Aerate or Decant?

In Aladdin, Robin Williams character, Genie, is quoted as saying, "It's all part and partial, the whole Genie gig. Phenomenal cosmic powers...itty-bitty living space." What does this have to do with wine? Well, just like that genie, it may have been bottled up in a small confined space for a long period of time. All it wants to do is get out, get some air and stretch. Then, it is ready to deliver its’ promise. But sometimes that promise falls short, and we are required to coax the “genie” out. That is where aeration and/or decanting come in to play.

The process of aerating wine is commonly referred to as "letting the wine breathe." Most of us pour the wine into a glass and swirl it around. While this may seem “wine snobbish”, it does allow the wine to expand, and coat the glass, releasing the aromas and complexities of the wine, and enhancing our experience. Exposing wine to oxygen can improve the taste and aroma. The wine has been kept in a relatively oxygen free environment inside its bottle, so the reintroduction of oxygen can greatly alter and enhance it. However, not all wines need to breathe, and in some case, they should not.

The goal of aeration is to maximize the wine's contact with oxygen. For this reason, simply popping the cork, and letting it sit, isn’t enough. The oxygen to wine-surface contact is pretty small in the neck of a wine bottle. Swirling in the glass is the simple way to “open up” a wine, but to really get some oxygen in there, the wine may need to be “aerated”. Handheld aerators like Vinturi or Respirer, for example, expand the surface area of wine, which allows the air to mingle with it. The wine gurgles through the bubbler, and out into the glass or decanter, softening the tannins of young or bold wines. The aerator will easily do the trick in minutes, and is appropriate where time is of the essence.

Vinturi Aerator
So which wines should be aerated? In general, young red wines, with a tannic profile (Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Syrah, for example), are the best candidates, but these aren’t the only ones. Even white wines can benefit from some aeration. Heavier Chardonnays can open up, and even whites that are over-chilled will present themselves better with a little room temperature air being infused. But again, red wines are the main focus, softening the tannins. Remember, that as wines age, tannins soften and are balanced by other flavors and a stronger bouquet. But in young red wines, particularly heavy reds, the tannins can be harsh and overwhelming. Aeration won’t increase the complexity of a young wine, like an older wine gains in the bottle, but it does soften and smooth out the flavor.

Here’s the big trick….determining what wines need to be aerated. Not all wines need to breathe, and sometimes it will do more harm than good to the flavors. Older wines, about 30 years or older, can become completely oxidized and lose their flavors, if exposed to air for too long. For a friend’s 50th birthday, I opened up a bottle of 1976 BV George’s Latour. For the first fifteen minutes, the wine had a wonderful bouquet. Within 10 to 15 minutes, the wine had turned brown in the glass, and lost all aroma. If you are unsure, check a site like, to see tasting notes from others. You will get free advice on how the wine is tasting, and how long it took to open up, or even if the wine isn’t holding well, and is over-the-hill.

What about decanting versus aerating? Many people confuse the two practices. A wine aerator is a rather violent approach to opening up a wine, by adding oxygen into the liquid to improve the taste. Decanting performs a somewhat similar act, but the main purpose is to remove the sediment in older wines, leaving it in the bottle, while the wine is poured into a different vessel. A sommelier will typically set a light (or candle) under the bottle, and gently pour the wine into a glass vessel (or decanter) until he/she starts to see sediment. The sediment is left in the bottle, and the wine in the decanter is then poured into glasses, free of any bitter sediment. Sediment is common in wines of as little as 10 years old, depending on whether they were filtered or fined.

Decanting can also be done to aerate wine. A broad decanter can give the wine maximum contact with the air. Young wines can be poured directly into the decanter. Letting a wine sit in a decanter is a slower way to aerate a wine, and may take many hours. For a dinner party, decanting is a classy way to serve your wine and adds flair to the evening. For younger wines, decant and let sit, checking every half hour, to determine how the wine is evolving. For older vintages, first taste the wine, right out the bottle, before decanting…it may not need decanting (other than to remove sediment), and may in fact oxidize the wine, ruining the entire experience. Also, some wines have something known as “bottle stink”. This is a stale aroma that is noticeable when a wine is first uncorked. This can be caused be over sulfuring a wine or just too much of an anaerobic atmosphere. By transferring the wine to a decanter, the contact with air will often eliminate the odor.

In general, the aeration “rule of thumb” is, the more tannin a wine has, the more time it will need to aerate. Aeration is controversial. Some  insist on aerating tannic reds for two hours, while others say 20 minutes. The practical approach is to tailor the process to the wine itself, and to test it frequently during aeration. When it tastes good to you, drink it.

There you have it. The difference between aeration and decanting is time, and technique. When it comes to your favorite bottle of wine, it's time to put the aerator to use for quick results, but also to use the proper decanting technique when time is on your side, and you are preparing an event for friends and family. Wine can stay in a decanter for hours without spoiling (depending on how much air it needs). Presenting wine in a decanter makes for a more special experience, versus using an aerator. 

Remember that oxygen can be your friend or foe, benefiting or ruining a wine. Old wines will fade fast when exposed to oxygen, and younger wines will open up. The trick is finding the balance. So pick your favorite vintage, relax and enjoy!

Are you ready for a Punch Down?

Bobby Flay has his “throw downs”, but are you ready for a “punch down”? No, not in the boxing ring, or on the local school yard, but in wineries across the world.

A solid cap
It is harvest time in the northern hemisphere, and in many areas, the grapes have been picked and are nicely fermenting their way to becoming wine. As a quick reminder, fermentation is the conversion of sugar to alcohol. Through the metabolic activity of yeast, the sugars in the grapes are converted to alcohol, and carbon dioxide (as well as a few other by-products, including heat). White wines are typically fermented without their skins and other solids, while red wines are fermented in contact with skins, stems, and other solids.

The grapes are put through a crusher and then poured into open fermentation tanks. Once fermentation begins, the skins in the tank of fermenting red wine, are pushed upwards to the top of the must (juice), where they form a thick layer that is known as the “cap”. Winemakers want to keep the skins in contact with the must (this process is known as “maceration”). Maceration is the winemaking process where the phenolic materials of the grape are leached from the grape skins, seeds and stems into the must. Since 99% of all grape juice (with the exceptions of teinturiers) is clear, the maceration process extracts the color, flavor and tannins.

The cap needs to be mixed through the liquid each day, or "punched down", which traditionally is done by stomping through the cap. Is anyone having visions of Lucille Ball stomping grapes on the old “I Love Lucy” show?

Angela at Turiya
The main reason it is desirable to punch down the cap, is that the wine will have a richer color, flavor, and astringency. But there are other advantages…. During the early stages of fermentation, the physical act of punching down, introduces oxygen into the yeast cells, and kick-starts the fermentation process. It also helps distribute the yeast cells throughout the must. Punching down also helps dissipate heat that naturally occurs during fermentation. Red wines typically ferment between 60F and 70F, left alone, the cap can reach temperatures exceeding 80F, which can spoil the wine, and providing an environment that is beneficial to harmful bacteria. If the cap dries out, a bacterial invasion is more likely. One example is the vinegar bacteria, which converts alcohol into acetic acid. This is called “acetification” and will spoil the wine, unless of course, the winemaker is trying to make vinegar.

There are two main ways to deal with the cap: punch-downs and pump-overs, but modern technology has added several other techniques.

Brandon at Dragonette Cellars
“Pigeage” (pronounced peej-AHJE) is a French winemaking term for the traditional stomping of grapes in open fermentation tanks. Pigeage is typically translated into English as “punching down”. Punching down is when the cap is manually or mechanically pushed back into the juice from the top (obviously an open container is needed). Feet, a punch down tool, paddle or a hydraulic piston can be used to punch down. The most common punch down tool is something like a long handled potato masher. This is both gentle and labor intensive. It is performed at regular intervals during fermentation, and depending on the amount of maceration the winemaker requires, can be done numerous times during the day. The more aggressive the winemaker is, with breaking up the cap, the more a wine will be extracted, dark and tannic. The goal should be to break up the cap and work out all the lumps. When finished, the surface of the wine should be smooth and moist throughout.

Historically, pigeage involved placing a wooden beam across the lip of the tank and a worker with the punch down tool, using the beam to step on for balance. Remember that CO2 rises, so the workers could easily be overwhelmed by the CO2 fumes. There have been many reported cases of workers passing out, and falling into the fermentation vats, drowning on the fermenting wine. Nowadays, these vats are smaller fermentation bins, where accidents are less likely to happen.

Remontage - photo courtesy of Madroña Vineyards
A second approach to maceration is “remontage” which is typically translated into English as “pumping over”. This technique is just as it sounds, and involves pumping the juice from below the floating skins over the cap. This doesn’t necessarily break up the cap, but does keep it submerged. This technique is used for a wide range of wines and is especially common for large batches that would be too difficult to punch down. Generally, remontage is done with a hose that is connected to a spout at the bottom of the tank and pushes wine through a pump and into a second hose that sprays the wine onto the cap. This method does allow more oxygen to mix with the wine, ultimately influencing the final wine product. If a wine is over-sulfured, some aeration would be desirable, as it would help eliminate the off-odors.

Another, less common, method of maceration is the "pneumatage process", in which compressed air or gas is injected into the must. The bubbles created during the pneumatage process uses gravity and the weight of the juice to circulate the wine juice with the cap of skins and grape solids allowing for greater extraction of aroma, coloring agents and tannins to diffuse into the juice. Additionally, tanks with built-in grates, that keep the cap submerged in the juice, and rotary fermenters that turn constantly during fermentation, are in use.

Active fermentation and punch down
The newest method is known as “Rack & Return” This method is uncommon, as it requires the use of two tanks. In this case, half of the wine in a tank is moved to another tank and then returned to the original tank, at a high velocity, using a pump at full speed, causing the cap to break up.

In general, maceration takes about 2-3 weeks. At some point the cap will stop forming, and the solids in the wine will start to sink, instead of float. This happens because fermentation is slowing down and there are less CO2 bubbles to push the solids to the top. Depending on the style the winemaker intends to make, there is a balance. The winemaker wants to extract as much potential from the solid materials in the wine as possible, but if he/she extracts for too long, the wine can become bitter, because it begins to extract tannins from the seeds, and not just the skins. Then again, if he/she extracts for too little time, the wine may not be as complex as it could be, generally producing a more fruit-forward, than complex, wine.

When the winemaker has determined the end of maceration, the wine needs to be separated from the skins and seeds in the tank. The first step in this process is to drain the wine from the fermentation vessel. This is known as the “free run” wine, and is generally considered to be the finest portion of the finished wine. The remaining juice and solids will be gently pressed, and is known as “pressed wine”. 

As you can see, there is a lot that goes on before the wine ever makes it into the oak barrels, and begins its’ aging process (but not all see oak, or aging), and it is all going on right now. The smell of fermenting wine is one of the wonderful experiences of visiting wineries this time of year…and I highly recommend it!

Four Days in Paso Robles - Day Three

I have already filled you in on our day one tastings, and the four wineries we visited, as well as our second day in San Miguel, along with those five wineries. Sunday is a day when most of our group heads back home, but I have always made our trips into four days, to maximize the number of wineries we can visit. With a smaller group hanging around, I can concentrate of smaller wineries, and don’t have to make appointments.

Often, my Sunday visits are based on recommendations from other winemakers, or “through the grapevine recommendations”, such as blogs from other wine writers. This trip was no different. I put together a few wineries for the “wish list” then built the list as the day progressed. This time, all our tastings were focused on wineries along Hwy 46 West.

Tasting at Treana Hope
Our first stop of the day was at Brian Bensen Cellars. Since they open at 10:30, we were able to get an early start. Their tasting room adjoins Dark Star’s tasting room and gift shop. The tasting room is pretty stark, and has a very “young vibe” to it. The wines are intense, and focused on red grape varieties: Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, and Primitivo, with varying percentage of each in different blends or single variety. Each bottle is labeled with Brian’s artwork. Price points run from $35 to $55 per bottle. I picked up some of the Kandy Red (Grenache/Primitivo) and Tryst (Grenache/Mourvedre). The tasting room person suggested that we check out Caliza, Jack Creek Cellars and Shale Oak. So, our next stop was at Caliza Winery, just up the road.

Tasting at Turley
Caliza Winery is located right next to two well respected wineries in Paso Robles: L’Aventure and Booker. Caliza follow sustainable practices in their vineyard, and their focus is on red varieties, and a little bit of Viognier and Rousanne. The wines are mainly Rhone style blends. While tasting, the winemaker/owner, Carl Bowker stopped in the tasting room for a short visit. Their wines are priced between $23 and $54, and have an elegant style to them. Here, I picked up a unique blend (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Petit Sirah, and Tempranillo) known as Azimuth. The tasting room staff recommended that we try Booker (next door) which was appointment only, but we couldn’t get anyone on the phone, so moved on to our next stop.

Treana Hope
Stop number three was at Treana Hope. This winery creates five different labels: Liberty School, Austin Hope, Treana, Candor, and Troublemaker. The large, barn-like tasting room has a huge gathering area, and the actual tasting room is located in the back, with windows looking out into the vineyards, and the large surrounding oak trees. Let me warn you, there are a lot of wines to taste here, and your best bet is to split with someone, so you can have a small taste of each. The different wine labels offer price points for everyone. The entry level Liberty School brand is under $20, while the Austin Hope and Treana brand peak out at about $45. Their Troublemaker brand is unique, in that it is made from blended vintages and varieties consisting of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, and Zinfandel. Here I picked up some Liberty School Chardonnay (great for everyday drinking at $14) and some Treana Cabernet/Syrah.

The ceiling at Cypher
Our next stop was at Turley Wine Cellars. This is probably the best known winery, that we visited during the day. This large production, organically certified winery, is known for their Zinfandels and Petit Sirah. They have tasting rooms in both Paso Robles and the Sierra foothills. Their wines, while mainly Zinfandel, come from numerous vineyards, all over the state, and, if you aren’t already a believer in terroir, then this will be an eye-opener to the differences between locations. I must say, I still favored their Zinfandels sourced from the local Dusi vineyards. Some members of our group walked out with cases of wine here. We also took advantage of their covered picnic tables and enjoyed the spread of food we had packed into coolers for the day.

After lunch, we headed to Jack Creek Cellars, where we had been hearing about their Pinot Noirs. They are located on the far west side of Paso Robles, where there the marine influence is more prevalent. While we came for the Pinot Noirs, that is not what I purchased. I like more Burgundian style Pinot Noirs. These were pretty fruity Pinots, so if you like that style, definitely check them out. What I found interesting was their Chardonnays. One was fully fermented in concrete, so no oak influence, crisp, and minerally. The one I purchased was the estate bottling. These wines sat on the lees for eight months, yielding a yeasty, finished product, with nice acid, and just a touch of oak. Very elegant in style. I also picked up some of their Grenache and Syrah (some of the best we had tried on the trip).

Preserved grapevine art
Next up was Cypher Winery. Cypher is right on Hwy 46, and have just moved into their newly renovated tasting room. The décor had a similar feel to that of Brian Bensen. It is geared towards a young consumer. Hip music playing, dried grapevines hanging from the ceiling. The wines matched the eccentric look of the tasting room., with blend names like, “Anarchy”, “Heretic”, “Zinbitch”, and “Loco”. The wines are typically Rhone and Bordeaux style blends, with a few single variety Tempranillos, Zinfandels and Chardonnay. These are rich, big wines.  I picked up their Anarchy blend (Zinfandel, Mourvedre and Syrah).

Shale Oak Winery
Our last stop of the day pushed us right to the 5:00 closing time for most wineries. We had been hearing about Shale Oak Winery since Friday. A number of winemakers suggested we get there and try their Petite Verdot.  This sustainably certified winery is a zero impact winery, from the vineyards to the tasting room. The wine lineup goes from Albarino to Rose to luscious reds. The rumors about their Petite Verdot were correct…dark cherry, smooth and just the right amount of tannins. Then came their red blend named “Ku”. Wow!

Shale Oak was the way to finish day three of wine tasting. It was a quick trip back to the hotel, then off to dinner at Artisan. Artisan is often recognized as the best restaurant in Paso Robles, so we were looking forward to the meal. We must have caught them on an off day, as the service was extremely slow. The food was good, but nothing compared to the previous night at Bistro Laurent.

Day four was our final day, and we packed up the cases of wines purchased, and headed south. Our typical breakfast stop is at Hoover’s Beef Palace in Templeton. As we soon found out, the restaurant will be shutting down in November, as the new owners of the building will be tearing it down to build low income housing. I hope the owners of Hoovers will find a new location, because we will follow them there. As we drove down the coast, we stopped at Dragonette Cellars just in time to catch the winemakers finishing up the de-stemming of the latest harvest, then off to Turiya for a special tasting (which I wrote about a few weeks ago).

As always, a great trip to the Central Coast. Eighteen wineries visited. Great meetings with winemakers, owners, and friends. I hope you will take this series of notes, and check out some of these fine wineries and restaurants.