The Journal / Breath

Decanting or recorking?

How to aerate a wine, with Frédéric Domingo

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Frédéric Domingo has been preparing wines for receptions and tastings at Château Lafite Rothschild for 20 years. As a sommelier, he looks after the cellar, weeding out bad bottles and recorking the oldest wines to protect them from oxygen. Because while air can help reveal a wine when decanted, it can also destroy its flavours over the long term. In this interview, Frédéric shares his top tips on how to ‘sublimate’ – or preserve – a red wine.

Hello Frédéric! First, can you explain the principle of decanting? What is it, and what purpose does it serve?

Decanting can be used for two purposes: to oxygenate young wines or to remove deposits from mature wines.

For older wines, it’s mainly to avoid deposits in the bottle. It’s much nicer to have only clear wine in your glass, especially when there are 5 or 6 people at the table! The first to be served would have the clear wine, but the last would only have the sediment.

However, it depends on the region and tradition. Lovers of old Burgundies, for example, advise against decanting certain Burgundies, even old ones. They drink everything, including the deposits! It’s a different approach. “There’s plenty to eat and drink”, as they say.

And there are several ways of decanting, right? 

That’s right. Simple decanting means decanting a bottle into another bottle, for example a carafe. And tasting the wine from this decanter.

But we can also do a double decantation, something we do a lot at Château Lafite Rothschild. Here, the wine is first decanted into another bottle, using a funnel and filter to separate the sediment from the clear wine. The original bottle is then rinsed, and after cleaning, the wine is poured back into it. The aim is to return the wine to its original bottle after decanting.

Decanting process in the laboratory at Château Lafite Rothschild

The great advantage of double decanting is that instead of having a neutral decanter on the table, you have the original bottle with its historic label. It’s nicer to open and present a beautiful bottle!

Nevertheless, when it comes to double decanting, you must be quick: it takes just a few minutes. If the wine is left too long in the decanter or another very aerated bottle, the risk is that it will lose its character.

Let’s talk about the effects of oxygen on a wine. Can you tell us more? What happens between red wine and the air?

On the one hand, there’s oxygenation. Before tasting or during decanting, we expose the wine to the air to improve its taste and aromas.

This may be necessary for old wines, but it is also good for very young wines: it encourages the aromatic substances to unfold and be released. The wine’s flavours blend and its components find balance: acidity, sweetness… The breath of air acts as a flavour enhancer!

On the other hand, there is oxidation: if there is a steady supply of oxygen for a long time, the wine will oxidise. This happens when the cork has let too much oxygen into the bottle. And then… it ends up with an acidic or ‘acetic’ sting. Acetic acid is what you find in vinegar, for example.

So it may seem paradoxical, but just as much as oxygen can be necessary for tasting wine and revealing it, it can also become an enemy over the long-term during ageing.

Preparing the wines to be tasted during the Primeurs

You talk about the benefits of decanting a young wine and decanting an old wine… But how can you distinguish a young wine from an old one?

At Lafite, we talk about young wines for wines that are already 10 or 15 years old! But in reality, it’s not just the year that comes into play, the vintage counts for a lot. We have a deep knowledge of our wines, so we know which vintages need more oxygenation than others. To give an example, between the recorking and the preparation of the wines, in 20 years, I think I must have tasted between 130 and 140 vintages of Lafite. But generally speaking, I’d say that a Bordeaux between 5 and 10 years old, should be decanted.

On the other hand, during the Primeurs tasting, journalists taste wines that were bottled only 6 or 8 months before! Here, for instance, to ensure that the wine reaches its full potential despite its youth, it must be oxygenated. 15 or 20 minutes before the tasting, the wine is decanted into a decanter, left for 2 or 3 minutes, then put back into its original bottle. The aim is to benefit from the aeration on the way out, the aeration on the way back, and a few extra minutes in between in the decanter.

If you decant a wine when it’s young, will it give you an idea of what it will be like when it’s old? Or will it still taste different?

No, decanting is not enough. A wine that’s 10, 15 or 20 years old will have developed tertiary aromas. Aspects of tobacco, cedar, leather… but the fruit isn’t going to turn into tobacco just because it’s been decanted for 30 minutes. To get this kind of taste, you have to wait for the wine to develop naturally in the bottle. 

A very young wine will only have fruity notes, but thanks to decanting its tannins will be more open.

Decanting is always done 15 or 30 minutes in advance? Or is it better to let the wine breathe for longer?

Let’s say that’s the minimum. If the vintages are less structured, they can be decanted just before tasting. But for vintages with more substance, you can increase the decanting time to 1 hour, 1h30 or even 2 hours. But in most cases, more than 2 hours is pointless.

As a sommelier, you also have the assignment of recorking old vintages. What’s the point of recorking?

Recorking helps to keep old wines in good condition. We recork a wine when the cork becomes too dry and there’s a risk of it becoming brittle and letting too much oxygen through. If the corks are too porous, the level of the wine will start to drop. So, it’s best to change them and re-level the wine. 

We do this when necessary: when we open certain vintages and realise the corks are a little dry. Right now, for example, I’m recorking the 1989 Lafite. They’re 35 years old, but they have enormous ageing potential. So, we change the cork… and off we go again!


The comic strip “Retiens ton souffle” at Lafite

What’s more, without recorking, you wouldn’t be able to taste a Lafite 1870, for example. If it had never been recorked, its level would have fallen, in the best case, to the mid-shoulder [editor’s note: below the neck, where the bottle is rounded], and the wine would have oxidized, it would have evolved too much. If you recork the bottle every 30 or 40 years, the quality of the wine can be maintained.

“If the vintages are less structured, they can be decanted just before tasting. But for vintages with more substance, you can increase the decanting time to 1 hour, 1h30 or even 2 hours.”

And how do you go about opening and recorking a wine… without exposing it to the air? 

You can’t open it in a normal room, so you place it under a sterile hood. The bottle remains open for a total of 30 to 40 seconds, during which time it is topped up using bottles of the same vintage. About one bottle is sacrificed to level 50 or 60 others.

Once the bottle has been levelled, a small drop of bisulphite is added, and the bottle is immediately recorked. At the same time, we add argon – a neutral gas – to fill the “expansion space” between the wine and the cork. This gas preserves the wine, instead of letting in ambient air or oxygen.

Back in the day, the cellarmaster travelled to different countries and towns to re-cork bottles for private customers. Has this tradition disappeared?

Yes, very few châteaux now recork bottles for private individuals, as the legal framework has become rather complicated. At Château Lafite Rothschild, we stopped in the 2000s.

Cellar for wines kept for maturing at Château Lafite Rothschild

So, today if someone wants to have a bottle recorked… how can they go about it? If they have to be recorked every 30 or 40 years, does that mean that very old bottles only exist in the Châteaux?

We can sometimes find private individuals who have inherited a very old bottle, but often, the level is no longer high enough, and the wine is no longer at its fair value. 

Wine has three main enemies: light, vibrations, and major temperature changes. 

If stored away from these enemies in a place with a good level of humidity, the cork will retain its elasticity and effect. With the right level of humidity, a top-quality cork can last 40 or 50 years! Conversely, if it’s in a very dry cellar, it will dry out, letting in oxygen, ambient air, and odours…

And don’t put garlic or onions next to your bottles! As the cork is micro-porous, strong odours can seep into the bottle. But this is also the advantage of porosity, which allows the wine to evolve slowly. 

Château Lafite Rothschild 1996 cork

Good to know! If you’re recorking the Lafite 1989s right now, does that mean people who have a bottle from the 80s or 90s at home should hurry up and drink it before it oxidizes?

We anticipate, right now, to be on the safe side, we’re recorking the Lafite 1989s because we feel the cork is starting to dry out. But really, they could be recorked in 10 years. So, if someone has a bottle of 1986 in their cellar, don’t panic – it doesn’t mean that it’s already bad or likely to become so!

Above all, you need to look at the level of the wine in the bottle, in other words, the space between the wine and the cork. If a wine is well preserved, after 40 years the level will reach the bottom of the neck, and that’s not catastrophic. When the level reaches mid-shoulder or low shoulder… that’s when it becomes a problem.

But once again, if you keep a top-quality cork in good condition, it will protect the wine for 40 or even 50 years and preserve its level.

Above all, you need to look at the level of the wine in the bottle, in other words, the space between the wine and the cork.. When the level reaches mid-shoulder or low shoulder… that’s when it becomes a problem.

Observing the deposit using a light during decantation

And if you realise that the level is good, and you want to enjoy this wine at home without having too much equipment… Do you have any advice on how to open it?

If you’re lucky enough to have a Lafite 82 in your cellar, you should take it out of the cellar a day or two before opening. And stand it upright if it wasn’t already! This will facilitate decanting: instead of being on one side of the surface, all the deposits will be concentrated at the bottom of the bottle. There will be fewer particles floating on the surface. 

Then, before tasting, I recommend using a small light (from your telephone, for example). When you pour the bottle into the decanter, use the light to check that you haven’t reached the deposit. When you reach the end of the bottle, and there’s nothing left but sediment, you stop.

Uncorking/opening a bottle with a twin-blade corkscrew

It can also be interesting to have a twin-blade corkscrew at home. When the corks are very old, the screw of a classic corkscrew can go through. So, for older vintages, the best solution is the twin-blade corkscrew. It slips between the neck and the cork and holds it tight. You then have to twist and pull at the same time, and the cork comes out, even if it’s a bit dry or damaged. When I recork old wines, I only use a twin-blade. 

These are my tips for those who don’t have much equipment at home!

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