Made of crystal or glass and formed into inspired shapes, decanters make luxurious gifts that look gorgeous whether they’re empty on a shelf or partially filled with wine. The question, of course, is whether decanting wines actually makes a difference, or is it all about aesthetics?
The short answer is that some wines certainly do benefit from decanting, while others would be the worse for it. In this handy guide, we’ll explore the finer points of decanting wines so that you can do it like a pro at home.
What Decanters Do
You might have heard that, after opening a bottle, you should let wine ‘breathe’ for a few minutes before serving, as doing so can improve the wine’s flavor. Decanters are designed with that in mind. The main purpose of the often-decorative containers is to increase the surface area of wine that’s exposed to oxygen.
When a wine gets time to ‘breathe’, sulfites that smell like sulfur evaporate, the ethanol, which can add a medicinal taste, gets tempered, and the tannins soften. Tannins are compounds found in the skins, stems, and seeds of grapes, as well as in other plant matter such as bark and leaves. They add mouthfeel, structure, texture, and weight to wine. They’re also responsible for the bitterness and dryness of red wine.
The oxidation process, assisted by decanting, results in wine that smells and tastes better than it would have done if you had opened the bottle, poured a glass, and started drinking it immediately.
Oxidation is the main reason for decanting wine, but it’s not the only purpose. Another reason is that decanters allow you to serve older red wines with sediment without the risk of that sediment ending up in your or your guests’ glasses. It’s easier to see the sediment at the bottom of a clear decanter than it is when the wine’s kept in its dark bottle, so you can stop pouring before you reach it. Also, some decanters have a specially designed lip that traps the sediment and prevents it from getting into your glass.
What About The Candle?
When decanting wine, some sommeliers hold the neck of the bottle over or near a lit candle. What looks like it could be an ancient ritual to appease Dionysus, the god of wine, actually has a far more practical purpose.
The light source below the bottle enables the sommelier to see the sediment in the wine as it reaches the neck. When that happens, the sommelier continues to pour carefully or stops pouring altogether, so that the sediment doesn’t get into the decanter. This means there’s no chance of any sediment getting into your glass of wine, which would make it cloudy and probably alter the flavor.
When To Use A Decanter
As mentioned above, not all wines benefit from decanting, so when should you think about doing it? The four main instances include:
● When you have a younger red wine with a tannic structure that could do with mellowing
● When you need to raise the temperature of a wine from cooler storage temperatures to room temperature
● When you want to remove the sediment from an older red wine
● When you have a white wine or rosé that has lost its original flavor profile and bouquet (known as ‘being reduced’)
How To Use A Decanter
There are a couple of different approaches to decanting wine, but before we look at those, we need to say something about preliminary preparation. First, make sure your decanter is clean. Second, if you store wine on its side and the bottle you want to open contains sediment, stand the bottle upright for 12 to 16 hours, which allows time for the sediment to settle at the bottom.
The regular method—The regular way of decanting wine is to stand the decanter on a counter or other flat surface, or to hold it in one hand, and then to pour the wine slowly into the decanter, taking care not to splash and swirl it too much. Doing so exposes the wine to oxygen while maintaining its color, structure, and texture. This method is best for older, more fragile wines.
The shock method—The shock method of decanting is ideal for younger, tannic red wines that have been aged for less than two years. To do it, you turn the bottle vertically and allow the wine to pour into the decanter with force. This results in a lot of splashing and swirling within the decanter which accelerates the oxidation of the wine. This is not the method to use if you have a bottle of wine that contains sediment.
Wine Decanting Times
The length of time wine should spend in a decanter before serving depends on the type of wine. If it’s a younger tannic red, 10 to 15 minutes should be fine. Light-bodied reds such as Pinot Noir, Beaujolais, and Zweigelt require about 20–30 minutes.
Medium-bodied reds such as Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Grenache, and Zinfandel should spend 30–60 minutes in the decanter before pouring. Full-bodied reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, Mourvèdre, and Nebbiolo require an hour or more in a decanter.
If you have a white wine or sweet rosé that smells like burnt matches, you know it’s been reduced. Correct this by decanting it and letting it spend 15–20 minutes in the decanter.
Decanting wine may look like a strange ritual, but there’s nothing mystical about it. Instead, it’s an easy way to improve the quality of the wine you enjoy at home.