wine features Wine: Time for Decanting
Time for Decanting
September 2009

When does a wine “need” decanting? There are two, somewhat contradictory occasions.  In the old days, you cellared most of your wines for at least few years. As wines age and develop, the tannins and other components bind together into increasingly complex molecules, eventually becoming solids. These then fall to the bottom of the bottle (the side, really, since bottles are properly stored horizontally). When the time comes to serve the wine, no one wants that grit in their glass (or their teeth), so decanting separates the well-aged wine from its sediments.

But old wines aren’t the only ones with sediment. More and more winemakers are deciding that filtering their wines before bottling can strip the wines of some of their flavor, and are therefore opting to do without. These wines have sediments in the bottle the day they leave the winery.

It won’t be long until you’re pulling the cork on one of them. Many of these wines (sediment or not) would actually profit from some aging time—maybe just a year or two, maybe longer; a tasting note would probably describe them as “tight” or "closed.” But decanting the wines can wake them up and bring out some of the flavors and complexity, replacing the slow aging process with a quicker route.

There are two reasons to decant, and two methods of decanting, as well. If you’re decanting for sediment, it’s best to plan ahead: Stand the bottle upright for a few hours (ideally, a day) before serving so the sediments sink to the bottom. When you’re ready, open the wine, remove the entire capsule (the covering over the top of the bottle), and pull the cork. Light a candle (a narrow taper works best); with the neck of the bottle over the candle, gently and steadily pour the wine into the decanter. The candlelight should allow you to see the bits of sediment in the last ounce or two of wine. Stop pouring when you see them creeping toward the neck of the bottle over the candle. Pour the whole bottle in one steady motion; stopping and starting stirs things up too much.

On the floor, though, you’re usually opening a wine with sediment on the spur of the moment; after all, guests don’t pre-order their wines a day in advance. You can still decant it, but you’ll want to keep the bottle as horizontal as possible from the cellar to the table to avoid disturbing the sediment. Cradles are available that will hold the bottle with the top elevated just enough so that you can remove the cork without spilling any wine.

If you’re not feeling very steady or accidentally jostle the bottle before decanting, you can pour the wine through some cheesecloth into the decanter; it lacks a little in mood, but it still beats ruining your guests’ romantic dinner by surreptitiously planting black specks in their teeth.

Decanting a young, sediment-free wine to open it up and help it breathe is much more straightforward: open the bottle and pour it in. Sommeliers often recommend a “vigorous” (i.e. splashy, but don’t ruin your suit) decant to aerate the wine as much as possible.

There are a variety of decanter shapes. One elegant and popular design looks like a flying saucer with a tall spout growing out of the middle of it. The wine’s large surface area inside the decanter encourages aeration, so these are particularly good for young wines. They can be awkward to pour, though, so some prefer the old-fashioned “duck” decanters—yes, they’re shaped like a duck—which aerate less, but are easier to handle.

Does decanting a young wine make that much of a difference? Opinions vary, even among experts. Informally, I’ve found most reds gain at least a little bit from the experience. Full-bodied whites like Chardonnay also seem decanter friendly. Crisper, high-acid wines like Sauvignon Blanc rarely show much change, but there are exceptions like Chablis and dry Rieslings. A friend of mine even likes to decant Champagne, but I find you lose some of the bubbliness, and it isn’t really compensated by a substantial increase in aromas—the bubbles, after all, help the spread the aromas in the glass.

There is a third reason to decant: It looks, even feels, nice. Sure, there are some wines where you might “shake it apart,” disrupting the structure of the wine. Red burgundies, young or old, often suffer from decanting; fortunately, they rarely develop significant amounts of sediment. But even if the wine tastes the same before and after decanting, it’s often a great way to make the guest feel special about whatever they’re drinking.