Decanting is often considered one of the trickier elements of wine service and enjoyment. Several debates have long raged about the appropriate times and methods to decant, and even which wines benefit and which others don’t from the process. In its shortest terms, the process of decanting involves moving a liquid (in this case wine) from one container, usually the bottle it was purchased in, into another container. The reasons to decant are somewhat basic-- to remove sediment that may have accumulated in the bottle of an older wine during aging, and to introduce oxygen to the wine in order to allow the wine to bloom and further express itself.
What wines benefit from decanting?
In short, all wines will benefit from decanting, though several wine specialists may bristle at the thought of decanting a sparkling wine such as Champagne as it will inevitably cause the wine to lose some of its signature effervescence. Still, many wine professionals will decant all their wines, as introducing oxygen is the best way to make a wine taste its best. Young wines (wines released and consumed within 1-3 years of their vintage year) benefit from the vigorous introduction of oxygen that helps them find balance and expression in a short amount of time. Older wines most benefit from the decanting process as it introduces oxygen in a controlled way and also removes sediment that often accumulates in the bottle of wine that has aged for some time. Using a decanter when entertaining is also a simple way to add a dash of elegance to an event and may also aid in pouring more consistently for a larger number of guests.
What tools are needed for decanting?
In short, the only tool essential for decanting is another container made of any material that will contain the volume of wine being consumed. A container that may be sealed is beneficial for keeping other contaminants out of the wine, though it is not necessary. Although a clean glass vessel without any soap residue is preferred, a thoroughly cleaned plastic container or any other material will suffice in a pinch. The most desirable styles of decanters are ones with a somewhat narrow neck and a large base to provide more surface area for the wine to be exposed to oxygen. Although shapes, styles, and materials for decanters are endless, some intricate shapes may be extremely difficult to clean thoroughly. Other additional tools will help make the job of decanting easier, though they are not essential. For older wine that will likely contain some level of sediment, most wine professionals employ a decanting funnel with a fine mesh filter, though any thoroughly cleaned and sanitized household funnel and fine mesh strainer will do the job in the same manner, although it may not be as visually appealing table-side. In settings where ambient light is low, a candle or small flashlight is also used with wines likely to contain sediment in order to help the server observe when sediment begins to enter the wine when pouring into the decanter. Other additional tools for decanting include a decanting basket or cradle, which holds a bottle in an appropriate position to best contain the sediment with minimum disturbance on the journey from the bottle’s storage location to the service area. The decanting basket and light source are most commonly employed in a restaurant setting.
How to Decant?
Depending on the type of occasion, the decanting process may be as simple or as ornate as the host chooses. The first step to decanting is to determine the age and style of wine to be served well in advance of service. If the wine to be consumed is within 1-3 years of the vintage on the label, it is considered a young wine and should be decanted using the following method. For serving older wines, or bottles over four years old, employ the method for older wines.
Decanting Young Wines
Young wines achieve maximum benefit from decanting with the vigorous introduction of oxygen. This rapid approach to pouring wine best approximates a waterfall and exposes the wine to the maximum amount of air in the shortest period allowing the tannins to soften and the more complex aromas to present themselves. First, collect the decanting vessel and bottle to be served along with a towel on hand for any spillage. Carefully open the bottle so as not to introduce any cork particles to the wine, though if the cork fails, this may be easily removed with a clean funnel and strainer. Next, pour the wine into the decanting vessel, allowing the wine to splash about the bottom and sides of the decanter. After the wine is poured into the decanter, vigorously swirl the decanter to continue to introduce oxygen to the wine. This swirling may continue for several minutes, or may be conducted periodically over the course of consumption to aid in aeration and expression. After swirling, use the decanter to serve into appropriate glassware. If the decanting vessel is less than visually appealing for table service, carefully rinse the wine bottle and pour the wine back into its original bottle, either employing a clean funnel or cautiously free pouring. This return to the original bottle is called double-decanting, and is acceptable and sometimes preferred for a wide range of scenarios where either several wines are to be decanted or space considerations must be taken.
Decanting Old Wines
Older wines will take a more gentle decanting approach, as vigorous movement and over-aeration may disturb sediment and bruise more delicate aromas. Older vintages will most benefit by spending some time standing upright before serving, usually several hours to one entire day, if the bottle was stored on its side while aging in order to consolidate the sediment at the bottom of the bottle. Next, assemble the appropriate tools mentioned above. If the wine has significant age along the lines of 8 years or more for most styles, a funnel and fine strainer are helpful to have on hand. Begin by carefully opening the bottle, which may offer its own unique set of challenges such as a dried or compromised cork. Regardless, using the fine mesh strainer when decanting will help to remove this cork and other particulate. Next, pour slowly into the decanter and use a candle or flashlight to observe the neck of the bottle to ensure sediment and particulate do not migrate into the decanter. If sediment is detected while pouring, either employ the funnel and fine filter, or cease pouring and allow the bottle to stand for several minutes in order to allow the sediment to collect in the bottom of the bottle before resuming pouring. After the wine has moved to the decanter, gently swirl the vessel to slowly and carefully introduce oxygen to the wine for a period of two to three minutes. At this stage, the wine may be poured and left open to allow more oxygen. If the wine is being consumed outdoors or in an odorous environment such as a restaurant or home serving aromatic food, the wine should be kept sealed after decanting to prevent any insects or clashing odors from entering the decanter.
How long to decant?
The time a wine spends in a decanter is very dependent on the age and style of the wine to be consumed. Young styles of wine will generally benefit from a decanting time of several minutes to several hours, but will likely see only marginal improvement after being allowed to decant for 6 hours or more. Lighter styles of red wine such as Pinot Noir, Gamay, Cinsault, Lambrusco and other low tannin varieties may suffer from decanting after 4-5 hours as their more delicate aromas may dissipate. Sparkling wines left to decant for over an hour will lose their signature effervescence, and white wines will warm and start to degrade after a period of 3-4 hours as a general rule, though several prized (and pricey) styles of Chardonnay may benefit from extended decanting of 4-5 hours. Big-bodied, tannic styles of red wine such as Barolo, Barbaresco, and younger Napa Cabernet Sauvignon become more approachable after extended decanting, and are known to improve with decanting for 12-24 hours after being left in a sealed container or having been double-decanted back into their bottles. Older wines require a much more measured approach, as the introduction of oxygen will quickly degrade their delicate aromas. With older wines, it is best to err on the side of caution and keep extended decanting over 4 hours to a minimum. As a general rule of thumb, the older the wine, the shorter and gentler the decanting approach should be.
Other Methodology, Tools, and Styles of Decanting
In recent years, much ado has been made about aeration in wine, which is the original intended point of decanting. Several new gadgets such as customized aerators provide a very similar effect as decanting, but require their own special set of tools to clean and store and do not usually remove sediment. Others suggest certain “hacks” such as using a traditional or immersion blender to speed up the decanting process, though blenders are notorious for harboring food particulate, oils, and aromas from food long after a thorough cleaning and are generally not recommended.