Arguably one of the most misunderstood processes in wine consumption is that of decanting a wine before serving. Some think it’s only necessary for vintage Ports or very old wines that have built up sediment in the bottle. Others feel it should be used for youthful wines to help them “breathe.” Still others assume a decanter is just a nice-looking wine container for the dining room table. Actually, it’s all of the above.
A decanter is normally a glass vessel used to hold the decantation of a wine from its bottle. It can vary in size, shape, and design, from a beautiful and complex piece of glass art, to something as simple as a carafe. Even a basic glass pitcher can be used as a decanter, though you may not want to put this on the dining room table for your dinner guests.
Decanting is most often used to separate the sediment from a wine before drinking. This is accomplished by slowly and carefully pouring the wine from its bottle into the decanter, stopping just as the sediment begins to appear in the neck of the bottle. If the sole purpose of decanting is to remove sediment, then the wine can be served immediately, either in the decanter or poured back into the original bottle—after the sediment has been rinsed out, of course.
Another reason to decant is to add air to a young wine that’s somewhat “closed,” meaning its aromas are reticent or not very forthcoming. On these occasions, the wine is poured into the decanter with a bit more vigor, so it aerates the wine and allows it to “breathe.” This is often called “splash decanting,” and it works just as well with white wines as it does with reds. Surprised that a white wine can benefit from decanting? It’s true, though many people never consider doing it. The decanter itself is meant to mimic the effects of swirling the wine in a glass to stimulate the oxidation processes that trigger the release of more aroma compounds. In addition, it’s thought to benefit the wine by smoothing some of its harsher aspects. Since a wine’s aromas and flavors evolve with time, a youthful wine is often left in the decanter for anywhere from one to eight hours prior to serving. In this instance as well, the wine may be served in the decanter, or may be poured back into the original bottle.
While using a decanter for sediment removal makes plenty of sense, its use for aeration is a bit contentious. Author Karen MacNeil in her book “The Wine Bible,” suggests decanting for the purpose of aeration, especially with very tannic wines like Barolo, Bordeaux, cabernet sauvignon, Port, and Rhône wines (although she notes that decanting can be harmful to more delicate wines like Chianti and pinot noir).
Conversely, noted French oenologist and researcher Émile Peynaud claims that the prolonged exposure to oxygen actually diffuses and dissipates more aroma compounds than it stimulates. In addition, the Wine Spectator’s Daniel Sogg reports that the process of decanting over a period of a few hours doesn’t really soften the tannins. He says it merely changes our perception of sulfites and other chemical compounds in the wine through oxidation, which only gives the impression of softer tannins.
At this point, it’d be an easy segue into hand-held wine aerators, such as the Vinturi or Rabbit Swish. But I’m going to save that for a future piece.
Image: Riedel Amadeo Lyra Decanter