Taming your tannins

Decanting — step by step.

I poured the tannic, unfriendly wine slowly into the decanter and hoped it would fruit up and become more approachable. Mixing with oxygen often softens rough, bitter wine edges, but it doesn't always work. Sometimes, the wine just sucks. But hell, it's a $50 Napa cabernet, so it's destined to smack better than this astringent mess, right? Hmm ...

Nothing happened. Yet. It still smelled of oak (vanilla), earthy greenness (fresh leaf tobacco) but absolutely no fruit. Wine without fruit is like getting an Asian full body rub sans happy ending. Of course, some oddballs prefer a mouthful of dirt and wood, but I need something to slip my tongue and taste buds into. And for $50, I should feel the flavor in my toes, too. Let's hope decanting improves this gnarly beast.

Decanting — the act of transferring wine from its bottle to another vessel — exists for two reasons. One is to introduce oxygen to tame monster tannins. It doesn't actually change the tannin level, just our perception of it. The air alters the wine's chemical makeup, molding it into an easier-to-drink beverage. It'll take an hour or two before the fruit will tell you it's ready to drink. Wines that benefit include cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, big Spanish (Rioja, Ribera del Duero) and Italian reds (Barolo, Brunello, Barbaresco), syrah and well-made merlots. Young, robust pinot noirs improve with a few sucks of air, but mostly you can leave them alone. And softer, delicate pinots, Chianti and lighter-bodied reds — you can let 'em rip right out of the bottle.

Only the lucky experience the second reason: to separate sediment from an older bottle. Reserved for the elite with cellars and restaurants with foresight (and for those with friends who give good gifts), aged wine can be a magnificent treat. But it can also be ugly. After eight or so years, the tannin in red wines starts to break down, releasing a flaky, black morass into the bottle. Some give off only a few flecks, but others, like aged port, can amass a quarter inch of inky gook. Although completely harmless, a mouthful of this chewy, astringent mess is particularly nasty.

Thirty minutes in, the beast hasn't changed. I continue my quest for fruit ...

Before opening an old bottle, allow it to sit upright (assuming it has aged on its side) for at least two hours to force the suspended sediment to the bottom. Carefully pour the liquid into the decanter, but stop before the sludge arrives at the top; if necessary, use a candle or small flashlight to see through the neck of the bottle. The idea is to trap the black stuff in the bottle's shoulder. To wallow in luxury or laziness, buy a fine mesh strainer to lay across the mouth of the decanter. Once the wine is freed of its bog, pour it back into the rinsed original bottle, or leave it in its new home but consume within eight hours, or it will become really expensive vinegar. One word of caution: Due to their delicate state, decanting older pinot noirs can kill the flavor, so pour straight from the bottle, being vigilant of the sediment.

As for decanting vessels, skip the overpriced crystal. I have some from Target that cost $20. Although the more expensive ones look and feel decadent, their size and material are mostly hype and profit. Besides, any clean, wide-bottomed or fat glass pitcher or carafe will do.

An hour later, the formerly shy Napa cab awakens from its shell. Aromas of black cherry, bittersweet chocolate, with a whiff of ripe plum. Mmm ... starting to smell like something I'd want to drink. Patience is a virtue I rarely possess, but this time, patience pays off.

Recommended Wine

Chateau Ste. Michelle 2007 Riesling Columbia Valley (Washington) Subtly sweet, with a clean, dry finish. Apricots and peach with a squeeze of lime on the tongue. Sw = 3. $12. 3.5 stars

Sweetness (Sw) rating is out of 10, 10 being pure sugar. 1 (star) rating is out of 5, 5 being wine nirvana.