To Decant or Not to Decant?

When properly utilized, a decanter can elevate your wine experience.  There are two main reasons for decanting wine. The first is to separate clarified wine from solids that have formed during aging. The second is the effect of oxygen, which releases certain compounds bound within the bottle. Both have an effect on our perception of flavour, texture and aroma.

Before decanting, it is highly recommended to discern a wine ‘before’ decanting.  Why waste your time decanting if it is an unhealthy wine (we will cover fault in wines in a future blog) if it smells off, it is probably not suitable to decant nor drink.  This is a very personal interpretation but a process highly recommended to keep mastering.

Decanting for sediment

Separating clarified wine from the solids suspended in the bottle was the original motivation behind decanting wine.

Wine today is more reliable than ever. Technology today has the ability to filter with precision and prevent certain solids from forming at all, but getting rid of sediment will always be a concern.

Sediment can be very fine and has a tendency to deaden flavour and expression. Sometimes a winemaker will choose to bottle something with residual sediment, but most traditionalists balk at any kind of haze or cloudiness. In the holistic act of appreciating wine, visual irregularities are bound to make a mark on how we first perceive a wine.

Before you can even make the call to decant, you need to prepare the wine itself.

The important thing with a red wine is to make sure that the sediment stays at the bottom of the bottle, so you can stop decanting when you get sediment coming into the neck.

If you are pulling a wine from a horizontal cellar storage, you ideally want to give the bottle a couple days to sit vertically so the sediment has time to shift to the bottom without being incorporated into the wine. Even just a couple of hours is better than nothing.

This also makes it unwise to serve an aged wine that was recently transported.  Motion disrupts the solids in a way that cannot be corrected without an adequate resting period.

If you are going straight from cellar to table, be conscious of how the sediment shifts in the process.

Hold a light under the neck of the bottle where it meets the shoulder so you can pay attention to the clarity of the wine. Stop pouring the moment you notice sediment clouding up the wine. The amount of wine you leave in the bottle will vary depending on the amount of sediment. Preparing your bottle ahead of time will allow for the least amount of waste.

Decanting for oxygen

When you pour wine from bottle to decanter, air makes its way into the wine. If your goal is to encourage the wine to ‘open up,’ allowing it to rest after pouring can cause certain additional changes to take place.

There are a few processes happening simultaneously when wine is in the presence of air for over an hour.

First is the escape of volatile compounds. The two main culprits in wine are carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide. Obviously recognizable in sparkling wine, carbon dioxide is also present in still whites, where unnoticed doses of the prickly, acidic gas provide extra lift to the flavor of certain white wines while bringing preservative qualities.

This is one reason we often do not decant white wine but in most still reds the presence of CO2 can make the wine more tannic and is usually considered a fault.

H2S, or hydrogen sulfide, is referred to as a ‘reduced aroma.’ It pops up sometimes in red wines that have been produced under hermetic conditions and sealed with very tight closures.

Further agitation, like swirling, or pouring the wine back and forth, can help if you are in a rush, though this is only recommended for sturdy wines. 

Exposure to oxygen leads to reactions in the wine, both good and bad, many of which will take several hours (or days) to fully develop. This is why a wine will initially open up pleasantly before an eventual deadening of flavor after being exposed for too long.

Among the first things that react with oxygen are sulfur-based compounds. However, sometimes those are aromas we don’t want to lose. For example, sulfuric compounds give Sauvignon Blanc its citrusy, tropical aromas, and are easily lost to oxidative reactions. Thankfully, this is not as much of a concern with red wines, as many of their compounds are not as sensitive to air.

Should all old wines be decanted? Do older wines need more time to decant?

Contrary to popular belief, decanting older wines is far from a perfect rule. Burgundy, for example, is known for its delicacy and the question of whether or not to decant is often debated between experts.

If the initial taste of a wine is promising, decanting may not be necessary. Carefully pour the wine directly from the bottle into the glass. If you do choose to decant, use a carafe with a narrow base that offers less opportunity for air to integrate and alter the wine further.

One common belief is that the older a wine is, the longer it can take to open up.  Interestingly, wines that are subjected to a lot of oxygen before they are bottled tend to respond well to oxygen once the bottle is opened.

Some classic wines that are vinified in a way that involves heavier exposure to oxygen benefit well to decanting such as wines of Barolo, Barbaresco and Rioja.

The most extreme example might be Madeira, a wine that sees both oxygen and heat in production, and is famously said to last indefinitely after the bottle is opened.  If Madeira’s been in bottle for a long time, you want to decant it possibly for a few days to a few weeks before you drink it, because it needs to go from being in an oxygen deprived environment to one where it is back to enjoying oxygen.

A rule for decanting Madeira: decant a minimum of one day for every decade of bottle age.

What is old is now new

Modern technology has made its way into this realm – not surprisingly.  An electric decanter which claims to ‘make your wine taste better in minutes’ is splitting wine fans down the middle. Can fast-tracking your wine’s aeration ever be a good idea? 

It’s a product guaranteed to divide opinion. An electric device which claims to speed up the breathing process and make your wine ‘taste two to five times better in mere minutes.’

While accelerating the opening up of a wine might suit today’s culture of instant gratification, it may not sit quite so well with traditional wine producers who have poured years of their lives into crafting a wine

Regardless of the mode of decanting you may decide to choose, it may be a gamechanger in your experience.  Although there are effects and reactions we can identify, there is not always one answer to whether a particular bottle should be decanted.

All you can do is initially taste a wine, and ask yourself if there is something else to be gained from utilizing the option of decanting.