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Everything You Need to Know About Decanting

Learn why, when, and how to decant wine properly

Fine Cooking Issue 92
Photos: Scott Phillips
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I can’t think of a more misunderstood aspect of enjoying wine than decanting. Why anyone would bother pouring a bottle of wine into a glass carafe before drinking it leaves many scratching their heads. And while some wine drinkers may be able to tell you that decanting aerates the wine, they may not be able to tell you why this is a good idea. I suspect some people even use decanters simply because they provide a more elegant vessel for serving wine. But decanters are much more than pretty centerpieces for a dinner party. In many instances, decanting is the most practical and easy way to enhance the enjoyment of a bottle of wine—as long as you know how to do it properly.

That’s why I’ve put together this crash course on decanting, along with a few recommendations for buying the right decanter.

Why decanting is important

The question I get asked most often is: Why should I decant wine? There are at least three good reasons.

Decanting removes sediment from older red wines. Practically every red wine will start to develop sediment—the fine, silty, grainy particles at the bottom of the bottle—once it reaches seven or so years of age. The sediment is formed when pigment and tannin particles (both derived from grape skins) separate from the liquid as the wine ages. It’s best to remove this sediment from the wine before drinking, not only because of its unpleasant grittiness but also because it can make the wine taste bitter and astringent. Decanting is the best way to get rid of the sediment.

Decanting helps aerate younger red (and some white) wines. Many red wines available in restaurants or wine stores are only one to three years old, and their strong tannins can make them taste harsh. Decanting a young tannic Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot lets oxygen into the wine, rendering it more subtle and complex while softening its tannins.

Decanters can also bring up the temperature of any wine. If the bottle you’re planning to drink with dinner is too cold because it came right out of the refrigerator or a cold cellar or wine cabinet, simply rinse the outside (not the inside) of a decanter with warm water until it feels warm to the touch (15 to 20 seconds should do it) and then pour the wine into the decanter. The temperature of the wine will quickly rise by a few degrees, and it will be ready to drink.

Knowing when and how long to decant wines

Although there are no hard-and-fast rules for when to decant a wine, in general, the more tannic the wine, the more time it needs to rest in the decanter. Old, robust, tannic reds, such as Barolo or Hermitage, should be decanted at least an hour before serving, allowing enough time for the wine to open up and lose some of its tannic harshness. Any young red wine should be decanted at least 30 minutes to an hour before the meal. Once you’ve decanted the wine, plan to finish it with the meal or within 24 hours. Rarely will any wine benefit from being in a decanter for longer than a day.

Burgundies and Pinot Noirs, especially older ones, don’t have a lot of tannins and really should not be decanted. These fragile wines oxidize quickly when they come in contact with air and become unpleasantly acidic within just 30 minutes of opening the bottle. If you decide to decant these wines, do so right before serving.

Simple decanting instructions

For old red wines (seven years or more):
You’ll need a decanter, a lit candle, and a clean cotton cloth. The main goal is to remove the sediment before letting the wine aerate.

1. Stand the unopened bottle upright for at least 12 hours before decanting to allow the sediment to drop to the bottom.
2. Remove the cork as gently as possible so as not to disturb the sediment.
3. Wipe the top and inside neck of the bottle with the cloth to remove any dust or mold that may have developed during the aging process.
4. Pour the wine slowly and gently into the decanter while holding the shoulder of the bottle over the candle. As you pour the wine, use the candle to watch the shoulder (not the neck) for signs of sediment. If you’re watching the neck of the bottle for sediment you could be too late, and sediment will get into the decanter. Stop decanting once you see sediment reach the shoulder of the bottle.
It’s important to decant the wine in one slow, continuous pour. If you stop pouring before you’re completely fi nished, you’ll mix the sediment into the wine and defeat the purpose of decanting.

For young wines:
You’ll need a decanter and a clean cotton cloth. The main purpose here is to aerate the wine.

1. Remove the cork and wipe the neck and lip of the bottle with the cloth.
2. Pour the bottle vigorously into the decanter, trying to avoid spilling.
3. Allow the wine to rest in the decanter for at least 30 minutes (longer for more tannic wines) before serving.

Want to see decanting in action?

Check out our video of Tim Gaiser demonstrating how to decant a bottle of wine properly.

Choosing a decanter

There are so many decanters on the market, ranging from $20 to $250 and higher, that it can be hard to know which one to buy. As with many things, spending more doesn’t necessarily get you a better product. A good all-purpose decanter should easily hold the contents of a standard 750-ml. bottle and should either be bottle-shaped or have a flared base no more than 6 inches wide. This gives the decanter a good balance and air-to-wine contact ratio.

A good decanter should also have an opening wide enough (at least 2-1/2 inches) to easily pour the wine through without fuss or mess. Stay away from the overly fancy—and often overpriced—tall decanters with extremely wide-flanged bases and narrow openings. They may look stylish, but functionally they’re a disaster, as it’s almost impossible to empty them without spilling wine everywhere.

Four favorites: Here are a few nice decanters (pictured above), all of which are practical and reasonably priced, they are from left to right:

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