How to Decant – And Why It’s Not Just for Wine Snobs

shutterstock horizontal decanting

Decanting might seem like one of those fancy, inscrutable wine practices best left to “experts” (yes, those are meant as eyeroll-inducing air quotes), folks with big cellars full of crazy-expensive bottles. But it ain’t so.

Decanting is about what’s in the bottle, not the price tag on it. Decanting is something that anyone who wants to enjoy their wines to the fullest extent can and should learn about.

Before we plunge in, let’s get the basic definition out of the way: Decanting just means transferring a wine from the bottle it came in to another receptacle. Simple enough.

There are two main reasons you might – emphasize might – want to decant.

The first is to give a young wine air. Oxygen can have a powerful effect on wine, helping to soften tannins while also allowing hidden aromas to come to the fore in all their glory and complexity. Have you ever had a wine that you didn’t quite finish the first night, then found it tasted richer and smoother the next night? That’s the influence of oxygen.

That was an experience that Jon Thorsen, the excellent reviewer at the Reverse Wine Snob, had with our Protea Red Blend. He wrote:

The wine tastes really quite good with lots of dark fruit (blackberry and plum mainly), a bit of cola, some nice spice and just like the bottle says a touch of espresso. … It ends with spicy dark fruit and then lingering espresso notes. We found it to be even better on day 2 so be sure to give it plenty of air.

shutterstock vertical decantingNow that doesn’t mean that our Red Blend (or any other young red wine) has to be decanted. It’s really a matter of preference – and you don’t have to decide until you pour yourself a glass, swirl it, sniff it and taste it. If the aromatics aren’t quite matching the flavor you sense could be embedded in the wine, go ahead and decant it.

The great thing about decanting a young wine is, the whole point is to introduce air, so you don’t have to be particularly careful. Well, you don’t want to spill, but other than that, just empty the sucker into your decanter (which, honestly, could be a nice pitcher). And with the Protea Red Blend, since the bottle is so gorgeous, you can then pour it right back into the bottle (a funnel can help here).

The second rationale for decanting is quite different – it pertains to older wines.

Remember, wine is a natural product, fermented grape juice brimming with myriad microscopic natural constituents – proteins, pigments, tannin, etc. Over time, some of these little fellers latch onto each other and fall to the bottom of the bottle.

The noted wine blogger Alder Yarrow counts these “chunky bits” as a good sign, to be “celebrated and relished as a signifier” of the aging process. But not everyone is open to solids in their wine, so older wines are often decanted.

Because an older wine can already be well-evolved, and thus delicate, you want to do the decanting without introducing air. That makes this a much more delicate procedure, one laid out here by Master Sommelier David Glancy in this video:

Now, this is how a pro does it in a wine service situation, and you don’t really need to go to those lengths at home. But if you’ve got a nice old bottle of wine, taking the kind of care Glancy does to avoid disturbing the sediment, pouring the contents carefully, and keeping an eye out for the sediment will help ensure a good decanting – and imbibing – experience. Which is what we all deserve.

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