How, When and Why To Decant Wine: An Easy to Understand Guide To The Never-Ending Debate
Wine decanting is a subject that can bring a lot of opinions into a room really fast, and it’s amazing how strong people feel about it. Here’s something you need to know: wine decanting is not that big of deal. Don’t be intimidated trying to figure out if you should decant or not, and if you have a wine bully in the room, feel free to disregard what they say. If you’re serving the wine then it’s up to you to decide what you want to do for the serving experience, just like it’s your decision about the stemware you care to use, the food pairings, the music you play, all that jazz – and it’s up to you whether you want to listen to anyone else in the room for an opinion on decanting.
The simple fact is this: Decanting a bottle of wine is perfectly fine if that’s what you want to do. Under most circumstances you’re not going to harm the wine.
What Does Decanting a Wine Do?
Decanting a bottle does two things, and you might decide that you need to do both of these, one of these, or neither of these. Quite frankly, most bottles will be just fine after pouring the wine into a few glasses. If you’re pouring a bottle into more than three glasses, there’s really no reason to decant anyway, since you’re naturally doing it by separating the wine into three glasses, thereby creating more surface area for the wine to be exposed to air which is exactly the function of a decanter.
But I digress. Here the reasons you do want to decant.
First, the exposure to oxygen can help the wine open up and show its true character. This is very true for many fine wines, wines around 10+ years of age, and high quality younger wines.
The best thing to do is to experiment with different wines and of various ages to see what you prefer and see what you learn about the process. For instance, I have some 15 year old 2nd growth Bordeaux that I’m cellaring. I always decant these wines, because when I pour them from the bottle, they are, at first, closed, with almost no aroma. After pouring in the decanter I might try it again after an hour, and then two or three hours. I’ve seen these wines really change, starting closed, then going through a mineral/magnesium like phase, then more vegetable/garden, only to emerge with vibrant flavor at the end of three or four hours. And I thought to myself, “OK, I learned something here that I can apply later.”
But most wines under 10 years old will be fine with an hour or so decant. Try them as you go, and see what you think. If you don’t have a decanter you can also just use a bunch of different wine glasses, pouring a small amount in each one (as I mentioned above), and progressively sampling them down the line over a period of time. That works the same as pouring in a decanter and then pouring small glasses out of it.
You can also use a glass pitcher, or even a glass flower vase, which I mistakenly grabbed from a friend’s cupboard recently thinking it was a decanter (and it worked fine). It doesn’t really matter that much. Just use something that exposes the wine to more surface area.
The second big reason to decant is to remove the sediment from the wine. If you ever wondered why many wine bottles have the “shoulder” towards the top leading up to the neck, this is why. That shoulder can help catch some of the sediment that has been released from the wine as it ages. Granted, there’s really nothing wrong with drinking the sediment, but it’s a whole lot cleaner in the mouth to remove it.
To do so, try to stand the bottle upright for a few hours before decanting if you can so the sediment can fall to the bottom. Some people put the bottles upright for 12-24 hours beforehand to let gravity do most of the work.
Pour the wine slowly in the decanter and pay particular attention towards the end when the wine is dribbling out in a small stream. Slow down and let that shoulder or the side of the bottle catch most of the major sediment. Stop pouring when you see most of the liquid gone and just the sediment on the side. That last .01 ounce might not be worth struggling for if you risk dumping all the sediment you just collected into the full decanter.
Thoughts from a Pro
But he cautioned that decanting doesn’t always make sense and said “I drank a high quality 1994 Pomerol recently. The wine was great right out of the gate but faded as the night went on. It had about a 2 hour drinking window. Glad I didn’t decant that one. Older wines that are in the decline phase need to be consumed quickly.”
Should I Decant my Wine at a Restaurant?
As for decanting at restaurants, that’s a whole other animal. Like I said above, if you have a group of three or four people dining and they are all having a glass, then you will likely pour close to the entire bottle out right off the bat. No need to decant. If you’re dining by yourself, or with one companion, it might be worth asking for the wine to be decanted, but try it first before asking.
And also remember that unless you’re drinking and dining super slow, you might not even give the bottle enough time to benefit from decanting by the time you’ve poured the second and final glasses for the table. Sure the process of moving the wine from one device to the next exposes it to some air, and if you think that’ll do the trick, have at it.
One way to do a restaurant wine decant that I like is to order the wine for the main dish, let’s say it’s going to be a robust red, but the table wants some white for salad or starters, or a cocktail before the meal. Go ahead and order the red right away, have it brought out, taste it, and then decide to decant or not early on in the dining experience. This makes sense because now the wine might actually have some time in the decanter before the first glass is poured with the main dish so it benefits from the exposure out of the bottle.
So here are the key takeaways.
- Decant if you want to and don’t worry about what Joe the wine snob says
- Think about why you’re decanting and if it even makes sense (i.e. Already pouring multiple glasses = no need to decant). Try decanting different wines and different ages of wine, young and old, to see what you think works best. There’s no one size fits all here. Wine enjoyment is a personal preference.
- Decanting mimics the aging process so can also help high quality young wines open up if they’re too tight
- Certain white wines can benefit from decanting too
- Decanting at restaurants doesn’t make sense all the time unless you give the decanted wine proper time to benefit from it.
But more than anything, don’t stress about it. Enjoy your wine.
“Wine is similar to music in that it’s a purely experiential realm, and it’s a purely subjective practice. That’s sort of the funny thing about wine criticism or, for that matter, music criticism. At times, those are useful guides, but ultimately it’s all about how you react to that music or wine.” – Mike D of the Beastie Boys
Let us know below what you think about decanting, when/how/why to do it, and anything else you think might be valuable on the topic.