To decant or not to decant? That is the question...

Often regarded as an old-fashioned, even somewhat pretentious practice, decanting wine has its fair share of doubters. Is it simply done for show or does it serve a useful purpose? If so, which wines should be decanted and how long before serving?

Why decant wine?

The main reason historically for decanting wine is to remove it from its naturally-occurring sediment which can taste bitter and, let's face it, is unpleasant in texture - no-one likes to get that gritty last mouthful. You would expect to see a sediment in vintage port and wines, mostly red wines, that have been aged for a number of years in bottle. There is however a small but growing number of natural winemakers who prefer not to filter their wine and so you can also find younger wines with a deposit - at Wines With Attitude we warn you in our unique tasting notes when we expect you to find sediment.

But in general we have moved to drinking wines that are younger and younger and most have not had chance to develop a sediment and have often been clarified, fined and filtered to remove any solid matter. Nevertheless most wines, even my nemesis, those cheap and nasty 'commercial' wines, can taste better after being decanted simply because the aeration caused on pouring the wine into another receptacle releases aromas and flavours. This is especially true for younger wine and those sealed with a screw cap where the wine may have had less exposure to oxygen than a wine from a bottle sealed with a cork and can be 'closed', i.e. displaying few aromas and flavours. In fact decanting or even swirling wine in your glass can help any 'closed' wine to open up.

Aggressive tannins can also be softened by decanting as adding oxygen can suppress them. And if a wine smells musty or slightly off - and increasingly wines are being made with little or no sulphur which acts as an antioxidant and preservative - decanting can help remove some unwanted aromas. It cannot however save a corked or spoilt wine (I cover wine faults in future blogs).

A word of caution

Be careful not to over-expose wine however; too much oxygen and wine can spoil, especially older wines where there is a danger of the aromas and flavours falling flat. And whatever you do, please do not take up the craze in the USA in the early years of this decade of hyper-decanting, believe it or not, putting young red wines in a blender for aeration! Simple decanting is sufficient.

Which wines should be decanted?

There are various theories about which wines should be decanted and for how long. I have even seen grape-specific lists. Really?? Life is too short - so to keep it simple:

•  Generally white wines do not need to be decanted unless displaying unpleasant aromas

• Most young red wines especially those with high tannins - such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Montepulciano, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese and Touriga Nacional - may benefit from being decanted

•  Older red wines and vintage port will be improved when removed from their sediment

•  Any wine that does not have pronounced aromas and flavours or that smells musty may improve on decanting

I would recommend decanting no more than an hour before serving - and for older (15+ year-old) wines, just before serving is sufficient; too long before and there is a danger that aromas and flavours will fall away. If you are unsure, just decant a little and try the wine to see how it develops in your glass.

How to decant wine

Decanting does not have to be complicated or take a long time - and elaborate crystal decanters are not required. In its simplest form just pouring the wine from one bottle into a jug and back - known as double decanting - can be sufficient. Treat aged wine with care and pour gently into a jug or carafe. The traditional method with a light source (or candle) below the neck of the bottle (with capsule removed) may be used to help you see the deposit and stop it going into the jug or carafe. Try to do it in one go to avoid mixing the sediment back into the wine. Older wines should be placed upright for a day or two before decanting so that the sediment falls to the bottom of the bottle.

And if even the simple method seems too much trouble, just swirling a wine in your glass will often be sufficient to improve the experience.


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Lindsay Cornelissen DipWSET is passionate about good quality wine and set up Wines With Attitude to share that passion with other wine lovers.

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