Decanting wine serves a practical purpose but if often thought of as simply affectation. Decanting is a matter of personal choice and not all wines will benefit from decanting which begs the question; when and what should you decant?
Decanters have played a significant historical role in serving wine. In ancient time they were filled with wine from amphoras which could be more easily handled. Ancient Romans made decanters from glass but later they were also made from precious metals or earthenware until the Venetians reintroduced glass during the Renaissance. In the 1730s British glass makers introduced the stopper to limit air exposure.
The most self-evident reason for decanting a wine is when there is a deposit which is most likely with vintage ports, aged unfiltered reds or wine which wasn’t clarified during the wine making process. In order to be effective, the bottle in question needs to be upright for a good few hours, preferably overnight to be on the safe side. If you just let the sediment settle but don’t decant it, even passing the wine around the table will re-mix it.
Decant your wine by carefully pouring it, in a single smooth movement, into the decanter. The single movement is important because you don’t want to stir up the sediment you’ve just spent time settling (unless of course you like grounds in your coffee!) which would make the wine taste noticeably bitter. It helps to have a light behind the bottle so that you can see where the sediment is. It may sound nonsensical, pouring wine from one vessel to another, but it can really benefit the wine.
When deprived of oxygen, wines can develop funky aromas. Decanting wine allows it to breathe and decanters are designed to mimic swirling wine in the glass which stimulates the oxidation process and releases aroma. If you’re a fan of ‘natural’ wine or wine made with very little sulphur you might want to decant it first to get a little air into it and dispel the slightly stinky smell.
Young wines usually benefit most from being decanted. It tempers tannins, softens a powerful structure and encourages subtler aromatic elements. Full bodied young reds will generally benefit from a little aeration to allow them to mellow slightly and calm down any over-vigorous tannins. This kind of wine is unlikely to have any sediment so it’s simply a question of pouring from the bottle into the decanter.
Decanting wine to get a bit of air into it is much more effective than simply opening it and leaving it for a couple of hours. In most cases decanting the wine before you serve (or up to twenty minutes before for young wines) it will have the desired effect of getting a little air into it. If you decant a fragile aged red too far in advance it risks falling apart under the air exposure.
Decanters can be beautiful objets d’art but they needn’t be, you could even use a jug! A carafe serves the same purpose as a decanter but doesn’t have a stopper. It allows you to present a wine anonymously so your guests will judge it in isolation rather than the label or any preconceived ideas about the varietal or origin. The ideal decanter shape will have a wide base so you can gently swirl the wine around. A clear, crystal decanter allows you to see the wine at its best whereas heavily decorated or coloured decanters will obscure the wine. Make sure your decanter is spotlessly clean and free from any musty cupboard aromas before you use it.
Why not experiment to learn what kind of decanting preferences you have. Buy two bottles of the same wine and decant one. See if you can set up a blind tasting (get a friend to help!) to see which one you prefer. If the whole process makes you cringe you could always double decant and pour it back into the (rinsed) bottle!
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