The dictionary describes decanting as simply transferring a wine from one receptacle to another before serving. It doesn’t sound that complicated, but the reality is not quite so simple. Decanting a wine may serve to remove sediment, interact with oxygen to trigger the development of the aromatics or simply to be easier to pour.
Decanting a young wine is easy. Simply open the bottle and pour into the decanter of choice. The primary purpose of this exercise is to aerate the wine in the hope that the aromas and flavors are more vibrant and developed. Most of this work is done by the simple act of pouring the wine into the decanter. The wine can then be left to sit out for a length of time (ranging from twenty minutes to two hours or more) or can be agitated until it is ready to be served. The video below, produced by master glassmaking company Riedel, demonstrates shock decanting.
Most commonly used for highly tannic red wines (Cabernets, Syrahs, Nebbiolos etc), wine drinkers must take care when decanting an older vintage or a fragile wine, as the additional oxygen exposure may diminish the bouquet and the potential on the palate. Yet decanting young wines for the sake of aromatic development remains the subject of great debate among critics and wine experts. Many argue that the additional oxygen exposure and the dissolution of carbon dioxide causes the wine to fade faster.
Aged and Unfiltered Wines
Unfiltered or natural wines often contain sediments produced as a normal result of the wine production process. Aged wines, even those that have been filtered, also often contain sediment. As a bottle rests and ages, small particles fall out of suspension and gather at the bottom of the bottle. However, as a wine is poured and a bottle is moved the sediments can mix with the wines imparting both texture and sometimes a slight bitter flavor. By using a decanter or carafe, a vessel with a closure, the sediments can be removed and the wine easily enjoyed.
To successfully remove sediment from a bottle, follow the steps below:
- Stand the bottle upright for at least 24-hours
- After opening the bottle, hold a candle or a light under the neck
- Pour slowly and steadily without stopping
- Using the light under the neck of the bottle, watch for the sediment (which can be clearly defined particles or a slight cloudiness in the wine) to reach the shoulder and neck. Stop as soon as you see the sediments in the neck leaving behind a small amount of wine in the bottle
It is important to keep in mind that aged wines, unlike young wines, do not need the oxidative development of shock decanting. These wines have been allowed to mature in bottle and do not need excessive exposure to air and can be drunk immediately after the decanting is complete. As such decanters with narrow necks or carafes with a seal are ideal for preserving the wine as it rests on the table.
Vintage Port is often aged in the bottle and thus is not filtered. As such it develops in the bottle sediments similar to an aged wine but often on a greater scale. While not harmful these wines will need to be filtered to be enjoyed. In addition, this removes any trace of cork, as removing a 30 year old cork can often lead to crumbling. Traditionally vintage ports are decanted using the candle method described above, but there is also a simpler way. Using a funnel and a filter of unbleached cheesecloth, the wine can be poured slowly and steadily into the decanter. But again due to age it is important to wipe down the neck of the bottle before removing the cork, as there may be some accumulated particles.
Selection, Care and Cleaning
There are a wide variety of styles and producers of decanters on the market. Crystal or clear glass decanters are best as you have an unobstructed view of the wine. Thin neck decanters and carafes with lids allow less oxygen to reach the wine. But it is also important that the decanter not be too full or no oxygen will reach the wine. Weight is also a critical factor as glass can be quite heavy and with the addition of the wine it can become hard to pour. With such a wide variety to choose from it is easy to find a style that works best with your tabletop and your glassware.
Cleaning a decanter can be quite difficult. Much like a wine glass, decanters and carafes tend to be narrower at the neck than in the bowl. Most professionals recommend rinsing your decanter with warm water and a mild, unscented soap after each use. But be sure to rinse very thoroughly after to avoid any soapy residue that may affect the taste of your wine. If you do not use your decanter frequently it also helps to rinse it out before use to remove any dust or particles. If possible turn the decanter upside down to dry. And if a buildup or staining color builds up within the glass, inexpensive white wine can be used to soak off the material and lessen the color.