It’s Saturday night and you’ve got the perfect dinner party planned. Table is set, food is ready, the dog is calm. But when the first guests ring the doorbell you realize that the wine isn’t open. But is this a bad thing?
Let’s get over the elephant in the room (who invited him?)—decanting wine doesn’t have to be a mystery. We hear from some people that they don’t get the “ritual” while other people ask if they need fancy devices like they witnessed at the steakhouse.
“Do I need to decant my wine?”—it’s a question our staff gets all the time.
Think of decanting like brining a turkey or making your own stock. These are tricks of the trade that may enhance enjoyment of the final flavors, but if you don’t do it, it won’t be the end of the world. And there are some instances where you won’t need to decant at all, so don’t sweat it!
Decanting can be done with any vessel, from a vase to a Pyrex to a water pitcher. You just need something that provides plenty of room, won’t leak, and is very clean.
There are two main reasons that people decant wine. We’ll break these out here and provide a few tips and some background. If you want to know how to do it, check out this article and video from our San Francisco team, which will walk you through the steps.
Decant wine when you think it needs to breathe
Breathe is a way to say that wine could use more oxygen exposure. It’s not a secret that the air around us contains O2—21% of it is oxygen, in fact. When wine comes in contact with oxygen it undergoes a chemical reaction. When a bottle is first popped, people say that it needs to open up, by getting some air. Thus begins the swirling, and in some cases, the decanting. Swirling and decanting allow for more of the wine to come in contact with the air, and this will bring out the aromatics and flavors more quickly than if it were left in the bottle, even if the cork is removed.
So how do you know if a wine needs to breathe, open up, aerate, be decanted? There are some rules of thumb. Bold, tannic, young red wines, such as recent vintages of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux blends, Nebbiolo from Barolo or Barbaresco, or Northern Rhone reds will often benefit from time to breathe, somewhere around 60 minutes by most accounts. Young but lighter bodied reds, such as Red Burgundy and Beaujolais Gamay are next in line. These may benefit from a half hour or so of decanting, or you could also swirl them generously.
When in doubt, look up the wine to find a little bit more about it or the varietal, or consult your local wine shop for their opinion.
Most white wines, rosé, and sparkling wines don’t need much if any aeration, but if you’re drinking full-bodied whites like Viognier or oaked Chardonnay, a short decant can enhance aromatics. Wines that open up with a whiff of sulfur (a scent like rotten eggs) can be off-putting, but don’t worry. This often comes from a reductive—or oxygen limited—winemaking style. If you pick up this scent, try decanting for 20-30 minutes or swirling like crazy. Often these notes will evaporate.
Older wines generally don’t need any extra air, because they can be more delicate and exposure to oxygen can quickly deplete the aromatics and flavor personality. An easy rule of thumb: the more vibrant the wine’s color is, the more “life” that it still holds. If the wine is leaning towards brown or orange stains, it could be more fragile and air will only accelerate that. But there is another reason why old wines are decanted…
Decant wine when you think the bottle has sediment
What is sediment in wine? One form is tartrate crystals—also known as wine diamonds. Sometimes you’ll see these attached to the cork. But most people think of sediment as the bits of organic matter, including lees and cluster material, that weren’t filtered out of the wine or that developed over time. This has a consistency similar to coffee grounds and will settle in the bottle or side of the bottle, depending on how it was stored.
Certain wines are more likely to have sediment. Wines that aren’t fined or filtered could be a bit cloudy and have material left in the bottom of the bottle. This is due to the winemaking style, indicative of lower intervention in the cellar. Aging wines can also develop sediment over time, so bottles about a decade past their vintage and beyond may have sediment that wasn’t there during younger years. So, decant to remove the grit, but be aware that too much air could degrade a delicate older wine.
Decanting wine isn’t always necessary
Remember that many wines won’t have sediment, particularly younger wines and wines that have been filtered. Sparkling wine made in the traditional method generally goes through a disgorging process that removes lees material, another instance where there probably won’t be a need to decant. Crisp whites and fresh rosé aren’t typically decanted either—pop and enjoy!
Decanting probably isn’t a great idea if you just want to drink a glass or two. And sometimes we choose not to decant, preferring to let the bottle play out over the course of the evening, as air and room temp set off an evolution.
What does decanted wine taste like, does it actually taste different?
To bring all of this back to reality a bit, let’s frame an example. You’ve got a full bodied red that’s just a few years old—when you pop this open the tannins could be particularly firm. This might read as dryness and texture on the tongue, a lingering astringency that could be more obvious than the fruit or mineral notes. After about an hour in the decanter, the fruit may taste more saturated, and the aromatics might jump out of the glass.
Either way, the wine is showing off its desired aspects, but one experience might interest you more than the other. The spectrum isn’t ever set in stone, and some vintages, producers, or blends might show up differently than their counterparts. One winemaker might make a wine or varietal that you think might typically need decanting, but in a fresher, earlier drinking style, ready to drink right out of the bottle. Trust yourself, and your personal tastes, to have just enough knowledge to make a decanting decision without stressing out if something else distracts you—like guests at the door. Especially if they’ve brought wine with them!