To Decant or Not To Decant

Categories: Wine


Welcome to Vine Geeks, where Brian Reeder and Pavle Milic of AZ Wine Merchants take the drinking game quite seriously. Pay attention -- you might just learn something.

You may have heard of this 'decanting' business. In fact, you may have seen it at a restaurant and wondered why someone was pouring the wine from the bottle into a pretty glass jug before it found its way into glasses.

Was it because it looks so fancy? Yep.
Was it to make sure the wine doesn't have all kinds of stuff floating in it? Yep.
Was it to aerate or 'open up' the wine and expose it to oxygen? Yep.

Wine is decanted for any of the reasons above. I think that it's primarily done for the fanciness factor, because swirling and swishing your way to snooty-dom is a great way to impress friends and colleagues (or make them think you're a total snob.. or both). But, decanting does have merit - quite a bit of it depending on whom you talk to. Personally I think decanting is a great way to help a wine show it's very best in the right circumstances, and with the right bottle.

Do I decant every bottle I open? God no. For me it's an issue of how much I spent on the bottle, and how old it is. If I'm drinking a Tuesday night wine, you better believe it's going straight from the bottle to my glass - no stops in between needed. But if I'm at a nice dinner or opening a special/fun bottle, I'll try to treat the wine properly so that it's drinking well.

So, why would you decant a bottle of wine? There are primarily two reasons: removing sediment, and aerating the wine.

Decanting for sediment.

This has been the primary reason for decanting over the course of the centuries, as many older wines aren't filtered like their modern day counterparts. No filter = residue at the bottom of the bottle = eventually the bottom of your glass = unpleasant shock in the form of a mouthful of grit. No fun.

The process means leaving a bottle standing upright for a number of hours/days to allow all the sediment to accumulate at the bottom of the bottle, then carefully pouring the wine so that you leave all of the sediment in the bottle (and ideally all the wine in the decanter). Some say that it's ok to assist the process by dumping the wine through cheesecloth, but I wouldn't encourage it - small particles will still make it through and the cheesecloth may impart something to your spendy bottle.

So, what bottles would you decant for sediment? I would decant using this method for any bottle of red wine over 10 years old, as the wine may have had time to accumulate sediment. Be aware, as wines age they also become more delicate - if you're opening a bottle that's 20+ years old, you may just want to pour directly from the bottle to the glass after leaving the bottle upright for a day or two.

How do I decant without dumping all the grit in the decanter as well? Your best bet is to get a small flashlight and shine it through the wine - you'll be able to see where the sediment is and stop pouring before you reach it. Have a friend help out so you're not trying to pour and hold the flashlight and not break the decanter all by yourself.

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