Decanting may appear to be a pretentious wine custom but it serves several key purposes which can enhance the enjoyment of wine.

Reasons for Decanting

Polyphenols precipitate out of older wines in solid bits. This sediment settles in the bottom of the bottle. In addition to clouding or otherwise marring the appearance of the wine, sediment tastes bitter and astringent. Decanting is a process to separate the wine from any sediment.

Also, older wines may also have a musty smell and the exposure to oxygen helps to dispel any bad odors.

Some people decant young (less than 10-year old) wines, especially full-bodied reds such as Bordeaux and other Cabernet Sauvignon blends, Rhônes (and others made from Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Carignan), Barolos (and other Nebbiolo-based wines) and Malbecs. The aeration of young wine helps to smooth out the tannins and acidity and open up the flavors. (Some pour young wine through wine aerators to obtain a similar effect).

Although they typically do not have sediment, young wines that were not fined or filtered may have tartrates that separate from the wine. These tartrates can also be eliminated by decanting.

Also, some young wines are processed with sulfur compounds that can repel the drinker or at least obscure the essential flavors. Decanting dissipates the compounds, effectively eliminating the sulfurous smell.

Less frequently, white wine or champagne is decanted to enable the flavors and aromas to show their depth.

Nevertheless, not all agree that decanting is beneficial. Some think it either harmful or a waste of time. The aromas and flavors of older wines can fade quickly and thus some believe decanting robs them of their remaining essence.

Mechanics of Decanting

If time allows, stand the bottle upright for several hours or ideally, overnight for older wines, to allow the sediment to resettle to the bottom of the bottle. Restaurants and more spontaneous drinkers do not have that luxury of time. Hence, some use decanting cradles made of wire or wicker. These may appear fussy but because the sediment in a bottle settles along that side on which the bottle is stored, the cradle allows the bottle to be transported on that side and poured with less disruption of the sediment

Remove the entire capsule to see the sediment as it approaches the neck and remove the cork. Set a light above the top of the decanter (most use a candle or a flashlight) to better see when the sediment comes close to the neck of the bottle.

Prior to decanting, take a small sip so as to gauge the flavors and aromas.

Ideally, hold the decanter in the non-dominant hand at a 45 degree angle and the bottle in the dominant one. This allows the wine to slide down the angled side of the decanter rather than hit the decanter bottom directly which is more violent and results in froth. Pour the wine into a decanter in one slow, careful, continuous pour.

One to three inches of wine may be left in the bottle when the sediment approaches the neck, the point at which to stop pouring. The remainder may settle in the upright bottle to be poured later or be filtered to block the sediment, although filtering may remove too many of the remaining flavors.

Some people double decant – first, decant the wine into another vessel, then rinse the wine bottle of sediment and then, decant the wine from decanter back to the bottle. Double decanting allows everyone to know what he is drinking and is a good idea if one does not have an attractive decanter. Of course, one can also display the empty bottle on the table.

Type of Decanter

During the Roman Empire, wine drinkers used glass decanters. Thereafter, decanters were made of metal or earthenware until the Renaissance when use of glass decanters resumed. Decanters are often elegant in shape which adds to their appearance on the table but really any vessel can work. The type that works best has a wide bottom that exposes more wine to oxygen and enables some gentle swirling. (Square-bottomed decanters are primarily for show and generally used for spirits).

Decanters are difficult to clean because of their long narrow necks. Solutions for cleaning them include a mixture of crushed ice and kosher salt or denture powder to remove wine stains. Regardless of cleaning material, it is crucial to rinse with mineral water to eliminate any wine, chlorine or other remaining chemicals. Any residual soap inside the decanter will affect the wine adversely.

When to Drink Decanted Wine 

There are no set rules, only guidelines. First, take another sip and compare the decanted wine’s tastes to the pre-decanted ones. Generally, older wines should be enjoyed straight away because their qualities may be ephemeral. Medium-aged wines should sit for 30 to 60 minutes and young ones, one to three hours (and perhaps, more for tannic wines like Barolos).