Decanting Wine

A discussion with Bill Williamson.

From an historical perspective the Romans used glass decanters, and after the fall of the Roman Empire, decanters were made of bronze, silver, gold and earthenware with glass decanters being reintroduced during the Renaissance.

Why Decant

The decanter is intended to improve the quality, taste, and clarity of the wine. Different wines require different decanting processes, before serving the wine.

We suggest decanting wine for several reasons, namely:

  • Older wines may have developed sediment which looks and tastes bad.
  • Younger wines may have been made “unclarified in the old style” that is unfined and unfiltered and therefore may contain sediment.
  • Younger wines that have been fined and filtered, particularly wines below $30 per bottle, need aeration to release their tight, tannic structure.
  • The original wine bottle may have been stored in a damp, dirty place or the label may be torn so you choose to not place it on the table.
  • There is a psychological element to decanting wine. If your guests think a wine tastes better after decanting, or being served in a special glass, then it will.

How to Decant

As a general rule wine should be tasted as soon as it is opened to determine how long it might be aerated, so always take a small glass for tasting. This will also leave a larger surface area of the wine exposed to the air.

Decanting, pouring a wine into a special container just for breathing, is a controversial subject in wine and the topic of much debate. The decanter is thought to mimic the effects of swirling the wine glass to stimulate the movement of molecules in the wine triggering the release of more aroma compounds. In addition it is thought to benefit the wine by smoothing some of the harsher aspects of the wine like tannins or potential wine faults like mercaptans.

Some wine experts claim that the prolonged exposure to oxygen actually diffuses and dissipates more aroma compounds than it stimulates, in contrast to the effects achieved by swirling the wine in a drinker's glass with a smaller scale exposure and more immediate release of aroma compounds.

We can agree however that decanting alters the perception of sulfides and other chemical compounds in the wine through oxidation, which can give some drinkers the sense of softer tannins in the wine.

What Wines to Decant

As a general rule, wines that have been aged in oak need to be decanted. Strong flavored wines like Bordeaux Blends, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Rhône wines will endure decanting well and our suggested period of decanting for wines less than fifteen years old should be approximately half an hour. For older wines begin tasting immediately after decanting and continue to taste as the flavors could dissipate quickly, depending the varietal and vintage. Careful decanting of new Burgundies is also effective for rapid oxygenation but older, expensive Burgundies could collapse with too much air.

Using a clear glass decanter gives the wine a much more elegant appearance at the table. To decant, remove the entire capsule from around the neck of the bottle so you can see the wine pouring through the neck and check for sediment. Hold the Decanter in one hand (left, if you are right-handed) and the bottle in the other, and with a smooth and steady action, pour the wine into the decanter taking care that your pouring is slow, continuous and steady. Allow the wine to run against the opposite side of the decanter from the bottle, so the wine slips down the inside surface of the glass decanter rather than pouring directly into the bottom of the decanter and foaming the surface of the wine.

When the wine is decanted and placed on the table it is customary to place the bottle next to the decanter so that your guests can refer to the label.

Decanting Issues

Typically red wines which have aged in bottle perhaps ten years or longer will develop sediment. Sediment is composed of microscopic solids which develop over time by the breakdown of polyphenols in the wine and then these solids settle at the lowest part of the bottle. Sediment in the wine is visually distracting and can be quite unpleasant in the mouth.

If the wine has sediment allow the bottle to stand for at least one hour or until the sediment has settled. After the sediment has settled, carefully decant the first two thirds as described above, then simply place a coffee filter over the decanter mouth for the final third of the bottle. For all but the most fragile of wines there is not much chance of damage to the wine by careful decanting.

Whatever decanter you use be sure it is spotless and free from any outside aromas. The normal long-neck-flat-base shape of a decanter can make it difficult to clean. Never wash your decanter with detergent, use a mixture of crushed ice and coarse salt to remove any residual wine, then simply rinse with hot water. If you want to be sure its clean give it and your stemware a cycle in your dishwasher but without any detergent, then rinse with mineral water to remove any residual chlorine odor it may have picked up.

Choosing a Decanter

Choosing a decanter is the same process as choosing wine stemware. A clear, crystal decanter allows the wine color to be seen on the table. For years we have recommended the Reidel brand however glass companies are tending to favor decorative display over practical form making modern decanters somewhat ineffective as delicate aerators, difficult to use and to clean.

We use and recommend a plain crystal decanter which aerates the wine exceptionally well, displays the true color of the wine, pours easily and cleans with minimal effort.

Discussion with Bill Williamson

I don't think there is anything more satisfying than selecting a wine from your cellar that you have been saving for years, opening and decanting it, and then sitting quietly and enjoying small glasses as it unfolds, all the while remembering the day you found it on your travels in some beautiful wine region.

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