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Feature Story

Decanting Champagne

by Peter Liem
December 30, 2013

In the village of Crouttes-sur-Marne, Françoise Bedel makes broad, mouthfilling Champagnes, their girth enhanced by the clay soils of the area and their ripeness amplified by biodynamic viticulture. Recently, she opened a bottle of her 1999 Cuvée Comme Autrefois, a rich, densely flavored Champagne that had spent 12 years on its lees. Rather than pouring it directly into my glass, however, she first poured it into a decanter. “The wine has so much power and substance,” she explained. “It needs plenty of aeration to express itself.”

"I find the newer 'renegade' style of single-vineyard, single-vintage, single-grape Champagnes from producers like Marie-Courtin and Cédric Bouchard to often benefit from decanting."
—Aviram Turgeman, Nice Matin
Decanting Champagne may seem unorthodox, even a bit odd. Yet it’s becoming a more common practice in the Champagne region, with a number of producers employing it as a means to open up a wine and allow it to reveal its full depth of aroma.

The house of Charles Heidsieck, in fact, has gone so far as to release its prestige cuvée, Blanc des Millénaires, packaged together with a striking, lyre-shaped Riedel decanter. It isn’t just a marketing gimmick—at the house, this is how they prefer to serve the wine.

“The 1995 Blanc des Millénaires has been in bottle for seventeen years, and decanting helps to liberate it,” says Thierry Roset, Charles Heidsieck’s chef de cave. “Its breadth, its texture, its silky effervescence are revealed in an even more enthralling fashion, further accentuating the wine’s refinement.”

Others believe in giving Champagne sufficient oxygen to express itself, but prefer a gentle approach... "I believe you can achieve the effect without that harsh treatment and losing so much of the carbon dioxide by changing to a bigger glass."
—Aldo Sohm, Le Bernardin
Sommeliers, too, are embracing the idea of decanting, even on this side of the Atlantic. “Decanting Champagne is something that I sometimes find necessary,” says Aviram Turgeman, head sommelier of Nice Matin in New York City. “I find the newer ‘renegade’ style of single-vineyard, single-vintage, single-grape Champagnes from producers like Marie-Courtin and Cédric Bouchard to often benefit from decanting, as they express more intense aromatic profiles and more open-knit mouthfeels. Similarly, young tĂȘte de cuvées from strong vintages need decanting if served as an aperitif or to accompany a single dish.”

Not everyone is convinced of the benefits of decanting Champagne... "My approach is to stretch the life of the wine for as long as possible in the glass."
—Patrick Cappiello, Pearl & Ash
Not everyone is convinced of the benefits of decanting Champagne. “We do not decant Krug,” says Olivier Krug, ambassador of the Champagne house that bears his family’s name. “When Krug reaches one’s glass, it is ready to be enjoyed, with all its generous facets, and it doesn’t need to be artificially changed. I remember many years ago doing the experiment in a good Parisian restaurant, with the Krug Collection 1976. There were six of us, and we all preferred, by far, the expression of the Champagne served from the bottle.”

Typically, the biggest question about decanting Champagne concerns the mousse: A fundamental part of Champagne is its sparkle, and subjecting the wine to such a rapid aeration can accelerate the loss of its bubbles. “I have done it a few times and have always been disappointed with the results,” says Patrick Cappiello, wine director of the New York City restaurant Pearl & Ash. “More importantly, the guest was disappointed. The wines just lose their gas too quickly, which seems to be the magical third dimension.”

Françoise Bedel firmly believes in decanting her Cuvée Comme Autrefois Champagne: “The wine has so much power and substance. It needs plenty of aeration to express itself.” Françoise Bedel firmly believes in decanting her Cuvée Comme Autrefois Champagne: “The wine has so much power and substance. It needs plenty of aeration to express itself.”
Turgeman, though, believes that careful handling can preserve the mousse. “I’m not concerned about the bubbles dissipating quickly,” he says. “It’s usually served cold enough so the bubbles are retained, and decanting has to be done carefully.” Aldo Sohm, head sommelier of Le Bernardin, believes in giving Champagne sufficient oxygen to express itself, but prefers a gentle approach.

“I’ve decanted Champagne because a customer insisted on it,” Sohm says. “However, I am not a huge fan of it. I believe you can achieve the effect without that harsh treatment and without losing so much of the carbon dioxide by changing to a bigger glass.” In the end, the best way to aerate a Champagne may be simply to give the wine time. While we’re accustomed to drinking Champagne as an aperitif, consuming it within a relatively short amount of time, it’s worth setting a glass aside to enjoy later on in the meal, or even reserving half of the bottle to see how the wine evolves over the course of the evening. “Most Champagnes will get better as the night goes on,” says Cappiello. “My approach is to stretch the life of the wine for as long as possible in the glass.”

photo of Aviram Turgeman of Nice Matin by Sara Brittany Somerset

This feature appears in the print edition of the December 2013.
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