Today, let’s investigate why and how to decant a wine. It can be intimidating but you can’t go wrong, after all the main goal is to get the wine out of the bottle and into the glass. So you’ll always end up with a drink in your hand!
Now, if you want to elevate your experience and let your bottle of wine live its best life, here are some notes about when, why and how to perform this silly ritual. Enjoy!
FIRST – A Cheat Sheet Before We Get Technical:
Look on the label for Vintage, Varietal and notes about filtration and fining. Older wines and full bodied grape varietals will likely benefit from decanting.
If the wine has been aging for a while, illuminate the bottle neck and decant slowly. At the point where you see sediment start to come through the neck of the bottle, stop.
Older bottles of Pinot Noir and other light varietals can benefit from air, but generally not from decanting. Open the bottle 20 to 30 minutes before serving.
Taste younger wines before you decide if they need extra air. Trial, error and intuition will let you know how much oxygen the wine might need. This is the fun part!
Taste to see if the wine has a closed nose, any savoury or developing aromas or notes of reduction (eggs, matches). What’s reduction, click here for a great explanation!
White wines labeled as “Skin Contact” or “Orange” will generally benefit from decanting and often improve over 24 hours or more.
Most importantly, enjoy the wine and enjoy how the bottle changes over time!
Now Let’s Get Started!
Start with a clean decanter : )
Two wines that likely need decanting
Keep your bottle as still as you can so as to not stir up sediment.
A more-or-less classic set up as we get ready to decant
So How Do I Know When To Decant My Wine?
At restaurants, the wine director, sommelier or a knowledgeable server will be very familiar with their wine lists and most wine in general. They’ll take an educated guess about decanting any wine and chances are they’re right. So what do the rest of us do?
At home use your intuition, taste and discuss. Here are a few clues you can use to decipher the decanting riddle:
- Older, full bodied wines will likely “throw” sediment as they age. Check the vintage on the label and judge for yourself. It’s a classy idea to separate the wine from the sediment before pouring into glasses. That said, lighter bodied, older reds can lose their delicate yet complex notes after aggressively decanting the wine, specifically Pinot Noir
- Younger, full bodied red wine “can” benefit from decanting to expose the tannins and aromatic compounds to oxygen. The idea is that the oxygen exposure helps the tannins go from mouth-drying, gritty and astringent to soft and silky, simply adding a level of complexity to the wine. Personally, I’d say decanting doesn’t help that much for softening tannins, or you have to leave the wine in the decanter for longer than you think (eg: you can decant some Italian Barolos for days and observe ever changing aromas and flavours.) The process is much more useful to expose the esters in the wine to oxygen.
- Wines labelled as “unfined or unfiltered” can throw sediment regardless of cellaring, especially if they haven’t been cold stabilized. Commercial filters will catch the bits and pieces, and hanging out in cold weather will help the tartrates (wine diamonds) form before bottling. A well-held belief is that filtering and cold stabilization strip aromas and flavours from wines, so many winemakers choose to leave sediment in wine rather than filter and stabilize the juice.
- You may wish to decant white wine for the same reasons as #2 above. Some somms will even irreverently give the bottle a shake just to add air to the juice. Even 5 minutes of air contact will make a difference. This is also evident with reductive wines (you’ll get a whiff of sulphur, rotten egg or burnt match to start, but it blows off with a quick shake or just vigorously pouring the bottle into a carafe)
- Skin contact white wines refer to whites that have been vinified like reds – in contact with the grape skins for an extended period of time. Case in point about decanting to soften tannins here: Skin contact whites, which often have abundant tannin from the skins, can sit in a decanter for over 24 hours as they develop aromatics and flavour. And honestly, some need that much time….
If the wine is not likely to have developed sediment, my preference is to taste and decide. Use your intuition. Are you having trouble smelling anything at all in the wine (either decide the bottle is reductive or go get a covid test!) For red, does it make your mouth feel dry like tea that has steeped for too long? Chances are, in both scenarios, the bottle needs some air. Here comes the fun part:
Decant Your Wine:
- Keep the bottle from moving around a lot.
- Any light source will do!
- Pour slow and steady. See how the candle is illuminating the neck of the bottle.
- Not a BC Wine, but we knew this bottle would have lot of sediment to show – this is the 1998 Chateau Bel Air Lagrave from Bordeaux, France. A classic blend of Cabernet and Merlot.
To decant for sediment, any vessel will do, but it is fun to have something fancy to compliment your beautifully cellared wine. You’ll want to make sure the bottle hasn’t rolled around or moved much before you decant. Otherwise, the sediment will mix with the wine again and there’s no point to decanting.
Honestly, I’ve used a coffee pot in a hotel, a large mason jar when camping. Literally, when you pour wine from the bottle to the glass, you are decanting.
The most important part is to have good light to see the wine as it moves slowly through the neck of the bottle as you pour. As peppery flakes start to show up, stop pouring. That’s all there is to it. Back in the day when I worked as a sommelier in restaurants, we were “supposed” to hold the neck of the bottle over a candle to catch this moment. During a busy service that approach can be a bit finicky, so often I would find any light source in front of me and point the bottle neck there.
- Nothing fancy, just a carafe to get this beast some O2.
- I hate wax enclosures. Thankfully some wax is soft and you can go right through with the corkscrew. Is this sacrilege?
- “4 months skin contact” so we know we are going to want to decant.
- Look at that colour and the haze! This natural wine has definitely macerated with the grape skins and has not been fined or filtered. This is the 2018 Rigour and Whimsey Skin Contact Roussanne Marsanne blend from the Okanagan, BC – note this wine NEEDED ~ 18 hours in a decanter before it reached its peak.
The white wine featured above has not been fined or filtered and the juice has spent months macerating with the grape skins. I guessed it would take a while to bring out the aromatics and integrate the tannins, and I was right. This bottle was starting to show well almost 18 hours after opening and a vigourous pour into a carafe at room temperature.
To decant a wine so it is exposed to more oxygen, you can get creative. A young white? You could put the top back on and give it a 2 second shake. Here’s a fun note from the folks at Wine Spectator about that practice. A mature Chardonnay or Chenin Blanc? Slowly pour the bottle into any carafe and leave it out for 20 minutes to warm up (this is a great added benefit to decanting. White wines are very expressive at 10 degrees Celsius, and each time you expose the liquid to the air, the wine will adjust a bit towards room temperature).
If you only have the coffee pot and don’t want guests to see, you can decant into your vessel and then pour the wine back into the bottle, provided there’s no sediment!
There is great benefit to just opening a bottle 30 minutes before you intend to drink it, and this is a great idea for light bodied red wines with some age. Their aromatics and primary flavours tend to be a bit too delicate to withstand an “aggressive” decant. Treating these wines so boldly means they would show well for as little as 20 minutes after being unceremoniously decanted. But, with a slight hit of O2 from just opening the bottle in advance, they will sing for hours.
There is so much more to say and discuss about decanting wine. I hope these quick notes send you down the right path or open up a fun exploration of the science of of your beverages!
Thanks for listening and Cheers from the OWC team!