Guide to Decanting Wine
While modern wines are methodically filtered and fined to ensure minimal sediment exists in the final product, the process was not always as polished. Particularly when dealing with older wines, which may have been in your cellar or stored by others for some time, the possibility (or likelihood) of sediment highlights the importance of decanting. In regard to younger wines unlikely to show these properties, the debate over the usefulness of decanting continues, as some argue it an outdated custom and others maintain its benefits.
Decanting is the movement of wine from its original container to a fresh receptacle, usually crafted from glass, crystal or stainless steel. As well as allowing the wine to breath at a more rapid rate, sediment is left behind in the decanter as the wine is poured into the glass.
Bottle by Bottle
There are, unfortunately, no hard and fast rules about decanting wines. Each wine, and its suitability for decanting, should be considered individually by asking some of the below questions and applying our understanding of the role decanting can play in specific wines.
Decanting a wine means exposing it to rapid oxidation which is said to improve the bouquet of younger wines, giving it a chance to reach a stage of development that often requires years of ageing. Similarly, aeration can improve very tannic wines.
Old wines will, of course, benefit from the removal of sediment in the process of decanting, however the timing is key: too much air can quickly destroy a frail and vulnerable older wine.
Stand the Bottle Upright
While it may not always be possible to plan your preparation of a wine to perfection, try to ensure the bottle is left standing upright for a couple of days before decanting, so the sediment can settle to the bottom.
Remove the Closure
When cutting the capsule, remember to do it below the last rim of the bottle top, so you don’t taint the wine. Give the top of the bottle a quick clean with a cloth before pouring it into the decanter, as a slightly mouldy or old cork can taint the wine as it is poured.
Hold the bottle above a light or candle so you can watch the sediment as you pour the wine from bottle to decanter, stopping before the solids leave the bottle. While this sediment is not a sign of poor quality – the wine may have spent most of its life maturing in a bottle and it is natural that a deposit has formed – but it can sully the appearance and taste of the wine in the glass.
Choosing the Right Decanter
A wider-necked decanter will mean more of the wine comes into contact with air, and should therefore be used on wine to be drunk that day. Thinner-necked decanters can be useful if leaving the wine or port overnight. The material that the decanter is constructed from is also significant, as it should not impart any flavour on the wine; glass, crystal and stainless steel are all viable options.
Aerating pourers, which attach to the bottle and aerate the wine as it is poured directly in to the glass, are becoming increasingly popular, but many traditionalists fret over their bold application; particularly with old and vulnerable wines, the trauma to the wine can cause unknown and irreversible damage.
Double decanting, the process by which the wine is poured into a decanter for a period of time and then back into the original bottle for serving, is popular at wine dinners, when the original bottle and label is a valuable part of the experience.
Overall, if in doubt about whether you should decant a wine or not, perhaps it is best to follow the advice of Bordeaux negociant Christian Moueix: “I prefer to decant wines, both young and old. It is a sign of respect for old wines and a sign of confidence in young wines.”