What Is Wine Decanter: When And How To Use It?
When you buy a bottle of wine, do you put it in the fridge or perhaps a cabinet or do you do something further like transferring it to another container? If you do the third thing, then you know that you’re decanting the wine. But, what exactly does this process do to the wine? Does it make a difference that people make the resources and time to buy a decanter and transfer an entire bottle of wine in it? Let’s find out, but first, let us have an overview on what a wine decanter is and the procedure called decantation.
Basically, decantation is the process of separating solid particles from a liquid. In the case of wine, the sediments in it should be separated to obtain a clear wine because sediments have the tendency to badly affect the flavor and expression of the wine.
To give you a clearer picture, sediments are those tiny bits that are almost crystal-like that settle at the bottom of your glass. Red wines are more likely to accumulate sediments after many years of being in bottles. Moreover, decanting wine is the act of pouring the wine slowly from its bottle into a different vessel called a wine decanter. These sediments are completely harmless but they have been viewed as a fault so that’s why people bother to do the decanting process.
The process of decanting seems pretty easy enough because you just have to transfer wine into another vessel, right? But, there are a few things we should note so that we can successfully transfer the wine without disturbing the sediments so they will remain at the bottom of the bottle.
Decanters come in many shapes and sizes and are either made from glass or crystal. Usually, wine is decanted into vessels that have an easy-pour neck and at the same time, has a shape that is not difficult to clean. If you don’t have a decanter or if you’re on a tight budget, fret not, because you can always use your glass jug or pitcher from your refrigerator. If you already have your wine and your vessel, then you’re ready.
There are two reasons for decanting: aeration and removing sediments. Both shall be further explained later on. But, for now, here is the proper way to decant your wine.
1. Before planning to drink wine, set the bottle upright for about 24 hours so that the sediments will settle at the bottom and it will be ready and easier to be decanted.
2. When the day has passed, the wine is ready to be transferred. Grab your decanter or any big glass vessel and make sure it is clean before using it.
3. Open the bottle of wine with a corkscrew, electric wine bottle opener or a wine key, make sure that you get the cork out neatly so as to not get cork bits into the wine.
4. Hold the decanter at about a 45-degree angle. Then slowly pour the wine into the decanter, just let the liquid slide by the surface of the neck of the decanter like this:
5. Keep an eye out for the neck of the bottle. You can also place a lighted candle beneath the bottle so you can clearly see the sediments and the setup would be like this:
6. Once you see the sediments settling at the neck of the bottle, this is the time to stop pouring. Sometimes sediments are really tiny and it’s hard to know if they are at the neck yet but one way to know is looking if the wine becomes cloudy, then you’ll want to stop pouring. Discard the remaining wine with the sediments.
7. After some time in the decanter, the wine is now ready to be served to the guests.
At times, in restaurants, upon the end of the decanting process, they will put the wine back from the decanter into the bottle. The reason is for the customers to see and admire their bottle especially if it’s pricey.
As mentioned, there are two main reasons for decanting wine. First up is to separate sediments. Imagine a bottle of wine that has been laying around, still unopened, for about a decade. Even in the bottle, the wine continues to age and over the years, particulate matter such as grape solids, dead yeast cells and tartrate crystals fall out of suspension, hence the sediments. More sediments form as more years pass by especially if the wine was not filtered or clarified during the winemaking process. These tiny bits won’t hurt you but you may opt not to consume it because they don’t taste very good and they tend to have a gritty texture. It is better to have wine that is smooth, clear and great-tasting.
The next reason for decanting is aeration, which happens to be a huge factor in enhancing the wine overall. There is a reason why we often hear “let the wine breathe”. After a long time of fermentation and aging, gases are created in the liquid and this pressure results to the flavors being compressed and becoming bitter. Decanting the wine introduces air to it and keeps it in contact with the air as you slowly pour it into the decanter. What this does is the air activates the wine by releasing that pressure thus opening up its flavors and aromas to achieve an optimal taste and in general, the quality. Keeping the wine bottled up for many years can trigger the tannins and the acidity thereby making the wine taste astringent but when it finally interacts with air, this reaction is reduced and your wine tastes less alcoholic.
We have established the purposes of decanting, but when exactly do you do it and for how long? Well, you only decant wine when you plan to serve it. As to how long, there isn’t an absolute answer to this question as there are debates circulating. You should know that keeping your wine for too long in the decanter can lead to oxidation and dissipation of the aromas and flavors. Additionally, when you swirl the wine from the glass, more oxygen interacts with it anyway so keeping it in a decanter for too long will just fade the wine.
We also have to keep in mind that not all wines are the same. Old wines that are about 10 - 15 years old only need minimal oxygen exposure and are said to be decanted for only 20 - 30 minutes before drinking it according to some wine experts. They need less time because they have already aged for a long time and their focus is more on separating the sediments. Unless a bottle is to be shared by friends, it is recommended by some experts that after decanting, the wine should be returned to the bottle and have the air removed through a wine bottle vacuum pump so it can be stored for a couple of days.
On the other hand, younger wines that are more vigorous and full-bodied may need a longer time to be decanted, about an hour before serving. It is due to the fact that younger wines are less complex as they have not aged longer, therefore the more time they need to breathe.
With all the points made above, it is safe to say that decanting your wine does wonders to it. But, you also have to be mindful about going beyond the recommended time frame. Some people might think that it is okay to store the wine in a decanter for a long period of time. The thing about decanters is that it is more about a wine preparation rather than a long-time storage container. Don’t decant your wine if you don’t intend to finish it within a short period of time. Make sure to consume decanted wine within 2 - 3 days, beyond this, the wine will just turn harsh and flat.
While decanting is common for red wines, how about the white wines and the sparkling wines? Should they be decanted too? Truth is, white wines can also produce sediments, more likely tartrate crystals so they still need to be decanted. High end white wines that are richer, more aromatic and fleshier can also age so aeration is also beneficial in opening up the flavors.
Sparkling wines, however such as Champagne have significant amounts of carbon dioxide in them causing the bubbles which are essentially the trademark of sparkling wine. Decanting it makes the mousse or the bubbles of the Champagne gentler on the palate and this is good for people who find the bubbles a little bit aggressive. But if you like that bubble sensation when you drink Champagne, then skip the decanting. Bottomline, it is a matter of preference whether you want to decant your wine or not.
Decanters are more catered towards red wines, so they work the same way as any general decanter and basically have the same purpose. You can follow the instructions set above on how to use a decanter. Additionally, let us get to the proper storing of red wine decanters. Decanters have a variety of shapes and sizes. Some have wide bodies but with small mouths, some are like a vase and others have forms that are quite extreme. A standard bottle of red wine is about 750 ml and decanters provide extra space to allow air to come in.
It is important to choose a decanter that doesn’t have a complicated shape so it would be easier to clean. Speaking of cleaning, wine can have a tough smell that doesn’t seem to leave the decanter. You may be tempted to use a detergent to wash it but don’t. The smell of detergent can be overpowering and can leave residue in the decanter which is bad for the wine the next time you use it. You can use a dishwashing soap that has a mild scent or unscented at all and only use a little bit and mix it with water and swirl it in the decanter. A better way to clean it is by swirling a mixture of ice, coarse salt and a little bit of water inside the decanter. This way, it’ll clean the surface and at the same time doesn’t leave any scent or residue. Allow the decanter to air dry and after this, store it in an enclosed space, like a cupboard or cabinet to avoid accumulating dust. Also, be sure to give it a quick rinse before using it.
Basically, all types of wine, may it be red, white or sparkling can be decanted but it doesn’t mean that they should all be decanted. Perhaps there are some that need a bit of help from decanting but it is more of a choice. It is quite useful for red wines, though.
Red wines benefit most from the process of decanting, especially those that are old and bold. When bottled, wine continues to age and it doesn’t stop working within the bottle. While some people, like casual drinkers may find decanting as a time-consuming process, wine connoisseurs, sommeliers and wine lovers appreciate it and like to delve deep into this topic. They would serve their wine at restaurants and bars or just for their own indulgence so they would like to exert the time and effort to decant wine to achieve its full potential and to enhance the people’s experience in drinking it.
Nowadays, winemakers aim to produce wine that will not create as much sediments to provide convenience to people. They are developing a new formula for creating wine that is ready to be popped and poured after purchasing it. However, decanting still does enhance the wine’s flavor profile especially red wines that are young, mature and bold. Some of the wines that should be decanted include Bordeaux, Barolo, Napa Cabernet, Malbec, Shiraz (Syrah), Cabernet Sauvignon and Burgundy. So, if any of these wines are your go-to or your favorite, you may want to make up the time to decant it.
As mentioned above, decanting wine helps in aeration and removing sediments. Both happen with the help of a decanter. At this point, let us talk about the science behind aeration. The shape and size of the decanter matter because it dictates how much air can get inside the vessel and be incorporated into the wine. Some decanters feature stoppers to prevent overexposure to air. When air comes into contact with wine, two processes occur: evaporation and oxidation, both of which change the chemistry of the wine, thereby improving its quality.
Evaporation is the transition when liquid turns into vapor. After being cooped up tightly in a bottle, wine can produce some strong smells from sulfites that can make the wine smell like rubbing alcohol at first sniff. When decanted, the initial smell will be evaporated and dissipated so they smell less alcoholic and more pleasant. Meanwhile, oxidation is the chemical reaction of molecules in the wine and air. This process naturally occurs the moment the wine is made and bottled. Oxidation contributes to the fruity and nutty aspects found in wine. However, too much oxidation can ruin the wine, ultimately diminishing the flavor, color, aroma and will just become flat. An indication would be when wine turns brownish and tastes like vinegar. That is why there is a time frame of how long should wine be decanted.
Red wine decanters can soften the tannins found in young wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Barbera and Bordeaux, by way of aeration, rounding it out and making it taste less astringent thereby allowing the fruity aspects to come forward. The younger the wine, the more time it needs to decant since this makes up for the years that it should have been aging to achieve a fuller taste. For mature and bold wine, a decanter mostly contributes to the separation of sediments from the wine itself. It doesn’t need much aeration because it has already aged for many years and thus it already has enough flavors.
Some people may think that decanting is pretentious but actually, it is part of the evolution of wine. You always have the choice whether to decant or not. You can conduct your own experiment. Take a bottle of wine and decant it. Have a taste after the recommended time depending on the type of wine and assess. Then, try to leave the wine in the decanter longer than the recommended time frame and assess again if it tastes better with time.
It also depends on your drinking pattern, if you’re the kind of person who likes to partake every day and share the wine with someone, then decanting is the best choice since you’ll probably finish it before it goes bad. This is most relatable to wine lovers since they understand how long it takes that wine is made and doing the last step, which is decanting, is like the icing on the cake, giving you an experience of what a great wine is supposed to be.