This is a question I often get and the short answer is “It Depends”. It depends on several factors – for one, it depends on who you ask. And it depends on what kind of wine you are having.
My husband and I have this dilemma every time we open a bottle; he always wants to pull out the decanter and I don’t always think it’s necessary. He loves carrying decanters with him lest he ever be without (that includes restaurants and sometimes even friends’ homes!) I love opening a bottle and allowing it to “breathe” for a few moments. I like to pour myself a sip and assess whether it needs more time, or more decanting. I’m also not fussy about my decanters, I know any clear vessel will do, even a large clean jar.
Depending on whom you speak to, some experts strongly believe that the process of decanting can ruin a wine and others will tell you that all wine needs to be decanted.
Why do we decant anyway? Decanting generally serves two main purposes – 1) removes sediment from wine and 2) aerates or oxidizes the wine. Today, there are many ways to accomplish both of these tasks for wine but decanting is still the simplest, cost effective and aesthetically pleasing way.
Drinking wine should be simple – pop the cork open, pour into a glass and enjoy! But for many, myself included, it’s not that simple. In my experience, many wines actually do well upon decanting. Younger old world reds especially evolve during this process. These are the wines we often hear people say need to “breathe”. The breathing process happens as soon as the bottle is opened but given the wine has been in that bottle for a long while; it may take longer than most people are willing to wait before they begin drinking. The process of decanting actually begins the moment the wine is poured out of the bottle. So yes, even when you pour wine into a glass, it is decanting or “breathing”. The actual decanter itself does not really matter; it could be any type of clear vessel that you can pour liquid into (plastic or glass). Once the liquid is exposed to light and air, it has already started oxidizing or aerating. This process typically softens a younger and more tannic wine.
When you pour the wine out of the bottle, look for sediment. This is why you will often see a light or candle being held up to the bottle as it pours into a decanter. This is to avoid mixing the sediment into the wine. The bigger question often becomes “how long do you decant a wine”? This also depends. Most wines, especially aged wines only need 20-30 minutes in a decanter. After that, you risk oxidizing the wine and completely changing the flavors. Younger old world wines can be decanted for up to a few hours but I would recommend experimenting with your wines to find out the best times for your favorite wines.
Once a wine is decanted, it only lasts about 12-18 hours after that. Keep in mind that once you aerate or oxidize your wine, this process cannot be undone. There comes a point at which the air causes more damage than good. If you let a wine decant for hours, it reaches room temperature – which today is typically around 72-74F, this is generally too high for most wines. If you let wine sit out for too long, you will no doubt begin to notice vinegar flavors seeping through. Wine is sensitive to heat so it is always best to refrigerate unused wine. The fridge is the safest place for any opened bottle of wine.
There is a way to speed up the decanting process which is recommended for wines you plan to serve immediately. You can use a process called “double decanting”. This just entails pouring the wine into a glass decanter, and then pouring it right back into the bottle. Repeat this process as needed. Some people like to swirl the wine in the decanter to help aerate it quicker. This is similar to swirling the wine in your glass which essentially accomplishes the same. Wine aerators are faster than decanting but these are not recommended for aged wines. You really don’t want to mess with older wines.
White wines generally are not decanted but I’ve seen a difference occur in rich, oaky whites especially aged chardonnays (Bourgognes) that can come alive after twenty minutes in a decanter. Even wines with screw caps can be decanted. These wines typically hold a lot of carbonation which acts as a preservative. Decanting can balance this and eliminate the trapped carbonation. Ports and Madeiras or other fortified wines are the only wines I have seen benefit from long periods of decanting. This can be anywhere from 12-24 hours. Wood aged ports such as ruby and tawny ports particularly benefit from the decanting process. Again, the older the port the quicker it will begin to go bad (or taste of vinegar) once exposed to the air.
Many people ask me if there are special decanters they should be using. I see all kinds of fancy and expensive decanters in all types of shapes. Ideally, you want something clear and easy to clean. That is the most practical advice I can give you. There are decanters available in various sizes to accommodate 750 ml bottles as well as magnum size bottles. Most restaurants will carry several of each depending on their wine lists. Cleaning decanters is often another challenge. I have found it is too difficult to remove all the soap and always fear this adversely affects the aromas and flavors of wine. Every once in a while by all means, clean your decanters well with detergent but on a day to day basis, it is okay to just rinsethe outside with hot water and the inside with cold water. This also keeps the glass from getting foggy on the inside. One restaurant even shared that they rinse their decanters with crushed ice and coarse salt! This removes the entire residue from any wine left and does not create any additional odors from detergent.
Some will decant every single wine, regardless of age, style or variety. Others even believe in pouring the wine into a blender and letting it spin for a few seconds – a method called hyperdecanting (I have seen people request this of the sommeliers in restaurants!) Personally, I think this cannot be good for the wine and you may risk unwanted flavors and odors now blended into the wine. I would prefer to decant the younger old world wines that I have found to benefit from around 30 minutes of glass decanting. For more tannic wines, an hour or so should be sufficient. Decanting for longer may make the wine softer, but in my experience that is usually detrimental to the wine. Too much oxidization willalmost always kill a wine. Keep in mind, you can always “decant” a wine in your glass and once it is overexposed to air you can never bring it back. As with all matters of wine, it is always a balance and always a very personal choice as to how you appreciate your particular glass of wine!
About the column : "Cheers!"A column where Anju will talk about her passion for wine. Hope you'll all enjoy this journey of "Bottled Poetry" with us.
About the Author : Anju was always a consistent wine drinker but her love for wine led her to build her own wine cellar where she began collecting favorites and rare bottles. After her tastings, she began maintaining meticulous tasting and pairing notes to share with family and friends. Anju began to understand the complexity and beauty of wine and became intrigued by the wine making process. Her love for wine led her to vineyards across the country which further strengthened the relationship. And so began her journey…
The now mother of two decided to switch gears and follow her passion for wine. She began working with Swirl Events, a New York City based wine tasting events company. Her role at Swirl enables her to host events for corporate and private functions. More importantly, it provides the platform to learn, educate, inspire and spread awareness.