Decanting is one of those aspects of drinking wine that causes confusion amongst many wine drinkers. Why do you decant? How long do you decant for? What wines need to be decanted? Is it really necessary or is it just a bit of pretension? So it’s time to shed some light on this act. After all, decanting wine can save you from throwing out a perfectly good bottle of wine.
Fundamentally, decanting is pouring your wine from the bottle into a different vessel. But why do you need to do this? In fact, it can serve three different purposes: separating sediment, aerating the wine, and saving a wine from a broken cork. It’s also a great way to ensure the wine is pleasing to all of your guests: contact with the air helps round out the wine, making it more pleasing to more people’s taste buds.
Sediment in wine is normal, especially in older red wines and vintage ports: the color pigments and tannins naturally bond together and fall out of solution. While sediment isn’t harmful, it can ruin the experience of drinking your wine and can also impart a bitter taste. Decanting is one way you can avoid sediments being in your wine glass.
But before decanting, make sure your wine has been resting vertically for at least 24 hours. This will help ensure all of the sediments are resting at the bottom of the bottle. Now you can decant: slowly pour the wine into your decanter without raising the bottom of the bottle too high. If you see any sediment reaching the neck, stop pouring and let the sediment settle before pouring again. Always leave a little wine at the bottom of your bottle, this will help ensure no sediment goes into the decanter.
Note: it’s safe to assume that any red wine will have accumulated sediment after 5-10 years in the bottle
Just as when you swirl, decanting allows the wine to make contact with oxygen. This can help enhance flavors by softening tannins and releasing gasses that have developed in the absence of oxygen while the wine was bottled. It also allows flavors and aromas that were previously dormant to expand and breathe.
However, it can also help remove off-aromas caused by volatile compounds such as carbon dioxide or hydrogen sulfide. We’ve talked in-depth about off-aromas previously, but if you notice hints of rotten eggs or struck matches as soon as you open your wine then you should aerate it. For the most part, 30mins should be ample enough time for the aromas to dissipate, leaving behind a wine that is otherwise flawless.
Of course, if you’re in a rush and don’t have time to decant your wine you can always agitate it by either swirling it in your wine glass or pouring it back and forth between glasses.
It’s happened to all of us. We go to remove the cork with our handy wine opener but it crumbles or breaks as we go to pull the cork out. But that doesn’t always mean your wine is ruined. Just as with the sediment method, slowly pour the wine into a decanter, making sure that the cork pieces stay in the bottle. Now if the cork has really disintegrated, you can use a coffee filter or a sieve to catch the smaller pieces.
Now comes the more nuanced part of decanting: time. How do you know how long you’re meant to decant - aka leave the wine in the decanter - your wine for? Well, the answer lies in the style of your wine and its age. Older wines or more delicate wines like a Pinot Noir will only need about 15-30 mins in the decanter as they generally have a more refined structure and softer tannins than their younger counterparts.
Consequently, young wines (especially red wines) such as Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, or Shiraz, with a more robust and tannic structure can take anywhere from 30 minutes up to 3 hours to decant. In fact, for young wines with no sediment, you can use the shock decanting process. This involves tilting the bottle vertically into the decanter and letting the wine pour with the force of gravity.
Note: Some white wines and rosés can also benefit from decanting if there are hints of volatile acidity or reduction (i.e. they smell like rotten eggs or burnt rubber). If this is the case, a 15 minute decant should do the trick. But the one wine you never need to decant? A sparkling wine: decanting will remove the carbonation leaving you with a flat wine.
There is hardly a wine that is worse from being decanted so if you want to decant, go ahead. Don’t have a decanter? No worries. As we mentioned earlier, you can simply swirl the wine in your glass a few times to expose it to oxygen. Similarly, you can use an aerator: a device through which you pour the wine into your glass and in turn exposes the wine to a stream of oxygen.