Decanting is often considered one of the trickier elements of wine service and enjoyment. In its shortest terms, the process of decanting involves moving a liquid from one container, usually the bottle it was purchased in, into another container. Several debates have long raged about the appropriate times and methods to decant, and even which wines benefit from the process. 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.
Do All Wines Benefit From Decanting?
In short, yes. 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—or bottles released and consumed within 1 to 3 years of their vintage year—benefit from the vigorous introduction of oxygen, as this helps them find balance and expression in a short amount of time. Older wines benefit from decanting as it introduces oxygen in a controlled way and removes sediment that often accumulates in aged bottles. 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?
The only tool essential for decanting is another container, made out of any material, that will contain the volume of wine being consumed. A resealable container 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 because they 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. 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—even if they're not as visually appealing.
Additional tools will help make the job of decanting easier, though they are not essential. A decanting basket or cradle keeps the bottle in an appropriate position to best contain the sediment with minimum disturbance from the bottle’s storage location to the service area. In low-light settings, a candle or small flashlight is also used to help the server observe where the sediment is sitting. The decanting basket and light source are most commonly employed in a restaurant setting.
In recent years, much ado has been made about aeration in wine, which is the original 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. Some suggest hacks such as using a traditional or immersion blender to speed up the decanting process, but blenders are notorious for harboring food particulate, oils, and aromas from food long after a thorough cleaning and are generally not recommended.
Decanting Young Wines
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 to 3 years of the vintage on the label, it is considered a young wine and should be decanted by vigorously introducing 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 of time, allowing the tannins to soften and the more complex aromas to appear.
First, collect the decanting vessel and bottle to be served along with a clean hand towel. 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. Secondly, pour the wine into the decanting vessel, allowing the wine to splash about the bottom and sides of the decanter and vigorously swirl the decanter to continue introducing oxygen to the wine. The swirling may continue for several minutes or could 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 isn't 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 into account.
Decanting Old Wines
When serving older wines, or bottles over four years old, a gentle decanting approach is best. Vigorous movement and over-aeration may disturb sediment and bruise more delicate aromas.
If the bottle was stored on its side while aging, older vintages will benefit by spending some time standing upright before serving, usually several hours to one entire day, in order to consolidate the sediment at the bottom of the bottle.
First, assemble the bottle, decanter, and hand towel. 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 to remove any particles. Secondly, open the bottle, keeping in mind that older bottles might have a dried or compromised cork. Next, pour slowly into the decanter and use a candle or flashlight to observe the neck of the bottle and ensure sediment and other particles 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. This will help the sediment to collect at the bottom of the bottle before resuming pouring. Finally, 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 near an aromatic display of food, the wine should be kept sealed to prevent odor or contaminants from entering the bottle.
Decanting by Age and Style
The time a wine spends in a decanter is very dependent on its age and style. As a general rule of thumb, the older the wine, the shorter and gentler the decanting approach should be:
- 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 could dissipate.
- Sparkling wines left to decant for over an hour will lose their signature effervescence.
- White wines will warm and start to degrade after a period of 3-4 hours as a general rule, though several expensive prized styles of Chardonnay may benefit from extended decanting of 4 to 5 hours.
- Big-bodied red wines, with tannic styles 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.