It may look intimidating, but here’s all you need to know about when, why and how to decant wine.
When I was starting out as a somm, my first job was at a private club in Toronto. There, I inherited a cellar full of aging Spanish, Italian, and French wines, among other bottles. The nature of these maturing red wines was that most had granular bits of sediment and definitely required decanting before being served.
So being the intrepid sommelier I was, I created a decanting table in the dining room. A dedicated area of the restaurant where I had my selection of decanters, a candle, lighter, cloth wipes and tasting glasses. After the guest had approved the wine, I’d head to my station, open each wine carefully and go about the process of decanting for sediment. Concentrating on the task at hand, it took me a few bottles before realizing the small, 40 seat dining room always went quiet, and all eyes turned towards me. When I finished, I received a round of applause! Apparently, our club restaurant also hosted a show in addition to dinner.
Since those early days, I’ve been quite a fan of decanting most bottles. Even if the wine is particle-free, most wines (red and white) benefit from a good decant. And with the exception of very old and delicate wines, they all improve – and certainly don’t get worse – so why not add a little flare to your wine service? God knows, in these quarantine days of sweatpants and once-a-week hair washes, we could all benefit from a little pomp and circumstance.
Even if your wine doesn’t have sediment, there are four reasons to get your wine out of the bottle and into another vessel.
As I said, decanting offers a bit of showmanship to elevate your standard wine pour. There’s a case to be made for finding the beauty in the everyday. Just like setting a proper table, using good napkins, or buying yourself fresh flowers, it’s nice to incorporate a little style into your daily routine.
Your decanter doesn’t always have to be the swanky, crystal art piece worth hundreds of dollars. When I went on Instagram Live to show how to decant, many of you were surprised to learn the decanter I use is a turquoise ceramic pitcher that I picked up for 20 Euro at a farmers’ market in Lyon, France. Aesthetically, I think it adds an air of bohemian chic to the dinner table. Practically, I love the ease of the handle and spout, not to mention it’s easy to clean, and the all-important surface area of wine-to-oxygen is perfect.
Don’t let the actual vessel limit you, or the term intimidate you. Uncork that bottle, pour it into something else and embrace the casually fabulous.
These days, this is likely the most common reason for decanting. Aeration simply means getting a little oxygen into the wine, to help it open up and breath. Air is both the friend and enemy of wine – the frenemie of wine, if you will. Leave a glass on the counter overnight and chances are your wine will suck the next day. But, pouring your bottle into another jug (to drink over the next few hours) will allow for just enough air to open the wine up and allow those flavours and aromas to come to life.
Think about it: were you bright eyed and bushy tailed after you sat for hours in a cramped plane? Doubt it. You likely wanted to stretch, brush your hair and teeth before getting ready to present yourself to anyone. Wine is the same: it’s been trapped in a bottle for at least a year, and maybe even several. It needs time to stretch out to reveal its best self. That smallish amount of air that mixes with the wine, both while being poured, and sitting in a larger-mouthed vessel, is like a wine massage – it’s relaxing and releasing all its delicious notes.
This is likely less of an issue, but sometimes wine is just too cold. Super cold temperatures inhibit the wine’s aromas and flavours. The only thing you’ll be able to detect in a frigid wine is the exacerbated bitter tannins and sour acids – not over pleasing on their own. Pouring wine out of the frosty bottle and into a room temperature decanter will help it warm up quicker and start revealing flavours.
If you suspect your wine will have sediment – grainy bits that sit at the bottom or your wine, or along the side of the bottle if it’s been lying down for a while – you will definitely want to decant it carefully.
It’s ok if your wine is a bit cloudy, you just don’t want the hard bits, for obvious reasons.
*This blog has been updated since an original posting in 2010