Are they just for show?
If I want to use one, what wines need to be decanted?
Do you ever decant whites?
These are just a few of the questions that I've been asked over the years. This column will answer these questions and more to help you know when, why and how to decant your next bottle.
Decanters have been around for centuries. Interestingly enough, the reasons for using a decanter haven't changed much at all since their invention during the Roman Empire.
Some shapes are more conducive to oxygenation, others more practical for serving. Whatever style you choose or prefer, the reasons for pouring wine from a bottle into a decanter remain pretty straightforward.
Let's get to the questions ...
Why decant a wine?
When wine is exposed to oxygen, it reacts chemically. The flavors, tannins, acids, sugars that are all locked down in the bottle begin to "open" proportionately to the amount of oxygen exposure. For example, popping a cork and just letting the bottle sit to let the wine "breathe" does very little as the total surface area of wine exposed to oxygen is small. The opened bottle will eventually spoil, but it will take some time.
If, however, you were to pour the bottle into a decanter, not only is the surface area much larger, but all of the wine is exposed to oxygen as it is being poured. Exposure to oxygen will allow the wine to soften and, when done for the appropriate bottle, will significantly increase the way the wine shows.
The other main reason to decant is to remove the natural sediment that occurs in many wines, particularly big reds. Sediment most often collects at the bottom of the bottle so that it can be left behind as the wine is slowly transferred to a decanter.
What wines need to/should be decanted?
This is the most important question, but as with most things wine-related, it largely depends on your taste. One thing to remember as we get started, too much oxygen is the mortal enemy of wine. Just the right amount of breathing is a brilliant thing, but keep in mind that older wines in particular are very sensitive the oxygen and the window of opportunity can close quickly. Some very old wines should not be decanted at all.
Young reds are rife with burly tannin, punchy acid and brash fruit. If you like to be assaulted by your big Napa Cab, you can skip this section. If, however, you prefer to maximize the quality of your bold young red, decanting up to three or more hours before drinking will make that ‘05 settle down nicely and it might actually be good with a big hunk of meat.
Since most of us rarely know what we are going to drink three hours ahead of time, decanting immediately before serving will still significantly change the speed at which the wine opens. Also, New World reds especially are made so extracted these days, that they often contain "junk" on the bottom and under the cork. This isn't technically sediment in wine terms, as sediment consists of dead yeast cells and other natural wine byproducts, but rather tartrates and other young gooey goodness.
Older reds can serve to be opened just as much as a young red, but for very different reasons. Imagine if you were stuffed into a small container and had to sit there unmoving for 10, 20 or more years. The first thing you would want to do is stretch. The same goes for older wines. The complexity that has been gained from many years of age will slowly unfold as the wine is exposed to oxygen, especially if it has a good start with a nice decant. Really great wines will change faces dozens of times over the course of an hour or more (if you have the patience not to drink it all right away). Also, the sediment can be considerably more concentrated and although not in any way harmful, tend to cause a slight bitterness to the wine in addition to texture differences.
Yes, believe it or not, I just typed "whites." I think that there are many, many whites that can improve by immediate exposure to air. I have decanted some pretty huge whites over the years, namely monster chard's and other super young, tight whites. I think that many whites can show considerably more character if they are given the chance to come into their own. Unfortunately, the American palate and the average wine merchant have created the notion that all whites should be drunk immediately. There are plenty of whites that are better young and fresh, but there are so many others -- Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Gris -- that get unbelievably sexy as they age.
In terms of assessing just how young a bottle is and how far ahead of time to open it, consult your local sommelier or trusted retailer, or better yet, ask me and I will tell you.
So, do I decant ALL wines?
Definitely not. Hopefully, from the aforementioned details, you have gleaned that when it comes to decanting, it's the big boys that not only need it, but actually possess the quality and character to benefit from it.
Quality is again the prevailing variable. Cheap, young wines, even if they are Cali cabs, will more often than not fall flat very soon after being decanted. Delicate reds, especially Pinot Noir rarely need decanting. I have only decanted a few Pinots in my day, mostly super-young, high alcohol New World Pinots. Pinot Noir changes rapidly with exposure to air, and too much too fast will absolutely kill it. Aside from Pinot Noir, most other varietals, if well made and of the appropriate age, can serve well from being decanted.
When it comes to whites, the bigger the better for decanting. Big, young whites especially. I would be very careful around older whites, unless they are gems like Grand Cru white Burgundy that stay lively for several decades.
Tip: When decanting whites, have the decanter in the refrigerator before decanting. You want the wine to warm up gradually and a warm decanter will speed things up too quickly. (And, yes, a little warmer is better for drinking big whites -- No more ice cold for you!)
What type of decanter should I use?
When it comes to a type of vessel for serving wine, the only thing I will warn against is using metal pitchers. Stainless steel and other porous metals can affect the flavor of the wine. After that, when desperate, use whatever is available. Yes, that means when you are at your someone's house and he / she doesn't have any idea what a decanter is, a plastic pitcher works just fine. The rest is just preference. Some decanters allow for massive surface area for the wine to breathe, but are hard to pour and impossible to clean. Others are designed primarily for show, and are usually even harder to clean.
I prefer a combination of looks and practicality. Basically, whatever you have that is glass / crystal, pours well and doesn't leak is ideal.
How do I decant wine?
There are a couple of different methods for decanting wine. Whichever method you employ, the less you jostle the bottle about before opening, the cleaner the decanted wine. Ideally, you should let a bottle rest upright 8-10 hours before decanting.
The classic method is to place a light source (candle or small electric light) on a table under the neck of the bottle (not too close or you will heat up the wine) Position the opened bottle at approximately 45 degrees with the label sideways so you can see into the bottle as the wine is poured out. As you slowly pour the contents in to the decanter, watch for a little wisp of sediment cloud creeping toward the neck. This is the sign of thicker sediment to come. Just when the chunks of sediment reach the neck, stop pouring and you are left with clean wine in the decanter.
There are funnels available with screens to filter the rest of the wine so you don't lose much. I recommend using cheese cloth with the filter as the screens usually don't catch much of the sediment.
The other method is far more contemporary and requires greater knowledge of the individual wine being poured. This method is reserved entirely for huge young reds with little to no sediment. Basically, upend the bottle so it "schlugs" into the decanter. This thrashing will open up a wine much quicker, but will give you no chance to catch the sediment if there is any present.
Although you will lose a few subtle characteristics of the wine compared to if you had slowly let it develop in the glass over four or five hours, how many of us really have that kind of patience when it comes to good wine? Invariably, the "hard decant" will make that bottle much more palatable over the hour or less that you drink it.
Again, a lot of this depends on how you like to drink your wine and how fast you are going to drink it. I tend to be very proactive in decanting as I feel most wines will have the chance to show me a greater level of complexity during the time period in which I am going to enjoy them.
If you have any other questions about decanting, send an e-mail and I will be happy to respond.