Have you ever received a wine decanter as a gift or bought one for the pure beauty of it, only to relegate it to a kitchen shelf to collect dust? It happens more often than you’d think. While many people are attracted to these curvaceous glass vessels, they’re often unsure of how and why to use them. This primer will help clear up the confusion.
The Why & What
There are two main reasons to decant wine: to separate out the sediment that forms in older wines, or to bring out a wine’s flavors and aromas by exposing it to oxygen. Let’s tackle the sediment issue first. Have you ever tipped back the last bit of red wine from your glass only to end up with a mouthful of bitter-tasting grit? As wines age, their pigments and tannins bond together and form sediment that collects inside the bottle. When the wine is poured, the sediment becomes suspended in the liquid and can end up in your glass. By decanting the wine before pouring it into stemware, you can leave the grit behind.
Decanters are also used to open up tight wines that have muted aromas and flavors. The idea here is to aerate the wine, exposing it to oxygen, so it evolves more quickly than it would inside the bottle or glass. (This is why many decanters have wide bottoms; to allow more of the wine’s surface area to come into contact with air.)
Good candidates for this type of decanting include tannic red wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Barolo, Cahors Malbec, Brunello di Montalcino and Chianti. Young, high-end reds are often decanted, but even everyday wines can benefit from the process. (While there are exceptions, whites generally do not need decanting.)
Pouring wine into a decanter can also help rid wines of unpleasant aromas. Have you ever opened a wine only to be greeted by a rotten egg or burnt match smell? That’s a fairly common issue associated with the sulfur dioxide used in the bottling process, and exposing the wine to oxygen can help eliminate those off odors.
The decanting process differs depending on what you want to achieve and the age of the wine. To remove sediment, set the bottle upright the night before—or at least a few hours before—you plan to drink it, so the solids have time to settle to the bottom. Then, slowly pour the wine into your decanter in a steady stream. When you get to the last third of the bottle, watch the neck carefully to make sure you’re not pouring solids into the decanter along with the wine (some people hold the bottle neck over a candle or light to make the particles easier to see). You may need to leave the last couple of inches of liquid inside the bottle, but it’s a sacrifice worth making for a grit-free glass of wine. Now it’s ready to serve.
Young, sediment-free wines should be poured into the decanter quickly, so the liquid splashes around a bit and gets more air exposure. Newer vintages can be decanted for anywhere from an hour to several hours (taste the wine periodically to decide when you feel it’s ready to drink). Generally those wines 15 years and older should be consumed within 30 minutes of decanting, as often the wines’ flavors and aromas can quickly fade once exposed to oxygen.
Now that you know why and how to transfer a wine from bottle to decanter, it’s time to liberate that lonely vessel from its resting place and put it to good use.