Is it necessary to decant wine into a decanter?

How important is it to use a decanter when serving wine? And which wines should be decanted anyway? Here's a useful guide for decanting wines.

Quick Guide

To decant? Or not?

Which wines are decanted?

In general, mostly red wines and port, although some fuller bodied whites can also benefit from decanting.

Why bother?

Some older wines form a sediment in the bottle which can be removed through decanting (you don’t want to drink the sediment; it’s very bitter). And the flavour of many wines – reds in particular – mellow and improve when allowed to ‘breathe’ which is achieved through decanting.

Is a decanter necessary?

No, although a stylish decanter will set off a dinner party table nicely. In fact any wide-necked ceramic or glass jug will suffice. Alternatively, if you’d like to show off the wine and its label, just rinse out the bottle and return the aerated wine to it through a funnel.

What Wine are normally Decanted?

Decanting wine does actually serve a practical purpose. It might seem a little pretentious, an unnecessary affectation performed by wine buffs alone, but decanting wine is considered a simple and important way to improve the flavour of many – but not necessarily all – wines.

Not all wine needs to be decanted although many would argue that all wine benefits from aeration. Very young, light reds such as a Pinot Noir are unlikely to have formed any sediment, and their flavours are generally not complex enough to warrant the effort. It’s usually the older, more full-bodied wines that develop a mellower, more enjoyable flavour after aeration – even fuller bodied whites such as Chardonnay may benefit. Wines that have been aged in the bottle, including vintage reds such as Shiraz and Claret, are ideal to decant, and port in particular is a great candidate. Some younger reds such as a Cabernet Sauvignon and even Bordeaux might also benefit from aeration to soften any over-aggressive tannins.

Why Bother?

There are two primary reasons why you would want to decant a wine, and a third, less well known opportunity.

Firstly, you may wish to remove any sediment that has accumulated in the bottom of the wine bottle. This is quite common in older reds and ports and is nothing to be concerned about, but is not something you want to drink. It’s bitter and gritty.
 
The second, arguably more important reason to decant, is to allow the wine to breathe. This doesn’t mean taking the cork out or opening the bottle and letting it sit around for an hour or two. It means actually introducing oxygen to the wine – aerating it – to promote a mellower flavour. One important note in regards to aerating wines: the length of time to let your wine breathe varies depending on the wine. In general the younger it is the longer it can sit (an hour or two), whereas older, vintage wines need less time aerating before running the risk of oxidising; fifteen minutes to half an hour.
 
Finally, decanting wine into a decanter can also influence the wine’s temperature. If you’ve brought your bottle of red up from the cellar, or just removed the white from the fridge, it’s unlikely either will be at peak drinking temperature. Whites that are too cold can taste quite acidic and you lose their fruit aromas. Only very young, pale Riesling or sparkling wines work well straight from the fridge (around 8°C) whilst Chardonnay and Pinot Noir need to be served at around 12°C. The bigger reds such as a good Claret or Shiraz should be served at around 18°C, slightly cooler than room temperature.

How do I Decant?

If you’re trying to remove the sediment from the bottle, in addition to aerating it, the first thing to do is stand the bottle upright for a few hours. This allows the sludge to fall to the bottom.

Next, simply upend the wine into your decanter (or jug – see below) in one smooth pour. Don’t let the wine ‘glug’ out of the bottle as this will remix the sediment. When there’s about half a cup left in the bottle, slow down. Closely watch for any sediment as it approaches the neck of the bottle and stop pouring when it reaches it. And that’s it. Of course, if you simply must get that last drop from your expensive bottle, you can pour it through a coffee filter, muslin or cheesecloth but ideally not directly into the decanter; it will have a different taste due to the accumulation of sediment and is best drunk on its own (or thrown into the gravy for a wonderful richness of flavour).
 

Here are some things to consider when deciding whether or not to go to the trouble of decanting your wine:

  • Does your chosen wine actually need to be decanted?
  • Do you have a decanter or suitable receptacle?
  • Do you have time to let the wine properly breathe?
  • Do you have a well-enough developed palate to appreciate the difference in flavour decanting imbues?

 

Quick Tips

  • Your decanter needs to be big enough to hold a full bottle (usually 750ml) of wine.
  • Choose a decanter that suits your lifestyle and taste; it doesn’t need to be an expensive lead crystal number which needs gentle handwashing and careful storage. A glass carafe or ceramic jug will work just as well (but never plastic: this will stain but more importantly will infuse other flavours from whatever the receptacle has contained before).
  • Make sure your decanter has a wide opening to help with the aeration process (otherwise you might as well leave it in the bottle).
  • Allow enough time for the wine to mellow and soften but not too long as to overexpose it and turn the wine bitter.
  • A decanter with a large, wide base is an ideal shape, allowing plenty of room to gently swirl the wine and introduce the critical oxygen.

And finally, what about bubbly? The jury’s out on whether or not to decant sparkling wine. The immediate assumption would be no – decanting softens the intensity of the bubbles, and isn’t getting bubbles up your nose what drinking fizz is all about? But some renowned glass manufacturers (Riedel – see our article on wine glasses here)have even produced dedicated Champagne decanters. It’s up to you!

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