Breathe Deeply

Most wine tastings survey a number of wines created by a single firm. A couple of weeks back, Seattle Weekly'stasters had a rare opportunity to take a different approach: multiple wines from different makers, all created from fruit from a single grower. Even to our amateur palates, by the end of the affair we were beginning to understand why top winemakers compete for grapes from Dick Boushey's Yakima Valley vineyards: for the sake of the mellow roundness and finesse they lend any well-made wine.

But the tasting also had its puzzling side. One of the wines on the table was DeLille Cellars' 2002 "Doyenne," a 98 percent syrah bottling chosen by wine guru Robert Parker for a pricey trade tasting of 15 syrahs representing winemaking styles round the world. We don't set up our palates as competitive with Parker's, or with De-Lille winemaker Chris Upchurch's, either; but the fact is that Doyenne didn't much impress us at first. Despite a good hour out of the bottle in a decanter, the wine just stood there, arms folded, daring us to make something of it.

I might have gone on being puzzled had not a fellow taster, more assiduous than myself, nudged me an hour or so into the affair, whispered, "Try it now," and pushed the decanter my way. Indeed: Another hour out of bottle and Doyenne's impassivity had cracked, and deep aromas and subtle flavors were leaking out. Another hour along, with the tasting winding up, and the wine was sending up billows of new scents. It promised to keep right on giving, but we didn't have the patience to let it and finished it off with a final smack of our lips.

So what was going on? I asked winemaker Upchurch. "Well, for one thing, young wines take longer to 'open up,'" he told me, "and the '02 Doyenne is still young. For another, the 'bigger' the wine, the longer it takes to open. That's why you sometimes find you like a lesser wine more; the lesser wine doesn't have as far to go to achieve maturity. On top of that, there's 'bottle shock'; when you first transfer a wine from the barrel into bottles, you upset the maturing process it's been going through, and it takes a while to settle back.

"Decanting a wine accelerates the maturing process," Upchurch explained. "Maturing is mostly just slow oxidation of some of the wine's compounds, and decanting mixes oxygen into the wine. The changes in flavor and bouquet you noticed are the direct consequence. The wine's evolution has been accelerated. Decanting can be a pain, but I suspect there's not a red wine in the world that won't benefit from doing so, at least a little; and the bigger the wine, the more the benefit."

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