Why are some wines decanted and others not? How do you decant wine? Does decanting a wine make a difference to how it tastes? What does ‘decanting’ even mean??!
Decanting. It’s a relatively simple concept, but as with most things in the wine industry, it can be both intimidating and confusing for people who aren’t used to the lingo and fanfare of whipping out a fancy vase to hold your red as you drink it. To help break it down, we’re going to answer the questions above, and give you a bit of an idea of when it might be good to decant your wines, and when it might be much easier to just skip the process and pour straight from the bottle.
What does decanting mean?
You might have heard someone claiming that a certain wine needs to ‘breathe’: in simple terms, they really mean it would benefit from decanting. Decanting is the process of pouring the contents from one container, into another. In the case of wine, this is usually from the bottle to a glass pitcher known as a decanter… but in some restaurants, for example, the wine is then poured back into the original bottle for service - so the diners can see and appreciate the wine they’re drinking.
So why do we decant wine?
It definitely looks and feels quite fancy, but it probably won’t surprise you that not every wine needs decanting. Most people associate decanting with older wines, and there’s a good reason that people do choose to decant aged vintages of red: sediment. Slowly and carefully decanting mature wine ensures any sediment stays in the bottle, and you end up with a nice, clear decanter of wine, and a clear glass of wine as well. The sandy substance at the bottom of a glass is rarely fun to drink, even if you appreciate why it’s there.
A more common, ‘everyday’ reason to decant a wine though, is simply to aerate it. Why aerate it, you ask? Some younger wines can be very sharp tasting - and can be a bit of a punch to the nose and throat with aggressive flavour when you first pop the lid. When you consider that screw-cap wines are kept oxygen-tight (unlike the corks of yesteryear, which let in air over time), it makes some sense that exposure to oxygen can open up and ‘round out’ many of the aromas. Oxygen encourages these flavours to develop, making them ‘softer’ and more enjoyable. Wines with lots of tannins benefit most from the ‘everyday decant’: wines such as Cabernet blends (including Cabernet Sauvignon, ‘Cab Sav’), and Shiraz/Syrah.
How do you decant wine?
It’s safe to assume that a bottle of red that’s been aged for 5-10 years will probably have a bit of sediment in the bottle. Even if you can’t see any, it’s a good idea to decant it anyway, as gritty or cloudy wine is less enjoyable (even if it doesn’t affect the flavour).
Firstly, stand an aged bottle for 24 hours to allow all the ‘sed’ to collect at the bottom. When pouring, make sure you do it slowly and carefully - particularly with the last half of the bottle.
As for younger wines you just intend to aerate, you can be a bit rougher and just throw it into the decanter - but be careful not to leave it too long. Most wines benefit from oxygen exposure for around 1-2 hours, but can go down hill if left much longer than this. Always air on the side of caution (see what we did there!). Wines that have been exposed a little too long can increase the acetic acid levels, giving your wine unfortunate vinegary overtones.
Can decanting be a waste of time?
Yes. Most of us wouldn’t consider decanting a white - and that’s a good general rule as it’s really only top-shelf aged white wines which would benefit, and even that is considered unusual. Likewise, decanting sparkling could be considered strange - however it’s increasingly becoming the trendy thing to do. Key considerations, especially during summer, is that a decanted wine which is supposed to be served chilled will warm up quite quickly exposed to the warmer seasonal air. Not ideal!
Lastly, don’t feel the need to splurge on a crystal decanter from a handmade artisan glassmaker holed up in the Italian countryside - chances are, one bought from your local wine store will do just fine! You can usually get great quality decanters for under $100, so it’s worth looking around close to home, if you’re in the market.
In the end, decanting a wine is mostly about personal preferences. If you like the luxurious feel of pouring out of a beautiful glass pitcher, then go for it! If you’re like us, you might just think it’s fun to reserve the theatrics for special occasions. Feel free to experiment and see if you like the difference between a decanted and bottle-served wine, and go with what you think works best for your palate.
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