Something about fine wine invites mystique, ritual — and more than a little pretension.
If you have ever ordered an old and expensive bottle of red from a master sommelier, you may have seen the ostentatious production that goes into decanting the stuff. The wine steward rolls out a gueridon (a little table) on which the bottle is cradled gently in a cloth-lined basket. A lit candle flickers nearby. The sommelier tips the neck of the bottle over the candle while pouring the wine with the delicacy of a surgeon into a broad-bottomed decanter so as not to disturb the sediment that has fallen out of the wine during years of aging and character development.
Thus aerated, the wine is then allowed to "breathe" for a while before it is served. Oenophiles — even those back in Roman times — have observed that wine of many vintages and varieties improves perceptibly when aerated for as little as a few minutes or for as long as a day. Oenologists have debated the chemistry that might account for this shift in flavor. Do the tannins change in ways that soften their distinctive flavors? Or does aeration simply allow stinky sulfides enough time to evaporate away?
Whatever the science behind it, the traditional ritual makes for a fine show. But when you're at home pouring wine for yourself or guests, you can save time and generate entertainment of a different kind by taking a shortcut: dump the bottle in a blender, and frappe it into a froth. (Sediment is less common in wines today than it used to be, but if you are concerned about that, pour the wine very slowly into the blender, and stop before you get to the last couple ounces.)
Less than a minute of hyperdecanting, as we at The Cooking Lab have taken to calling this modern method, exposes the wine to as much air as it would see in an hour or more of traditional decanting, and does so far more uniformly. Wine aficionados may recoil in fear that such a violent treatment will "break" the wine, but the proof is in the tasting.
In carefully controlled, double-blind taste tests conducted at our lab, we presented 14 experienced wine tasters — seven sommeliers, three vintners, two oenologists and two wine writers — with unlabeled samples of hyperdecanted wine. The tasters also received samples taken from the same bottles but decanted the old-fashioned way. The order of presentation was varied from one trial to the next.
When we asked them which samples they preferred, only two of the 14 judges were able to distinguish a difference repeatedly, and both of those tasters consistently preferred the wine that had gone through the blender.
So the next time you uncork a well-muscled syrah — or even a rambunctious riesling — for your connoisseur friends, bring a blender to the table, and have a camera ready. The foam will subside within seconds. But you'll cherish that memory of the look on their faces for the rest of your days.
EDITOR'S NOTE: W. Wayt Gibbs is editor-in-chief of The Cooking Lab, the culinary research team led by Nathan Myhrvold that produced the cookbooks "Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking" and "Modernist Cuisine at Home." Their latest book, "The Photography of Modernist Cuisine," will be released in October.