasting

A wine tasting party, in addition to being great fun, is a great way for you and your friends to learn about the incredibly varied world of wine.

Must have:

  1. Glasses - one per person is sufficient so long as you provide water to rinse glasses out in between wines.
  2. Paper bags - we highly recommend enclosing the wine in a brown paper bag, or obscuring the label in some other way to create a blind tasting. Blind tastings increase your focus on the wine, and remove any and all preconceptions about a given bottle. (If you're afraid of cheaters, remove the foils and hide the corks.)
  3. Food - mild cheeses (stronger is ok for fuller bodied reds, or sweet wines), crackers, good bread and fruit are all great additions to a tasting, and fruit and dessert are a great way to end a tasting with a nice cup of coffee.
  4. Pencils and paper - by writing down your impressions of each wine you promote greater focus and patience in examining a wine's merits as well as its faults.
  5. Water - it is always nice to have water (not too cold) available, in addition to food, for people to cleanse their palates.
  6. Spit buckets - for tasters who do not wish to swallow, and to dispose of excess wine before moving on to the next.
  7. White - whether it's a tablecloth, napkins, or white paper, having something white is essential to act as a background for observing a wine's color.

Then, of course, there is the wine.

There are endless options when considering how to theme your tasting. Here are a few of our favorites:

  • Same grape variety, different regions - a great way to compare a grape variety as it is created in different regions or countries for instance a Cabernet Sauvignon tasting could include red Bordeaux from the Left Bank, and varietal Cabernet Sauvignon from the Languedoc, Chile, Australia and California. If you want to really delve into the regional differences, decrease the number of regions thereby increasing the number of bottles from each region, for instance a Chardonnay tasting where you compare 4 white

Serving Temperatures

So much of a wine's taste is dependant on its aroma, and serving wine at the wrong temperature can spoil an otherwise excellent experience (too cold and the wine's taste is muted; too hot and the wine tastes flabby or the finish hot). Generally refrigerators are set too cold (38-40F) for white wines and modern day room temperature (66-70F) is too warm for reds. However, specialized equipment, beyond a good wine thermometer, isn't always necessary: a few minutes of either letting a white stand to release some of the chill or chilling a red for 15 minutes can work wonders.

Wine serving temperatures

Depending on the varieties and quality of the wine the optimum temperature ranges from 40F to 64F:

  • Coldest of all, Champagne and sparkling wine is best enjoyed at 40-44F. Cool temperature allows the wine to retain its bubbles longer
  • White wine comes next with an optimal range of 42-46F
  • A fine dessert wine such as is best enjoyed at 46-48F - cool enough to keep the wine's sweetness in check, yet not so cold that the taste becomes muted
  • An everyday red would come next with a range of 54-56F
  • A fine pinot noir necessitates slightly warmer temperatures: 58-60F
  • A Red Bordeaux should be served, warmer still, at 60-62F
  • And finally the more tannic and aromatic reds should be drunk at 62-64F

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Starting a Cellar

There is nothing quite like uncorking an exquisite bottle of wine that you have carefully aged yourself; a Bordeaux, for instance, that has increased in quality and price with age that you got for a steal en primeur 15 years back.

Aging wine has many positive attributes, including:

  1. Convenience - stocking up on your favorite wines while they are still available assures you of having the right wines at the right times and for the right occasions.
  2. Fun and education - analyzing and tracking your wines as they mature helps develop your understanding and your palate.
  3. Cost effective - buying in bulk often saves money, and better wines are often less expensive while still young.
  4. Change in taste: perhaps the most complex of benefits, this is really a matter of personal opinion. As a wine ages, its flavors mellow. Its tannins become softer and more integrated, and it develops more complex flavors, as subtle flavors develop and the stronger initial flavors begin to soften. This is in part why buying multiple bottles is so important, so you can taste the wine as it progresses, and decide for yourself what point is right for you.

So you want a cellar to please your palate and impress your friends, but where do you start?

The Space

While "wine cellar" may evoke images of dark, musty caves, or elaborate wood-lined rooms, neither are required to create a good cellar. All you need to create a "cellar" are:

  1. A room (four walls, a roof, and a door) with no exposure to natural light.
  2. A stable temperature (or the means to maintain one) of between 50 and 59 degrees Fahrenheit, with some humidity (50-80%).
  3. Away from vibrations. Vibrations agitate the wine, so avoid rooms that shake (for example next to a washing machine).

Stable temperature, absence of light, and limited vibrations are three critical elements to a successful cellar. Each helps prevent the rapid deterioration of the wine, and in addition, by creating a uniform environment, they take some of the guesswork out of the aging process itself. Avoid heaters in the room as they are liable to cook the wine, and, if possible, choose an insulated room. Seasonal or gradual changes in temperature are fine (within the above range), but rapid temperature changes should be avoided at all costs. If you do not have the means to control the temperature, focus finding a location with the proper temperature range and on insulating your wine using polystyrene. If you don't have polystyrene available, even using bubble wrap, or keeping the wine in their wooden boxes helps.

Humidity helps keep natural corks in good condition which is critical for successfully aging your wine. Dried corks, either due to low humidity or improperly storing your wine (standing up), shrink, which allows more air into the bottle which increases the rate of aging. Most "age worthy" wines are still sealed with natural cork, though it is important to note that some wineries are now using screwcaps on even their better wines. Only time will tell how well the wines age with these new closures. Humidity should preferably be between 50% and 80% - the ideal percentage is somewhere north of the median.

Clearly a cellar can range from a hall closet, to a room in a basement, to more elaborate wine refrigerators or professionally designed cellars. A personal note regarding wine refrigerators, from our experience, most are designed for a certain size and shape bottle, and if you planning on storing a range of bottle sizes, the storage capacity is probably higher on paper than in reality as you will have to adjust shelving to accommodate Champagne bottles, magnums or other less common bottle sizes.

How big a space do you need:

A very difficult question to answer definitively as it depends on: 1) your goals as a collector; 2) your rate of consumption; and 3) your resources. Essentially a collection can be as few as a couple of cases in the back of your closet to multiple rooms in your basement or more! If you are using an existing, defined space then you already have a limit, and you can fill it as quickly or as slowly as you would like. If you are creating a space, or purchasing a storage unit then the three aforementioned factors come into play. The most common mistake that we have encountered is that people underestimate their storage needs. Wine collecting is a lifetime endeavor, and you don't want to outgrow your capacity too quickly. If you are building a space you will probably have a professional to consult, but regardless, it is better to be prepared and build in room to grow.

The Collection

Things to keep in mind:

  1. You will need at least 3 (preferably 6-12) bottles of each wine you want to store. This will allow you to taste the wine as it ages to experience the progression and to determine when it is most to your liking, and it will ensure that you have enough to enjoy when it is at its peak.
  2. If you're buying a wine to age it, don't drink it early. To avoid pillaging your future stocks, make sure to keep plenty of ready-to-drink wine on hand for any occasion. These quantities can diminish over time as your aging wines begin to mature.
  3. Don't buy just for yourself. Unless you plan on drinking it all alone, try and store a variety of wines to please not only your palate, but those of your friends and family.

Things to do:

  1. Develop a budget, how much do you want to spend on your collecting each year? Does this include all of your wine for the year, or just the age-worthy wine?
  2. Divide your budget into everyday wines (under $12); wines between $12 and $20, which are often age-worthy; $20 to $50, which includes some great wines; and then above $50, which are nice if you can afford them.
  3. Taste, taste, taste, and taste some more. Knowing what you like, and analyzing a variety of wines is the best way to ensure that you are storing wines that will age gracefully and that you and your friends will enjoy for years to come. Buy a bottle of a dozen different wines and then choose your favorites and buy a case or half-case.
  4. Read about new wineries, new wine regions, or up-and-coming varietal to identify high-quality bargains before they become popular and their prices inflate.
  5. Buy wines on sale, or buy wines that you have tasted that you feel are particularly good values.
  6. Remember that it will be a number of years before you begin reaping the rewards of your collecting, so a) make sure you have wine that is ready-to-drink, b) ladder your purchases: purchase wines that will mature at different intervals 2 years, 5 years, 10 years and longer, and c) make sure you leave room for next years finds, and the year after, and the year after, etc. Doing this will help ensure that you always have wine ready to drink as time progresses, which will allow you to drink all of the wines as they reach their prime.
  7. Don't forget to divide your wine for any and all tastes, red and white, light to full-bodied, Champagne, dessert, etc.

A few more cellaring tips:

  • Keep wines on their sides to keep the corks moist.
  • Do not store wines in cardboard boxes (wooden racks, or wooden boxes, which allow room for air to flow are fine), because cardboard absorbs the humidity in the room, and the last thing you want is to have the bottom fall out when you pick up a box.
  • Keep track of what you have and where you have it. The last thing you want is to "lose" a bottle in your cellar and rediscover it past its prime. Having a ready list on hand will make finding the right bottle and the right time a snap.
  • Bad smells can, over time, get into a bottle, so make sure your cellar is odor-free.
  • Stick within your budget. You don't have to start a cellar with dozens of cases of wine. Buy what you're comfortable buying, and grow your inventory when you can.