There is a lot about wine and wine service that remains a mystery to the average wine drinker. Wine professionals – sommeliers, waiters, store clerks, winemakers and more – sometimes do things to and with wine that may appear confusing or unnecessary. Sniffing corks, swirling and spitting wine, debating about “legs” and so on, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. At worst, this can appear needlessly snobby, and push ordinary wine lovers away altogether. We agree in large part, wine should be fun and accessible. A lot of these behaviours and rituals are simply not needed to you or I to enjoy a glass of red Bordeaux or Australian Chardonnay.
One ritual that is common in professional wine service and really should be more widely adopted by the average wine lover, is decanting wine.
What is a wine decanter?
There are many types of wine decanter available on the market. They range from functional and affordable to unnecessarily elaborate and exorbitant. We advocate that you get the best quality decanter that you can afford, but in you are stuck you can also use any other large, clear (preferably glass) receptacle. More important than the physical wine decanter itself is that you understand what decanting is, and why you should decant more wine more often.
Why use a wine decanter?
Decanting wine serves two functions:
- It separates the wine from its sediment. Sediment occurs naturally in wine over time, and is the result of component parts of the wine – namely colour pigments and tannin – bonding together into a solid and falling out of the liquid solution. The result is the unpleasant, though harmless, grainy sediment that you can find at the bottom of the bottle or glass. Carefully decanting will allow you to separate the sediment from the wine as you pour from the bottle into the wine decanter, leaving you with the pure wine and no nasty distractions.
- It lets the wine “breathe”. Decanting wine introduces a greater surface area of the wine to oxygen, and the interaction between the wine and oxygen allows the wine to “breathe”. Breathing, or aeration, allows the wine to “open up” and express deeper aromas and flavours. One word of caution: If you are pouring a particularly old wine into a wine decanter, only do so 20-30 minutes before the wine will be served, as very old wines are susceptible to become oxidized quickly, and will not taste very good at all.
Which wines need a wine decanter?
As a general rule of thumb, you should decant older red wines – though as mentioned, be careful with very old wines. Red wines that have had considerable ageing, such as Rioja Gran Reserva or fine Bordeaux, will have accumulated some sediment and will benefit from decanting. Try a Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial 2005 or Château Palmer 2000, and see for yourself. Younger reds will have considerably less sediment, though may respond better to decanting in order to breathe. Some white wines, including full-bodied Chardonnay wines, can benefit from the aeration too. Think along the lines of Lake’s Folly Chardonnay 2001 and experience firsthand the effects of decanting. Decanting can be a special occasion, so pick a special wine and try it for yourself.