Airs & Graces

Is the world getting sillier or am I just getting more intolerant? In the past 12 months I’ve been regaled with some of the weirdest decanters and aerating gadgets I’ve ever seen. The Ovarius takes the cake. This is the ugliest decanter I can recall, shaped like an elongated glass teapot. With no lid. The cryptic explanations in the instruction leaflet would make the most dedicated adherents of UFOlogy seem sane.

I’ve fondled Georg Riedel’s cleavage decanter and listened to the bubbles breaking as he explained how the vigorous agitation of wine liberated the dissolved carbon dioxide, leaving several centimetres of froth and bubble which makes little explosions when you put your ear at the decanter’s opening. And I’ve test-driven various aerating funnels such as the Vinturi and the Nuance Wine Finer and wondered what makes people spend seventy-odd dollars on a cute gadget that doesn’t seem to work.

My usual conclusion is that come Christmas or Father’s Day, people are so bereft of gift ideas for the bloke in their life that they’ll buy any new accessory connected with sport or grog.

I’m sure the delightful young PR who tried to sell me the virtues of Vinturi went away convinced I was a hard-bitten old cynic, and no fun at all.

What puzzles me most is that some credible people are converts to these accessories. I’ve been told of well-regarded sommeliers who declare they will never again drink Champagne that hasn’t been served from an Ovarius decanter. Well, dang me if I don’t actually quite enjoy the stuff fresh from its bottle.

I happily concur that aeration, or decanting, can have an effect on some wines – usually a positive effect. But one seldom knows before the event which wines will benefit from decanting. Penfolds Grange (tastings) creator Max Schubert would say that all red wine should be decanted. Then, some wines would show no benefit, perhaps, but at least those that could respond positively to decanting, would be given the chance to.

Decanting usually requires time, though. And there lies the problem – and the raison d’etre of all the aerators doing the rounds. Not everyone is sufficiently organised to decant wine an hour or two ahead of the drinking occasion. Aerating funnels purport to speed up the process.

I’m quite diligent when I test these things. I like to use the triangular taste test. Three apparently identical glasses of wine are poured by an assistant, one or two of which have been given the treatment being testing, the other(s) not. I smell and taste them, and I have to answer three questions: Is one glass different from the others? If so, which? And then: how does it differ?

This test must be replicated several times. If I can correctly identify the odd glass every time, there can truly be said to be a significant difference. Anything less means the hypothesis is unproven. The gadget cannot be said to work.

With the Vinturi, an accomplice and I did tests involving two red and two white wines. Neither of us could reliably see any difference in several young white and red wines. The only exception was an aged red, a 1994 Eileen Hardy Shiraz (a magnificent wine, incidentally) (tastings). I, but not my accomplice, consistently picked a slight difference. The aerated sample seemed a touch richer and fuller on the palate. Not worth the fuss and expense of using the aerator, in my view, and nothing that couldn’t also be achieved by decanting it into a jug and letting it ‘breathe’. But I couldn’t say it was a complete con.

As Peter Godden of the Australian Wine Research Institute says, if the wine needs more air, decant it twice.

This is what Max Schubert used to call double decanting. You decant the wine into a jug, rinse the sediment from the bottle, then return the wine to its bottle. Godden hasn’t tested any wine aerators but admits he has a problem with the idea of forcing air into wine. He does, however, believe in decanting red wines and letting them air for an hour or two. He also does this with French Sauternes.

Many wine gadgets – aerators, funnels, elaborate decanters and magnetising devices – are promoted by reputable people in the wine trade. Some even carry their imprimatur (there’s even a Master of Wine in the US who promotes a wine magnetising pourer) but I wonder if these people have performed objective blind tasting tests – with sufficient replicates to give a statistically significant finding.

It’s amazing how easy it is to persuade yourself that you’re perceiving what you want to perceive. Blind tasting is the great leveller!

First published in Gourmet Traveller Wine – Jun-Jul 2010.

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