Any Downton Abbey fans here? Among the many trials and tribulations of the grand house and its residents, you might remember the butler Carson painstakingly pouring wine into a large glass vessel over a candle.
Well, he’s decanting the wine! Thankfully, these days there are much easier options for decanting, and you don’t have to do it by candlelight anymore.
But Carson was definitely on the right track – he was using the flame to see the sediment in the wine, so he could stop pouring when he got to the bottom of the bottle where the sediment sits.
This is one of the main benefits of a decanter – to separate the sediment from the liquid. No one wants a mouthful of grit when you're expecting delicious wine! Sediment is absolutely harmless, is just doesn’t taste good.
The other great benefit of decanting is flavour. You’ve probably heard people saying that “decanting allows the wine to breathe,” but what does this actually mean? In simple terms, it’s really just introducing the wine to oxygen in the air, or ‘aerating’ it. After being in an airtight glass bottle for so long, certain gases will have developed in the absence of oxygen. Allowing the wine to ‘breathe’ and come into contact with air can change and enhance the wine’s flavour. Most notably, it will soften the tannins and allow the flavours and aromas to open up.
Do all wines need decanting?
No! For the most part, highly tannic and full-bodied wines benefit most from decanting – wines such as shiraz, shiraz blends, cabernet sauvignon, and cabernet blends. These wines usually amass sediment while being cellared or stored, and their tannins and aromas tend to be tight. Decanting will help both of these things, making the wine far more pleasant to drink.
Mostly, white and rosé wines don’t need or benefit from decanting. For one, whites and rosés rarely form any sediment in the bottle. And second, the gases that develop in the bottle that aren’t ideal for red wines are actually beneficial for whites and pinks, giving them that moreish, acidic lift that we love. However, some higher-end whites that have been left to age and might be unpleasant straight from the bottle could benefit from a bit of aeration.
In reality, all wines get at least a couple of seconds of aeration when being poured from the bottle into your glass. And swirling the wine around in the glass before you drink it? You can think of that as sort of mini decanting, because you’re allowing the oxygen to come into contact with the wine. Most wines, be they red, white or pink, will benefit from these few seconds of breathing.
Top tip: It’s safe to say that a red wine will develop sediment after 5 to 10 years in the bottle, so even if you can’t see any sediment through the glass, you’ll want to decant it for a more pleasant drinking experience.
How long should I let my wine breathe?
You can decant your wine up to four hours before you plan on drinking it, but generally 30-40 minutes is a good time frame. However, it’s not as easy as setting a timer and walking away – decanting is meant to benefit the wine, so I suggest tasting the wine during its decanting time to see how the flavours and changing. It’s really up to you when you think it’s ready for serving.
If you’re curious, experiment for yourself with a couple of bottles of the same wine – one decanted and one not, or bottles decanted for different lengths of time – and see which you prefer.
Deciding on a decanter
There are so many decanters out there – tall, short, thin, wide, expensive, cheap, glass, crystal… how do you know which one to buy?
I found this gorgeous little art deco decanter at an antiques store recently, and I just HAD to buy it. I thought it was super unique and so pretty! Given it's smaller shape, I'll probably use it for light-bodied reds.
Put simply, any decanter will do the trick of introducing oxygen to the wine. As a rule of thumb, if you think a wine will take longer to decant (because it is fuller-bodied and higher in tannin) then go for a larger decanter. This means that more of the wine will come into contact with the air, allowing the wine to decant faster.
Overall, I suggest choosing a decanter you love. If it looks good and pours wine well, you’re more likely to keep it on display, use it and show it off to friends.
Top tip: A light red like pinot noir doesn’t necessarily need decanting, but if you fancy it, grab a small or medium-sized decanter and chill it first.
In the end, apart from decanting to remove sediment, it really is all about personal preferences. Rather than taking it too seriously, I think it’s fun to experiment with decanting all sorts of wines to see what happens – some you’ll like better with aeration, and others you won’t. And discovering that is part of the pleasure.
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