Even though the crystal swan-shaped vessel might seem like an expensive snobbish toy, the truth is that decanter has a vital role in drinking wine ceremony. So important, in fact, that many sommeliers recommend decanting everything before it hits a wine glass – from young reds to sparkling Champagne. Others disagree, however, claiming only certain types of wine benefit from such mediated pouring and that all others might even get disturbed by the process.
To get to the bottom of the controversy behind using a decanter, we’ll answer all questions concerning the art of wine pouring and, eventually, reach a conclusion you’ll certainly embrace with joy.
What Is The Purpose of a Decanter?
A decanter is basically a vessel, usually made of glass or crystal, used to prepare wine before serving. Its primary purpose is double fold: to aerate wine that was trapped without oxygen for some time and purify the drink from sediments weighted at the bottom of the bottle. To understand how a decanter works, we need to understand the chemistry of a sealed wine bottle. Namely, when wine ages in an airtight environment, quite a few things happen that affect the final product’s overall flavor, texture, and aroma.
First, tannin molecules form into long chains, which makes them heavier and causes them to fall at the bottle’s bottom. Second, in the absence of air, molecules synthesize into volatile compounds, such as hydrogen sulfide (H2S) and carbon dioxide (CO2), leaving you with a wine that may have a “reduced” bouquet.
To be entirely clear, none of these naturally occurring processes produces dangerous chemicals. On the other hand, they can give your sip an unpleasant sensation: tannins make your wine “dry,” hydrogen sulfide pinches your nose with sulfur smell and causes a “reduced” aroma, while entrapped gases tend to yield very concentrated and compressed flavor, usually described as “bitter.”
The whole purpose of a decanter is to have all unpalatable sensations disappear through direct contact with oxygen.
When wine is poured in a transparent vessel with a wide base, the surface area of liquids in contact with air is larger. And this is when the magic begins: air softens tannins, tempers the flavors, lets the undesirable gases escape, and awakens the dormant aromas. Also, the sediment is not allowed to enter the decanter, leaving you with a transparent and pure texture.
The wine is “awakened,” as oenologists like to say. It now breathes and can enter your glass with its full bouquet.
In a word, decanting wine makes a whole lot of difference.
How to Properly Decant Wine?
Sommeliers aren’t the only ones who know how to use a decanter. The process is fairly simple, in fact, with just a few simple steps to keep in mind.
The first thing you need to know is that, paradoxically, the decanting process doesn’t actually start in a decanter. Before anything else, you need to place the bottle in a standing position for 12 to 16 hours. This will allow sediment to rest tightly at the bottom and purify the liquid from any remaining particles. If you’re in a hurry, do note that even an hour is better than nothing. The wine needs some time to settle.
Upon uncorking the bottle, there are two basic kinds of decanting you can do, each suitable for different types of wine:
- Shock decanting (also known as “quick splash”)
As the name implies, shock decanting is a much faster form of preparing wine for tasting. The method is traditionally used for young red wines, which had less than two years to mature and form all the undesirable components we mentioned.
In essence, shock decanting means vigorously exposing the wine to oxygen, which will allow for just the right amount of aeration and “quick splashes” of bathing in the open air.
It’s wine’s way of doing a quick exercise upon opening the eyes, so to say.
To perform shock decanting correctly, you need to place the bottle above the decanter vertically upside down to almost form a 180-degree angle. The gravity will “free up” the wine rapidly, causing it to gush forth, swish, swirl, and “engulf” air in the process.
Obviously, shock decanting will not isolate the sediment, but young wines didn’t have time to form enough of it anyway.
- Regular decanting
Regular decanting is what we all think of when we imagine traditional wine serving ceremonies. It entails pouring wine at a steady pace by holding the bottle below the angle of 45 degrees, all the while carefully watching not to allow any sediment in. Sommeliers in restaurants usually do this at the light of a candle, but any light source will do. The point is to notice when deposited tannins start kicking in and prevent them from entering the decanter by reverting the bottle in a vertical position.
As you may assume, regular decanting is reserved for aged wines, and it should be done gently so as not to disturb their structure, texture, and color.
Which Wines Should be Decanted?
Like we mentioned earlier, even oenologists and sommeliers don’t have a definite answer to this question. Some say – decant every wine out there, others – glass aeration is a way better choice, as it will not disturb the wine’s profile.
In a word, there isn’t an ironclad rule here. But there are a couple of best practices, though.
The most prominent candidate for decanting is a full-body matured red – it needs to have its tannin structure mellowed, sediment isolated, and purified from volatile compounds.
There are a few exceptions, though.
Decanting shouldn’t always be your first choice, even if you are going to serve red wine. Some wine types with delicate profiles are probably better off without any disturbance before pouring, as this might agitate their flavor structure.
A typical example is Burgundy, for which most sommeliers agree shouldn’t go anywhere near a decanter.
Generally, common practice is not to decant wines that have matured for more than 15 years.
Another widely accepted method for recognizing which wines need decanting is taking the vinification into account. If wine was subjected to a lot of oxygen before bottling, it would most likely respond well to it in the after-bottle life.
A somewhat extreme example of this is Portuguese Madeira, produced by heavy exposure to both heat and oxygen and requires one day of decanting for each decade it has spent aging.
As we’ve mentioned earlier, decanting times vary according to the type of wine and a connoisseur you’re talking to.
The majority of them will, however, recommend 20-30 minutes for light-bodied reds, such as Pinot Noir or Schiava; anywhere from 30-60 minutes for medium-bodied reds, such as Zinfandel and Merlot; and more than 60 minutes for full-bodied red wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo, and Petite Sirah.
For the most part, white wines and rosés do not require decanting and can even be damaged in the process. If left longer than 10-15 minutes in a decanter, whites will start to lose their vibrant freshness and fruity aromas.
The only time you want to aerate a white wine is if it’s “reduced,” that is – if it has one too many sulfides and carbon dioxide in it. This will cause a “funny” smell that overpowers the fruity scents, and it’s typically described as “rotten eggs” or “burnt match” odor.
Although reduced whites’ “perfume” can pinch you in the nose, it will quickly fade away after spending some 15 minutes aerating.
When it comes to sparkling wine, the debate between connoisseurs steams up.
While some claim that decanters can do irreparable damage to those fine bubbles, others feel even sparkling wine benefit from quick decanting (not more than 15 minutes) because it can soften their harshness.
Obviously, the rule isn’t written in stone. While at Champagne, to each his own.
What Are The Types of Decanters?
There are two basic types of decanters: those made of glass and those made of crystal. In addition, both of them can come in many different shapes: swan, duck, cornett, or standard – with a wide base and a bottle-like appearance.
As if that weren’t enough to torture you while choosing the right for your needs, decanters also come in three standardized sizes: small, medium, and large.
So, which one of those should you choose? Here’s some helpful guidance.
Crystal vs. Glass Decanters
When it comes to choosing a suitable material, you should know two things. One, crystal is more durable, but it should be handled with caution. Two, glass is a more suitable option for everyday use.
Let’s talk crystal. Although decanters made of it are thinner, they are, in fact, more durable and sturdy. Also, many wine enjoyers will tell you that nothing can replace its beautiful transparency and light feeling in the hand.
But there are cons to it as well. Because crystal is porous, the products made of it are often labeled as dishwasher unfriendly. Crystal decanters should only be soaked in warm water and cleaned with specialized cleaning equipment – decanter cleaning beads.
Then there are safety concerns around the lead crystal. Namely, lead crystals are also porous and can release harmful particles that accumulate in your body over time. Although some claim this isn’t enough to cause any damage to your health, it’s best recommended to avoid lead crystal altogether and opt for safer replacements.
As for glass decanters and their advantages, note three things: dishwasher-friendly, safe, and affordable. In other words, if you are looking for something to fit perfectly on your everyday dinner table, go for glass.
The Right Shape
As many connoisseurs know, enjoying wine is not just about flavors and aromas overwhelming your senses. It’s also about aesthetics. The ultimate drinking ceremony puts an accent on details that are pleasing to the eye as well. And that’s when swan decanters, as the most popular in this category, come in.
There’s isn’t much to say here. They are simply mesmerizing.
The only advice is to think about cleaning issues before buying one. If you use it on special occasions only, you can afford its maintenance. But beware of everyday usage – that swan’s long and elegant neck will start to appear less attractive in your hands.
The Right Size
Tell me what you drink, and I’ll tell you the size of the decanter you should choose.
If you enjoy whites, rosés, and light-bodied reds – you need a small decanter that doesn’t allow great oxygen exposure.
If you are a Merlot person, do for middle-sized decanters, which are ideal for medium-bodied wines.
But if full-bodied reds are your passion (think Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, or Monastrell), opt for large decanters with a broad base, as they will enable a large surface area to come in contact with oxygen.
Here’s to Decanters: Leave The Rules Behind And Test With Joy
If you’ve landed on this page to introduce yourself to the art of decanting wine, you probably feel a bit overwhelmed by all the oxygen, swan shapes, and sommeliers’ rules.
Don’t worry about all that, though.
At the end of the day, these pieces of beautiful glassware are “just” there to bring joy and pleasure in drinking wine. Their alchemy should be tasted gradually, sip by sip. Once you find the perfect match to your taste, you’ve decanted wine successfully.
If you look at them like this – decanters are definitely worth it.