Decanters may seem like superfluous (not to mention pricey) wine accessories that are more about pomp and ceremony than actual utility, but decanters do, in fact, serve a technical purpose that can alter a wine considerably and make your wine drinking experience more enjoyable.
Besides their ability to instantly dress up your table, decanters are useful when you’re popping the cork on a wine that is very young and tannic, or alternatively, a wine from an older vintage that has a good amount of age on it and has deposited a lot of sediment. Decanting also oxygenates a wine, letting it bloom, so to speak, and allowing its aromas and flavors to emerge and develop to their fullest expression.
When it comes to the color of your wine, both reds and whites can be decanted. Generally speaking though, reds are poured into decanters much more frequently than whites since reds are almost always higher in tannin. Decanting helps alleviate the sensation of harsh, astringent tannins that are found in many bold, full-bodied reds. Tannins originate in the skins of grapes (as well as in the stems and seeds), and since most white wines are fermented without their skins (“orange” wines being an exception), they end up showing very little tannin, and hence don’t usually require a decant to soften up the tannins. Certain white wines, such as white Burgundies, can greatly benefit from decanting, not so much in terms of softening their tannins, but in helping the wine’s fruit and aromas come forth.
Young red wines from recent vintages (less than two or three years old) can be very high in tannin, depending on the grape variety, and can benefit from an hour or so of aeration in a decanter. Decanting a young wine will expose a larger percentage of the wine’s surface area to oxygen, which will help soften the wine’s pronounced tannins and round out the wine’s overall texture or mouthfeel. Decanting a young red wine for 30-60 minutes before drinking will also help unlock the wine’s aromas and can help the wine’s bouquet to appear more pronounced.
Red wines that are typically high in tannin and that can benefit from some time spent in a decanter include Cabernet Sauvignons or Cabernet-based Bordeaux-style blends, Syrahs, Malbecs, Petite Sirahs, Zinfandels, Nebbiolo-based wines like Barolo or Barbaresco, and Sangiovese-based wines like Brunello di Montalcino.
The other scenario that calls for decanting presents itself with aged wines from older vintages. As a wine ages in the bottle, it often throws sediment which collects at the bottom of the bottle if the wine is stored upright, or along the side of the bottle if the wine is stored on its side.
Decanting an aged wine and passing it through a mesh funnel or filter that gets placed at the opening of the decanter can help separate the gritty sediment from the wine so that it doesn’t end up in your glass. Sommeliers at formal restaurants often place a small candle under the bottle while they pour an aged wine into a decanter to illuminate the glass bottle and discern where exactly the sediment lies in the bottle, making sure it doesn’t make its way into the decanter.
Editor’s Note: Can you taste the difference between a decanted wine and a non-decanted wine? – KK
Etty Lewensztain is the owner of Plonk Wine Merchants, an online shop focused on small-production, artisanal and altogether great cheap wine. The food- and wine- obsessed Los Angeles native cut her teeth in the wine biz running a marketing campaign to promote Chilean wine in the United States, and is certified by the esteemed Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) and the American Sommelier Association. Plonk Wine Merchants specializes in hidden gems from around the globe and every bottle in the store is priced below $30. Follow Plonk Wine Merchants on Twitter @ PlonkOnline.