Thursday, October 20, 2005

Thoughts about Sediment

A few years ago I visited a winery near the eastern boarder of the Chianti Classico region, and, since it was near Christmas, I asked the cellermaster if he had any Riserva left. He said no, then hesitated. "Well, I do have last year's, but I don't know if you'd like it - we've had lots of people return it to us."
It turns out that he doesn't filter his wines, and for some reason that vintage gave off more sediment than usual. He must have seen something in my expression, because he ventured, "I can let you have it at 5 Euros per bottle - all sales final, you understand."
I tasted it and bought a case.
The sediment? Well, to be honest I'd almost rather that a well-aged red wine have some - it's a natural byproduct of the aging process, a mix of tartaric acid crystals and other chemicals that settle out as the wine matures. An old wine with no sediment at all would make me wonder what has happened to it that has kept it from developing in the bottle. Has it been filtered, perhaps? Filtration will improve clarity, but at the expense of body, color and bouquet. Or has it received some other insult - a shot of sulfur dioxide? The compound works as a preservative, but can make the wine smell like a burnt match. Better to have a little bit of sediment, which indicates that the wine is still alive. Note the word little – if there's a lot, there may well be something amiss. Also, the wine above the sediment should be crystal clear, not cloudy.
Returning to sediment, it is true that finding a dark deposit in the bottom of your goblet (we are talking about an aged wine here) is a bit off-putting. To avoid this, simply decant the wine. Though the procedure looks complicated, it's easy to do: A day or two before you plan to open the bottle, stand it upright to give the sediment a chance to settle to the bottom. At opening time you will need a decanter (crystal or clear glass is best, because it reveals the color of the wine) and a candle. Remove the metal capsule and uncork the bottle gently. Light the candle and slowly pour the wine into the decanter, holding the bottle in front of (not over) the candle, and watching the candle flame through the neck of the bottle. When the sediment reaches the neck of the bottle it will appear as a dark stream silhouetted against the flame; at this point stop pouring. With practice, you will be able to pour all but the last half-inch or so before the sediment gets there. The trick is to be gentle. And then, enjoy!

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