Decanting Wine – Why and How
Over the holidays, I was asked twice about the slightly mysterious practice of decanting wine and allowing it to “breathe” before consumption. Most wine consumers have heard of this practice, and many have observed it being done to their wine in a restaurant or by someone at an event. The primary reasons for decanting a wine are, 1) to allow a wine’s aromas and flavors to develop more quickly by exposing it to air (oxygen), and 2) to remove most or all of the sediment that some wines, especially older reds, may have developed.
Young red wines typically benefit the most from decanting. Wines that have been released quickly into the market may have muted aromas and flavors that will open and develop with air contact. This can happen in the glass over time, but can be advanced more quickly by decanting. Many young red wines can be quite tannic, or astringent, which masks fruit aromas and flavors. Decanting will typically help soften the wine and mellow the tannic impact on the palate, improving the overall enjoyment. Big reds that may fall into this camp include Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo-based wines (northern Italy), Merlot, Syrah, GSM blends, Zinfandel, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Petite Sirah, Tannat, and wines produced from the classic Portuguese varieties like Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca.
These big red wines will tend to soften and mellow while aging in bottle, and after an appropriate time can be ready to drink. However, after only moderate aging time, decanting may be desired to bring the wine to its preferred drinkability range more quickly. Pouring a small bit of wine and tasting it can help one determine if the wine seems closed and tannic. If so, a good splash into the decanter before serving would likely be a good idea.
Wines with sediment come in two categories: 1) older wines that have developed sediment from the polymerization of tannins over time, and 2) younger wines that experienced incomplete cold stabilization and have thrown a sediment of harmless, yet ugly potassium bitartrate. When dealing with an older wine, it should be tasted immediately after decanting to help determine how long to hold the wine in decanter before serving. It would be a shame to let a lovely older wine lose its aromas and flavors before getting the chance to enjoy them in the glass.
Even some white wines can be improved by decanting. White wines that have been recently bottled, are naturally bigger and bolder, or may have a reductive nature (typical in many biodynamic whites) can benefit from decanting.
The decanting process to aerate a wine is relatively simple. Open the bottle and pour the wine vigorously into a separate container (decanter or pitcher) with splashing to incorporate air (oxygen). Most younger reds will benefit from splashing before or while preparing the meal or snacks to give the wine time to open and bring forward its best aromas and flavors.
Decanting to remove sediment requires a bit of touch. Make sure the bottle has stood upright for a period to allow sediment to fall to the bottom. Gently open the bottle, and begin to carefully pour the wine into a decanter while watching for sediment at the neck and shoulder of the bottle with the aid of a candle or flashlight. Stop decanting when sediment appears near the end of the pour to keep the decanted wine clear and bright. If you do not feel comfortable decanting a wine, practice the procedure with a colorless bottle filled with water and a half-teaspoon of soil or dirt. Allow the dirt to settle, and then decant as described above. Practice makes perfect when that special older wine needs decanting.
You can experiment to determine the value of decanting for yourself. Try splashing one half of a red wine while allowing the other half to sit gently in the original bottle. Thirty minutes later, pour a bit of each into separate glasses and taste. If you prefer the splashed portion of wine, then decanting is likely a good practice to enhance your enjoyment of wine.