Everybody wants to decant. It is, after, all the seemingly cool thing to do,...and let’s face it, that gleaming crystal container also looks pretty impressive when nestled on your table for all and sundry to gaze at with unfettered admiration.
But for all its aesthetic appeal, there is much more to decanting than mere appearances, and in fact decanting in the wrong situation can be more harmful than never decanting at all.
What is Decanting?
Think of decanting like a little not-so-friendly mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, minus the unsightly spit swapping and desperate, life-threatening situation, of course. You’re basically just transferring wine from its original container, the bottle, to a wider container with more room for aeration, aka the decanter. We do this for one of two reasons (or sometimes both):
- The wine is old and has sediment, in which cause we decant slowly and carefully and often with the aid of a candle or flashlight to monitor the path of the wine’s sediment so it stays in the bottle and out of your teeth
- The wine is too old or too young or otherwise too tight and could benefit from a little oxygen to open it up and round out the edges
Wine is a living breathing thing, and when it’s stopped up in a bottle for a decade or two (or even a year or two) it can take more than a minute and a brief pour into a waiting goblet for it to gasp back to life. Think of it like a toddler after a 10-hour car trip; you need to let that poor kid out to run around for a minute before you can even thinking of enjoying his or her company.
How to Decant
Young wines are the easiest to decant. Simply upend the bottle into the decanter and smile.
Older wines with sediment are a bit trickier. If possible, sit the bottle upright (because you’ve been storing it on its side, as is proper, right….?) the day before serving to let the sediment settle. You can use a wine decanting basket if you want to be fancy, but you can also just lay the bottle on a rolled up kitchen towel or just be really, really careful – the key is stability and disturbing the sediment as little as possible. Gently remove the foil and then ease out the cork; the older the bottle the greater the tendency for a cork to crumble, so don’t rush the process and don’t be afraid to ask for some help from an ah-so.
Once your old wine is opened, very gentle begin pouring the wine into the decanter in a small but steady stream. You can use a candle or small flashlight pointed towards the shoulder of the wine to monitor the flow of the sediment; once you near the last few ounces of the bottle, the sediment will start to reach the shoulder. This is when you stop pouring, and if you’re like some somms I know, this is when you pour the dregs of ice cream. I’ve seen it done, I swear, and more than once. For the rest of us, what’s in the decanter is good enough. You can also use a cheesecloth, coffee filter, or dedicated wine strainer to capture the sediment, but I don’t recommend it; strain out too much of the wine’s natural particles and you’ll start to alter the innate body, structure, and flavor of the wine.
How Long to Decant
You may hate this answer, but the truth is that the proper length for which to decant a wine is a highly subjective question. The safe answer is something like, “anywhere from 20 or so minutes for a young wine to hours and hours for a well-aged Bordeaux or Burgundy,” but there is another school of thought (guess which one I subscribe to) that feels that waiting until the wine is “perfect” to drink it means we’re missing out on each wine’s unique evolution from its initial bottled form to the peak of its drinkability. By sipping a wine as its decanting than at period intervals until it seems just, well, right, I get the full feel of that particular bottling, including its best attributes and its flaws and all kinds of things in between (you may be amazed at how much you like a wine’s so-called imperfections). It’s an evolution, and for me, that journey is where the magic lies.
To Decant or Not To Decant
Contrary to the belief of some unfortunate souls I’ve encountered in the past, you cannot bring back to life a wine that is beyond saving, so yes, there are some wines you shouldn’t bother decanting. No amount of aeration will make a gas-station special taste like a Peter Michael Chardonnay, and conversely, not all high-end wine is going to taste better after it’s decanted. Kind of annoying, isn’t it? Before you get frustrated, here is a short but arguably incomplete list:
Very young and big red wines, such as recent vintages from Napa or Italy or bold Malbecs and Syrah, and tannic bottles that you may be drinking a little sooner than is optimal. Older reds with significant amounts of sediment, but anything too old may have started breaking down, so be gentle – you could kill the more subtle
Most whites don’t need to be decanted, but if you encounter one that is particular bitter or acidic, some aeration may make it more approachable. Also, be careful decanting soft wines, like Cab blends from Sonoma or older (15+ years) wines, as they may fall flat or even oxidize when exposed to air too far in advance of consumption.
When in doubt, taste – then taste again. Your palate, after all is king; everything else is just a suggestion.