The simple act of pouring wine from its bottle into a pretty container is an action with complex results. In ancient times, before the arts of clarification and filtration had been mastered, every wine had to be decanted because sediments in a glass not only looked unappealing but could also taste bitter. These reasons hold even today. However, this would imply that wines capable of extended bottle ageing and the ones that tend to throw sediments are the only contenders for decanting, which is not the case. The other important reason for decanting a wine is to aerate it, although this is a controversial topic and opinion is divided, even among experts
Some authorities argue that exposing a wine to oxygen is detrimental, as the
prolonged exposure diffuses the aroma and makes the wine fade faster. Others believe that an extra dose of oxygen will help liven up the wine. My experience says that while some wines do benefit from decanting, it’s important to know which wines evolve in a favourable way and which wines deteriorate. For instance, a concentrated, tannic Barolo would certainly mellow upon decanting, which would help to soften aggressive tannins, while a red Burgundy may lose the delicacy of its fine aromas.
A wine exposed to oxygen through decanting is enabled to ‘breathe’ and evolve. Essentially, oxygen contact with wine helps to open up the aromas, soften the tannins and reduce the harshness of its acidity, making it softer and more rounded on the palate.
Although many people believe that merely opening the wine bottle and letting it be for a while is enough to aerate it, in reality only the topmost part of the wine is exposed to oxygen; this does not help it to breathe at all. Decanting or pouring it out in a glass is therefore necessary.
Red wines like Brunello di Montalcino, Barolo, Amarone, Super Tuscans from Italy, Rioja, Priorat from Spain, Red Bordeaux, Châteauneuf-du-Pape from France, Baga from Portugal or a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from
California and a Barossa Valley Shiraz from Australia would all improve upon decanting. Some white wines also benefit from decanting, such as white Burgundy (Premier or Grand Cru), Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc, Condrieu from France and white Rioja from Spain. This is how the world-famous wine critic, Jancis Robinson, savours her white Burgundies!
Strange as it may sound, some vintage Champagnes may also be decanted, although this is the subject of an ongoing debate. I quote from Vinepair, on why the famous Champagne house Billecart-Salmon encourages decanting some of its vintage Champagnes. “Decanting helps a younger vintage open up, gently calm down the effervescence, slightly increase in temperature and let the aromas develop and express themselves,” says Clément Calleja, eastern region manager for Billecart-Salmon USA. However, use caution when considering the
decanting of older vintage Champagnes, since they tend to become more delicate over time, and decanting could cause them to fall apart.
Seven simple steps for decanting wine like a pro:
- It is important to keep the red wine bottle to be decanted standing for at least six to seven hours before decanting it. This helps settle all the sediment at the bottom. This is not required in the case of whites since
they don’t have any sediment.
- At the time of decanting, the red wine should be handled very gently, avoiding any sudden movements that may upset the sediment.
- When decanting an old wine a flashlight or candle should be placed between the wine bottle and the glass decanter to see the sediment.
- Open the bottle gently and angle it into the decanter such that the shoulder of the bottle is held above the light source.
- Start pouring the wine into the decanter very gently at a steady flow, without stopping. As soon as you see sediment in the shoulder of the bottle, stop pouring instantly.
- Some wines may need to sit in the decanter for a few hours even after being decanted, to open them. For others, just decanting them is good enough to to release their aromas or to get rid of unpleasant odours.
- The wine being decanted, whether red or white, should be at the right temperature so that the wine while in the decanter tastes appropriate. Whites which benefit from decanting are not typically served very chilled; they need to be at around 14°C.
Used discerningly, decanting can be a ritual to celebrate and respect a wine. A complex and multifaceted wine in a crystal decanter can only enhance the beauty of your wine experience.