Being in the wine business, I have always been exposed to wine decanters. Vessels of all shapes and sizes both big brand names and those of an everyday nature. Some were samples to try out, some were wedding presents, and some were received as presentations for one thing or another.
Whatever category you fall into, I want to highlight that it doesn’t really matter if they are of the expensive kind or a simple everyday one left on the kitchen counter, they do serve a purpose.
Decanting a bottle of wine remains mysterious and intimidating to many drinkers. Questions may arise, like, which wines need it and when should you do it? Is it actually necessary at all or is it just a bit of wine pomposity?
I will use this post to explain a little about what decanting is, why do it and what the effect on the wine might be, during the process. If you have absolutely no interest in decanting wine – stick with me anyway. I’ll try to make this as simple as possible so at least you’ll appreciate why some people might decant wine.
What is decanting?
Decanting a wine is essentially the pouring of the contents of one vessel (usually a bottle) into another vessel (typically a decanter). The wine is then served from the decanter into glasses. Why would you do this?
Well, fundamentally, decanting serves two purposes: to separate a wine from any sediment that may have formed in the bottle and to aerate a wine in the hope that its aromas and flavours will be more vibrant when served.
Why decant wine anyway?
The first thing I must say is that not every wine needs to be decanted. You’d be right in thinking that older wines (e.g. vintage port or Bordeaux wines) produce sediment in the bottom of the bottle as they age. Decanting therefore, separates the wine from the sediment. The result is a nice clear glass of wine for you to drink.
The second reason you might decant is to aerate the wine. The aromas and flavours of a young wine might just be a little closed when you smell or taste it. To open them up a little you need to add some air. When you decant, oxygen is allowed into the wine, in fact swirling the wine in your glass has exactly the same effect.
For those of you who know a little about wine, I would suggest that highly tannic and full-bodied wines would benefit from this e.g. Cab Sauvignon, Cab blends, Syrah and Syrah blends. The only caveat I would have is to be careful with very old Burgundy wines – they are delicate and don’t need as much oxygen.
How do I decant a wine?
As mentioned, decanting is simply the process of separating the sediment from the clear wine.
Nerd Alert! Over time (after 5 to 10 years), the colour pigments and tannins bond together and fall out of solution, which becomes sediment. Stirring up the sediment when pouring will make the wine’s appearance cloudy and might impart bitter flavours and a course texture.
It’s not harmful, but definitely less enjoyable.
I will give you a guide for ‘decanter times’ later-on but if it is an old bottle (say 10 years) it’s best to:
- Stand the bottle upright overnight so that any sediment falls to the bottom which makes it easier to separate when you open it.
- Make sure that the decanter (or glass vessel) that you are going to use is clean from previous usage.
- Remove the foil and cork and wipe the neck of the bottle clean.
- (in some restaurants you might spot a sommelier holding a light under the neck of the bottle to see the sediment better)
- Hold the bottle level(ish) with the top of the decanter and pour the wine into the decanter slowly and steadily, without stopping.
- As soon as you spot some sediment reaching the neck of the bottle – stop pouring.
- You are now ready to serve the wine (pour away the little bit of wine remaining in the bottle.
I should say at this stage that I found a little wine sieve (strainer) in a French wine shop for €10 many years ago which is a big help to me when decanting.
I’ve also heard of pouring the wine though a gauze or muslin to catch even the smallest particles which is essential for a clean glass of wine. Some people have suggested using a coffee filter paper but I would have reservations about that one tbh.
Should all wine be decanted?
Well, not really. In the main white wines don’t need to be decanted (unless it is a higher-end wine that can age), but in general most everyday young whites do not need decanting.
The same goes for sparkling wines, believe it or not. Only older vintage Champagnes which may have evolved complex aromas and flavours might need to be decanted. Additionally, some people find the bubbles in some young Champagnes too aggressive. Decanting softens the intensity of the bubbles.
However, for many people Champagne and sparkling wine are inextricably tied to that very sensation of bubbles, and any act that might reduce their liveliness is considered a mortal sin! At the end of the day it is down to personal choice.
What about aerating the wine – how long is too long?
The question of whether to aerate a wine (or how long) usually generates intensive debate among wine professionals. To help you understand this debate I should explain this first.
When you open a bottle of wine, two things start to happen: oxidation and evaporation. The evaporation helps to ‘blow off’ any highly volatile components (e.g. smell of burnt matchsticks) that may exist to make the wine seem smoother and appealing.
The effects of oxidation takes a while longer but will help to smooth out the tannins somewhat. The effect of decanting a wine from the bottle helps to accelerate these elements and therefore make a wine seem more expressive, more aromatic and better integrated.
So, does wine go off if decanted for too long? Have a look at the guide below for suggested times to decant wines and they will typically last 12–18 hours after being decanted. DO NOT DECANT 20+ YEAR OLD RED WINE!
Here is my quick guide for decanting different types of wine:
Why not put recommended decanting times on labels?
One of the main reasons that this is not done is that the producer does not know when you are going to drink the wine! Another reason is that, for me, decanting wine is a matter of personal preference.
Personally, I will decant older wines to separate any sediment and would usually open, decant and serve within 1 hour. Some of my friends/colleagues might leave it for longer and track the development of the wine. Again, it is down to its development stage and your taste preference.
You could experiment by buying two bottles of the same wine and decant one and not the other. Alternatively, you could try using different decanters. Either way my advice is that you don’t get too hung up on any specific rules or traditions.
A decanter can often be seen as an object of intimidation. I hope after reading this post you will agree that it can be an important and rewarding tool to elevate your wine experience. In the end, apart from decanting to remove sediment it is really about personal preferences.
Rather than taking it too seriously I think it is fun to experiment with decanting all sorts of wines to see what happens – some you will notice no difference, some you will like better and others not. And that is part of the pleasure.
One last thing – did you know that we launched the Green Acres mobile app recently? Now you can bring us home in your pocket. Book tables, browse wines, learn of special offers, check events, connect with us, earn loyalty rewards and much more. We would really appreciate if you would click on either of the tabs below to download for free.
Talk to you soon, James.