The art of decanting wine

What is decanting?

Decanting which can be used for a variety of drinks is the process of pouring the contents of the bottle that initially contained them into another vessel which is typically a decanter. For home use this is the poured into a glass for serving; however, in some restaurants, it will be further poured back into the decanter for serving. We’re focusing on wine, but there are various ways to decant other drinks such as whisky.

Why decant wine?

Not every wine should (or is) decanted, association with decanting wine is typically more commonplace among vintage wines – such vintages more often have leftover sediment in the bottle that occurs with age. The process of decanting the wine separates the contents from the sediment which leaves a more pleasant looking – more transparent – product in the decanter to be served. This reasoning for decanting is most commonplace due to the visibility of the sediment which can be unpleasant especially if it finds its way to the drinking glass.

Wines such as Syrah blends, Cabernet blends and Cabernet Sauvignon, commonly high tannin and full-bodied wines benefit from decanting but for an altogether different reason. Also, the second most customary reason for decanting, the process aerates the wine, opening up flavor and aroma to the recipient. Scientific study has proven this to be the case and can have a substantially positive impact on the taste of a wine.

There are objections to decanting the wine for aeration, the argument being that exposure to the oxygen gives a similar effect to swirling in the glass and can, in fact, harm flavor and aroma with over oxidation. However, the impact of this would be negligible, and as long as you were to follow the standard time scales for decanting, then the positive effects on the pallet are far more likely to take effect. Have a look below to see what these timescales should be.

How long should you decant?

The vast majority of tannic red wines will take between 2 and 3 hours to decant and last around 14 hours afterward. For example Pinot Noir will take about 30 minutes as well as Zinfandel, Malbec and Grenache Blend approximately 60 minutes, Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo 120 minutes, Shiraz and Nebbiolo around 180 minutes. These are estimates but an excellent guideline for the best decanting.

The argument for not decanting does hold some ground; you should, for example, decant wines 20+ years of age immediately before serving; do not wait any longer or you risk losing those precious flavors that have taken so many years to develop.

decanting wine
decanting wine

Should you decant white wines?

On the whole, the vast majority of white wines do not need decanting; it offers no real-world benefits to the pallet or appearance. Most people don’t even bother thinking about decanting a white wine, though some aged wines can taste strange directly out of the bottle and would benefit from opening up during the process. However, most off the shelf white wines you probably buy don’t need to be decanted.

Do you decant Champagne and sparkling wines?

Pouring wine from a decanter is unique, it adds that extra element of class and occasion to each glass of wine you pour. I imagine that pouring Champagne from a decanter is not usually part of the occasion you are all used to going through. What could the benefits of doing this be? Alternatively, would there even be any benefits? Champagne is a sparkling wine in essence with the addition of a lively youthful mousse for an extra unique experience; you would think to decant would eliminate this and all that a good Champagne is. The fact is that decanting would reduce bubbles but not eliminate them and assuming you didn’t wait too long the delightful mousse would still be around. Wine glass producer Riedel, synonymous with wine decanting, have a decanter specifically for Champagne. Though similar to white wine, decanting Champagne isn’t necessary as there is no sediment in almost all (unless aged) and done incorrectly could reduce the very experience Champagne is known to be.

What happens if you decant a wine for too long?

Decanting wine for too long will lead to the wine developing higher levels of acetic acid, which is found in vinegar. This eventually will lead to a repugnant vinegar-like taste and smell, indicating the wine has gone bad. For this reason, it is ideal that you stick to the set time mentioned above and eliminate the chances of this, it is far better to drink quickly after decanting than to leave it too long. Following the averages found by sommeliers and research will give you the best of aromas and flavors without the worry of acetic acid developing within the wine.

The average consumer decants wine (for example during a dinner party) to impress and show expertise, this can be achieved by decanting a couple of hours before the dinner party having the desired effect. Connoisseurs and establishments want to bring the best from their wines for themselves and customers and therefore should decant by the rule-book for the very best quality.

The average person

Jamie Goode – author of ‘I Taste Red: The Science of Tasting Wine,’ makes some interesting points relating to the reasoning behind decanting wines and is a good indicator of why the average consumer would do this. “There’s another very important aspect of decanting, and that’s the psychological one.” This plays on what I mentioned earlier in that most consumers want to make an impression on guests by serving a glass of wine from the decanter and explain the benefits of doing so. However, the way Goode explains his reasoning takes on another form, he argues the respect commanded from decanting wine sets expectations of the wine, therefore decanting has a chemical effect on the wine and the act of decanting has a psychological impact on the drinker bringing together a real difference in the experience.

Decanting is not for everyone, and most people won’t want to put the effort in, but for those that do there is an excellent argument of the benefits that can be experienced from drinking a decanted wine, whichever wine that may be.

Growing community against decanting

There is an argument against decanting wine, this opinion is growing into its own anti-decanting community which basically is creating some confusion but nevertheless it should be noted. Using scientific research looking into the benefits of separating the wine from sediment and oxidizing the wine, scientifically speaking, decanting wine allows trace components known as thiols to oxidize to form other compounds which are less smelly and undetectable by the human nose.

As Dr Waterhouse of UC Davis mentions “The goal of decanting is to eliminate those chemicals from the wine and let them react with oxygen.”  He goes on to mention the role that room temperature and light intensity play in this process mentioning the extreme conditions needed to have a tangible effect on the wine. More and more scientific evidence is being used to disprove the relevance of decanting wine and with each blow the community against decanting your wine grows larger.