hen it comes to serving wine, there is nothing sexier than decanting. The pop of the cork, followed by the glug, glug, glug as you expertly pour the wine into a crystal decanter. Ruby rivulets streak the sides and splashes into the container. Then a deft and swift swirl and allow the wine to rest for sometimes hours – but why?
Why do you, should you and how do you decant wine?
Why do you decant wine?
Wine is a living and breathing substance (unless it has been mass-produced and sterilized) and needs to “breathe” to fully express its true potential. Freshly opened wine will often taste tight or reserved with minimal aromas and sometimes a bit of funk. Decanting is a process of “opening” a wine up, letting it smooth and relax while building anticipation of the drinker.
And to prove this, we invite you to perform a little experiment that we teach in The Zen Steps of Winetasting and covered in detail both The Zen Winemaker: Follow Your Passion, Overcome Your Fears book and The Zen Wine Tasting Journal: Life is too short to drink bad wine, or to wear ugly underwear that we published. Both are highly recommended for the beginner through the master wine drinker.
The Decanting Experiment
For this experiment, you need 3 things: an unopened bottle of wine, a clean glass, and a desire to learn. (ABL – always be learning). To make sure your glass is dry clean, give it a quick smell – you should not smell anything.
Open the bottle as gently as possible and pour 1-2 ounces of wine into your glass without splashing and set the glass on the table. Don’t touch it, swirl it, stare at it, or disturb it in any way. Gently pick up your glass and give it a quick smell and note the aromas and intensity of the nose. Try to pick out the fruits, minerality, oak, herbal qualities as best you can. Don’t worry if you don’t smell a whole lot, this is normal for a freshly opened bottle.
Give it a quick second sniff to confirm the first impression and vigorously swirl the glass. I find it helpful to place the glass on a smooth surface and place one finger on each side of the stem on the base and rotate in a small circular motion. Do this for 5-10 seconds and then immediately smell the wine and note the aromas and intensity? Did it change or stay the same? This is the effect of decanting. If there was no change, then this wine would not benefit from any further decanting. However, on many wines, the aromas will be more pronounced, pleasant, and identifiable after swirling.
Now comes the geeky part. Gently place your hand over the mouth of the glass and swirl for 5-10 seconds and immediately perceive the aromas. By doing this, you are trapping and concentrating the aromas which should be deeper, more pronounced, and richer.
Step 1 represents pouring a fresh glass of wine and drinking it. Step 2 represents decanting for 20 minutes to an hour. Step 3 represents decanting for 2-6 hours. Pick which one you like and decant for that period (sampling occasionally just to make sure).
Note: if you decant your wines but are not ready to drink them, simply place it back in the bottle and cork it until you are ready.
How to Decant Wines
Now you have a solid understanding of the effects of decanting and have a good idea how long if any, a wine should be decanted – how do you do it?
The traditional method is to use a quality crystal decanter that can be sourced for about $35. Make sure you rinse it immediately (no soap) after use and let it air dry upside down to prevent mineral buildup and mineral stains.
Decanting Wine on a Budget (or in a pinch)
- Swirl – pour a glass and swirl, swirl, swirl, and then you might have to keep swirling.
- Glass to Glass or Bottle to Bottle – pour the contents of one container to the next, repeat as needed – note, you might need a funnel to keep the mess down.
- Shake – pour one glass of wine out of the bottle, temporarily replace the closure and shake, shake, shake the bottle for 15 seconds to minutes, and return the poured glass.
Decanting Wine Conclusions
Some wines improve with decanting and others don’t. It is always recommended to use the experiment above to determine if it does or not. Here are some general guidelines:
- Sparkling wines are NEVER decanted nor swirled.
- Inexpensive white wines generally don’t need to be decanted.
- Youthful fruit-driven wines often only need a touch of swirling or decanting.
- Mature fuller-bodied reds often improve the most with decanting up to many hours.
- Expensive and older full-bodied wines generally greatly improve and allow for the removal of any sediment that may have formed.
Have fun experimenting with different methods and wines and soon you will get the knack of it. But realize sometimes ‘You just decant wait for a glass.’