Decanting 101

Decanting is one of the elements of wine that can be both mysterious and intimidating to wine lovers. Which wines need to be decanted? When should you decant? And how should you decant? Is it really even necessary or is it all just all for show?

Fundamentally, decanting serves two purposes: to separate a wine from any sediment that may have formed and to allow a wine to breathe (or aerate) in the hope that its aromas and flavors will be more vibrant upon serving.

Wines that naturally produce sediment are older reds and Vintage Port. As wine ages, the color pigments and tannins bond together and fall out of solution. Stirring up the sediment before pouring will cloud a wine’s appearance and can impart bitter flavors and a gritty texture. It’s not at all harmful, but it’s definitely not the most enjoyable. (white wines rarely produce sediment)

It’s fairly safe to assume that a red wine will have accumulated sediment after five to 10 years in the bottle. Even if this can’t be verified visually, it should be decanted.

The question of whether—or how long—to aerate a wine can generate extensive debate among wine professionals. Some feel that an extra boost of oxygen can open up a wine and give it extra life. If you’ve opened a wine and it seems unexpressive (or “closed”) upon first taste, it can’t hurt to try moderate aeration in a decanter to see if that transforms it.

Others feel that decanting makes a wine fade faster, and that a wine is exposed to plenty of oxygen when you swirl it in your glass. After all, isn’t a decanter really just a big glass? Plus, it can be fun to experience the full evolution of wine as it opens up in your glass, and you might miss some of the magic of the if you decant too soon.

A particularly old wine (especially one 15 or more years old) can be more fragile and should only be decanted 30 minutes or so before drinking. A younger, more vigorous, full-bodied red wine—and yes, even whites—can be decanted an hour or more before serving. At some tastings, wines are decanted for hours beforehand and may show beautifully, but these experiments can be risky and are best done by people very familiar with how those wines age and evolve. You really don’t want to oxidize your wine!

A fun experiment can be to experiment with multiple bottles of the same wine—one decanted and one not, or bottles decanted for different lengths of time—and see which you prefer.

Follow these steps and you’ll be decanting like a pro:

  1. Set the bottle upright for at least 24 hours before serving, so the sediment can slide to the bottom of the bottle. This makes it a lot easier to separate.
  2. Have your clean decanter on hand from which the wine can easily be poured into glasses.
  3. Remove the capsule and cork; wipe the bottle neck clean.
  4. Prepare a light to hold under the neck of the bottle as you pour. A candle or flashlight works well.
  5. Pour the wine into the decanter slowly and steadily, without stopping.
  6. Stop as soon as you see the sediment reach the neck of the bottle. Sediment isn’t always chunky and obvious, so if you can stop if the wine’s colour becomes cloudy or if you see what looks like specks of dust in the neck.
  7. The wine is now ready to serve!