3 December 2015

The rise of the luxury wine accessory


In London a decanter has just gone on sale for £1,300 ($1,945). Before you ask, no it’s not made out of crystal and no, it wasn’t used by Sir Francis Drake as he made his first voyage to the Americas. So why the hefty price tag? And let’s be honest, whichever way you square it, it is an awful lot of money to spend on something which is essentially a glorified jug. To a certain extent I agree, only the ‘iSommelier Smart Decanter’ (to give it its full name), isn’t really a decanter. In their words it is ‘the solution to eliminate all limitations during conventional decanting’. Translated: if ever there was a toy built for the modern James Bond era of wine appreciation, this is it.

How the wine device has advanced! It wasn’t that long ago that we were all sucking out air from our half empty bottles with a small plastic pump which looked a little like a tin opener, remember those? Not any more. The smart decanter is just the latest in a long line of sophisticated wine accessories which have embraced technology to transform the upper end of the wine market.

These include: Coravin, the gun like device which extracts wine from a sealed bottle using a medical grade needle, Enomatic machines which can keep an open bottle of wine fresh for 3 weeks, and all manner of temperature controlled wine fridges, cellar management systems and even GPS tracking devices for your prized case of Claret. For the wine geek, with plenty of disposable income, there has never been a better time to indulge your passion.

It used to be the case that a collection of fine wine was enough, these days that’s just the beginning. Once you’ve built your cellar or ‘wine display cabinet’ you’ll need some glasses, one for every grape variety as Austrian glass maker Georg Riedel would have it. Then you may need a wine fridge in your kitchen, for those everyday drinking bottles, not to mention a corkscrew – the Screwpull lever model at £75 should do it. Possibly a wine suitcase for transportation. After all that, it’s time to accessorize.

Are they worth it? Coravin, EuroCave’s Wine Art preservation system and wine fridges certainly fulfill a useful role. The iSommelier? I went to Harrods to find out.

First off, this doesn’t look like a decanter. With its sleek lines and digital display it’s more like something you might pick up at your nearest Apple store. The machine injects ‘purfied oxygen’ through your wine while displaying the name of your bottle on a thin electronic strip. Can you operate it from your smart phone? Of course you can and there is also an app which allows you to share your decanting experiences with friends, learn tips from top sommeliers and drill into a database which tells you the exact time a certain bottle needs ‘aerating’ for.

We tried it with several wines, firstly a bottle of Château Smith Haut Lafitte 2000. Now this is a wine which, with nearly 15 years’ bottle age, really only needs a gentle decant. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, un-decanted it possessed strong aromatics of dried fruits, tobacco and that wonderful savoury smell of warm brick you sometimes smell in mature wines from this area of Bordeaux, the Pessac Léognan. Put through the machine and the wine did change, the tannins (those hard bitter flavours one detects in the middle of the tongue) softened and the primary fruit came to the fore.

The second wine was a Château Malartic-Lagravière 2009. Here we did a blind tasting with one glass which had been decanted for two and a half hours in a normal decanter and one which had been put through the iSommelier for two and a half minutes. The makers of iSommelier claim that one minute in their decanter is the equivalent of one hour in a normal decanter.

Again it was relatively straight forward to detect the iSommelier version, the harsher tannins had been stripped back and the fruit was much more to the fore. On the third wine, a Penfolds St Henri Shiraz 2012 from Australia, we tasted a range starting with ones which had not been decanted at all through to ones which had experienced two and half hours. This is when I thought the machine really came into its own as you could speed up the ageing process given your taste. The wines which had been decanted for 2 minutes in the iSommelier were superb.

But is it really necessary? Decanting is always a divisive topic among oenophiles – there are those who are avidly pro and those who believe it is entirely unnecessary and can even deaden the flavor. Some are like the late cricket writer and wine expert John Arlott, who chose to decant his wines for several hours, if not more. I’m very much in the pro-decanting camp, I always feel a good, rigorous decant can transform an otherwise reserved wine into one which shows its fruit and true character. This is mainly the case with wines from Europe which are built to age, so naturally have more tannins and acidity. Old Rieslings, white Rioja, white wine from the Rhone and Chardonnays also improve. My motto has always been, as a rule of thumb, if in doubt decant.

It could be argued a rigorous pour will achieve the same result as the iSommelier. I know one Bordeaux vigneron who recommends pouring a small glass of wine from the bottle, placing the cork back in, shaking the bottle violently and then when the nitrogen bubbles have subsided, pour.

Another option is to buy an aerating funnel which costs around £35 ($50). Quite whether you need to spend £1,300 ($1,945). on a machine to do it for you, very much depends on your disposable income. But if you can justify the outlay why not? After all, compared with some of the coffee machines on sale it feels relatively cheap.


2000 Château Smith Haut Lafitte, Pessac Léognan, Bordeaux

Drinking really well now, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, this has strong aromatics of dried fruits, tobacco and concentrated savoury notes. Medium bodied with a decant it has more dark fruits and is a little earthy. Classic claret.

2009 Château Malartic-Lagravière, Pessac Léognan, Bordeaux

Dark, ruby red in the glass. This had a very robust feel and character. Tobacco leaf, wood smoke and dark fruit on the nose. After decanting it softened out into quite a fresh, fruity style.

2012 Penfolds St Henri Shiraz, Australia

This is winemaker Peter Gago on top form. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz this is gorgeous and supple with lovely notes of dark, purple fruit and a rich smooth finish. With decanting it just gets richer and smoother.

For Stockists and Prices go to www.winesearcher.com

iSommelier and Coravin are available from: www.harrods.com

Will Lyons is an award-winning wine writer, journalist and broadcaster.