When I started my wine blog, one of the topics I wanted to cover was wine decanting. “A simple topic,” I thought. “And it will not take long to write this one,” I said to myself. As with lots of things about wine: I was wrong. As you will read, even though I feel strongly about the positive aspects of decanting, it is a controversial topic.
As in most cases with wine, it comes down to your personal palate and enjoyment. As you’ll read in Napa Valley winemaker Bruce Devlin’s comments later in this post, he doesn’t decant because he enjoys the fresh fruit and strong tannins in young wines. I, on the other hand, like my wines with softer tannins and a soft velvet mouth feel that is typically accomplished by decanting or aerating younger wines. I also believe that as we grow older our palates change and that too will have an effect on our desire to decant or aerate wines.
Whether you agree or disagree on decanting wine, there are three generally accepted reasons for it:
1) To remove sediment. Sediment is usually associated with older red wines and develops from the aging process. The tannins and other solid matter, pigments and particles of yeast, skins, etc. start to join together and over time get larger and larger. Eventually the particles become so large that they settle on the bottom or on the bottle’s side, if the wine is stored correctly.
It has been my experience that sediment only starts to collect in the bottles after 8 or 10 years of aging. The development of sediment means the wine is aging and hopefully building the wine’s character and flavor. You do not want to leave large amounts of sediment in the wine as it will cause the wine to have a bitter, nasty flavor. To me, it’s like enjoying a meal of fresh fish and suddenly getting a fish bone in your mouth; it tends to ruin the meal. My opinion is the same when getting a mouthful of sediment: it ruins my wine experience.
2) Wine aeration (letting the wine breath). More on this later — in item 6.
3) Presentation of the wine. This adds to the ambiance and culture surrounding wine. The visual impact of decanting wine adds a touch of class and elegance to any wine event you are hosting, be it a wine tasting, a dinner or your Super Bowl Sunday party.
When I started this article on decanting, naturally I located my stuffed manila file folder filled full of carefully ripped out articles on various topics related to wine. I discovered a page from the magazine Gourmet Travellers Wine (a bi-monthly Australian publication). It was a Q&A section from the October 2008 issue titled “Airing Grievances” written by Jane Skilton, MW. In an answer to a decanting question, Ms. Skilton stated, “decanting is a continuous issue. If you were to ask 10 wine experts their opinion, you would probably get 11 different answers.”
I thought about Ms. Skilton’s statement and for fun wanted to explore her response, so I posted the following on LinkedIn’s Wine Connections Bulletin Board: “I am doing a piece on decanting of wines. Anybody care to share their opinion of decanting; particularly young versus older wines?” To my amazement I received 22 different comments from respondents all over the world. The bottom line: there really is an amazing amount of differing opinions on the topic of decanting wine.
For further clarification on the reasons for decanting, I reached out to Napa Valley winemaker and friend Bruce Devlin of Three Clicks Wines. Bruce makes an outstanding Petite Sirah (everyone should have some of this great wine in their collection; I certainly do). Bruce also cites the two basic motives for decanting: removal of sediment and aeration. For Bruce’s complete analysis, click here. I highly suggest you read his response in its entirety as he goes into quite a bit of detail about the science behind decanting. Please do not miss reading it.
Now that I have given you the opinions of others, let me give you my opinion and some tips and suggestions on decanting. Personally, I am a firm believer in decanting. When all things are considered (by that I mean: the age of the wine, type of wine, type of decanter, length of time the wine is decanted), and if the decanting is done properly, my experience is that decanting works and improves the flavor and experience of drinking wine. With that in mind let me offer the following thoughts on decanting of wine.
1) Store Right. Decanting starts with the proper storage of wine. Always store your bottles flat with the front label up. When you do that, you will always know that the sediment has settled on the backside of the bottle when you get it ready to pour the wine from the bottle to the decanter or glass.
2) Let Stand. With older wines you should let the bottle stand upright for one to two days before you decant so that the sediment settles to the bottom of the bottle.
3) Treat Gently. When ready: Open the bottle gently. Remove the entire foil from the bottle. This allows you see into the neck of the bottle when pouring. Remove the cork gently from the bottle. Don’t move the bottle any more than you have to you (so you do not disturb the sediment). The goal is to have the sediment undisturbed in the bottom of the bottle.
4) Holding the Bottle. When pouring the wine into your decanter, remember to hold the bottle in the same position it was stored in (label up), this way you see any sediment that might be clinging to the bottle and stop pouring it when it gets to the neck of the bottle. Pour the wine continuously into the decanter: don’t stop and start.
5) Let there be Light. Because red wine bottles are dark in color, you will need a light source, usually a candle or flashlight (candles add a theatrical touch to the decanting process), to assist you seeing inside the bottle. Watch carefully as you gently pour the wine into your container. When the sediment reaches the neck of the bottle stop pouring and gently raise the bottle. Generally, you’ll pour about two-thirds of the bottle before you’ll see any sediment. Assuming there is still wine left in the bottle, set the bottle upright to allow the remaining sediment to settle back to the bottom of the bottle. Depending on how much wine is left you’ll need to decide on the next step. If there is only a small amount I would suggest that you discard the balance of the wine and sediment. If there is more than a small amount left, I suggest that you use a fine mesh strainer or a coffee filter (if you don’t have a strainer) to strain the balance of the wine into your container. Remember you don’t have to drain the bottle. Better to leave a little wine and sediment in the bottle and not run the risk of ruining the container of fine wine by trying to get that last little bit of wine in it.
6) Aeration. Let me address the decanting of older wines first. Older or mature wines are much more fragile and should be treated as such when decanting, especially wines 15 or more years old. With older wines you run the risk of over aerating the wine if you decant too early. I suggest that for your older wines you always use a decanter with a stopper. With the stopper you can control the amount of air the wine receives. When serving an older wine I would recommend decanting 30 to 40 minutes before serving. With really old wines (20 plus years) I wouldn’t decant at all. Let the wine stand in the bottle for a day or two and then gently pour it directly into the glass remembering to be careful not to swirl the bottle and disturb the sediment. In this case let the wine aerate in the glass. The issue of decanting older wines is one of timing. Decanting too early might cause the wine to fade faster, loosing its aroma and flavor, causing it to go stale. Decanting too soon works just the opposite: the wine may not open to its fullest extent meaning its bouquet and flavor will not develop to its fullest.
Is the decanting of younger red wines really necessary? I believe so. It is likely to improve the drink-ability of your wine 98% of the time. I am talking about wines that are young and tight, wines that are typically 1 to 3 years old and have yet to show their fruitiness. These young wines should be decanted into a wide-bottomed decanter. This style of decanter increases the wines surface area allowing more wine to be exposed to oxygen. Decanting most young wines softens, the sometimes harsh tannins, giving it a much smoother finish and it releases the wines aromas and enhances its fruit flavors. A couple days ago I decided to test this theory and I opened a bottle of red wine and decanted half the bottle into a glass pitcher and the other half into a wide bottomed decanter. I let the wine sit for about an hour. I was amazed at the difference in the aromas. The wine in the pitcher had not opened nearly as much as the wine in the other wide-bottomed decanter.
When decanting young wines I take two approaches. I sometimes use an aeration funnel with a strainer and decant the wine into a juice carafe (which I bought at Target for $7.50). You have to be a little careful with this technique as the wine doesn’t go through the strainer very quickly and you run the risk of overflowing the wine onto your counter-top (this advice comes from experience). The second is the “bottoms up” approach. Vigorously pour or splash the wine into the decanter, the more it splashes the more it comes into contact with oxygen. This is also referred to the “gulp gulp approach.”
While most of the time it will not hurt to let the wines sit for an hour or two prior to serving, as always, it depends on the wine. The rule of thumb that I use: for each two hours of decanting it adds one year of vintage to the wine. As an example: if I let a 2010 vintage wine decant for two hours it is the same as opening a 2009 bottle.
So far this article has been about decanting red wines. So what about white wines? Generally, I don’t decant white wines for two reasons. First white wines don’t have any tannins and they need to be “slightly chilled” for taste. If you let them stand in a decanter
for a period of time they might get too warm. Swirling whites in your glass generally exposes them to enough oxygen to open them up and bring out the flavors. The one exception to this, in my opinion, might be Chardonnays. I think some Chardonnays benefit from being decanted for a “short” amount of time.
As I have mentioned in the past, I believe that, a wine or the tasting of a wine should have three characteristics: it should be “interesting, adventurous and memorable.” Decanting of wine certainly addresses all of these experiences. In the end, drinking wine is about the experience and personal preferences and whether you decant or not is completely up to you. What are your experiences with decanting wine: do you prefer it or not? And what was the last bottle of wine you decanted? I would love to hear from you.