When Do I Need a Decanter?
Everytime I give a wine training or talk, the same question always seems to be coming back: when should I use a decanter? Wine being such a vast subject, it is always hard to give an overall answer to it, but I’ll try my best to do so.
The Reasons Why You Should Use a Decanter
You might think that the reason why we came up with such a nice-looking glass container was just aesthetic, to make the wine look as nice as possible, but it is not quite that. I see a lot of fancy looking decanters of all shapes and sizes, but in my opinion, nothing can beat the old traditional shape pictured below, the one that truly serves the two purposes we are looking for when we decant a bottle:
A Traditional Decanter
Aerate the Wine
Probably the most famous of all reasons, we sometimes refer to it as “allowing the wine to breathe”. So, what does that mean? Wine is alive, it’s got a lot of yeasts and other stuff that make up its complex aromas and texture. Sometimes, that liquid you are about to pour down your throat has been sitting in the bottle for a good few years, gently hibernating and developing.
When you just wake up, we can’t expect you to deliver your best. You might need a little breakfast, sometimes a coffee or a tea, only to warm up. It goes the same with wine and its favourite breakfast is oxygen. When you pour the wine into your decanter, you want to create as much contact with oxygen as you can.
How Do I Use the Decanter to Do So?
If you go back to the old traditional shape of a decanter, it is designed so that you can tilt it to a 45 degree angle and pour the wine along the neck. As you do so, you can see that the wine naturally runs along the curvy shape of the base, creating a vortex that draws air into the decanter. This is the most efficient way of aerating the wine in a decanter.
Most people pour straight into the decanter, forcing the wine to hit the glass bottom. Not that it’s gonna ruin the wine, but some studies have shown that it will take up to 7 times longer to get to the same level of aeration, so unless you have plenty of time in front you, tilt the decanter on its side!
Getting Rid of the Sediments
The word “de-canting” actually refers to the action of separating the sediments from the liquid. If you take an older bottle of wine, as we have seen in our tutorial on the colour of red wine, some sediments would have precipitated to the bottom of the bottle, forming a solid deposit. White wines, especially sweet ones, will also have some tiny crystals at the bottom (crystallized tartaric acid).
Most people don’t want to chew on those little bits while enjoying a good bottle of wine, so the idea is to leave them in the bottle and transfer the wine into the decanter. Here is how we do it, but first, you will need a small candle (tealight…) or any source of light (that’s OK if you only have the Torchlight app of your smartphone, but a candle looks nicer…) and a decanter:
Second, open the bottle of wine (different ways of cutting the foil can be used, in the length to put it back on the bottle afterwards or just under the lip of the neck, that’s really up to you…)
Fourth, start pouring the wine along the decanter neck, while trying to look at the candle through the shoulders of the bottle. Depending on how opaque your wine is, it might take some time to actually see the flame through. But there is a moment where, along with the wine, some of the sediments will be carried away towards the neck. When it happens, gently twist the bottle while pouring and hey presto! The sediments should stick to the glass of the bottle while the clear liquid comes out.
Fifth, don’t be greedy… You will eventually have to leave a bit of the wine in the bottle. If you really are upset about it, don’t pour it into the decanter but into a separate glass. I can guarantee you that you can only chew so many sediments until you start leaving some wine behind…
Which Wines Need Decanting?
There are a lot of exceptions but the rule of thumb is as follows:
Older wines & oak-aged wines need decanting to be both aerated and get rid of eventual sediments (true for most Bordeaux, Rioja, Ribera del Duero, older Rhone Valley reds, Barolo, older Burgundy wines, Taurasi, Brunello di Montalcino, etc…)
Young wines designed to be drank youthful, crisp & fruity usually don’t need decanting (true for generic Chianti, Loire valley lighter reds such as Chinon & Saumur, most IGT/IGP level wines with no oak ageing, simpler styles of wines for early consumption…)
Obviously, a lot more things could be said about decanting, but that should get you started. Stay tuned for more tips about wine!
Certified Sommelier (CMS)