Wine 101: Decanting

Why you should let your best bottles breathe

 


After last week’s introductory Wine 101 email, I thought the logical next step would be tips on serving wine. Now, I know you’d all rather dive right in to the wine once it's open, but the truth is that there are several factors worth exploring to make sure you get the most out of your bottle.

There are three main points I will be covering in the next few installments: Decanting wine, the serving temperatures for different wine types, and how to select your wine glasses, each of which can have a major impact on how a wine shows. Unfortunately, even if you get everything right there are still a slew of things that can go wrong – over which we have sadly little say.

Since things like the quality of the cork (or alternate closure), barometric pressure, and winemaking faults are beyond our control, we might as well focus on what we can do to make each wine show us all its got!

Gregory Dal Piaz is a proponent and admirer of a broad range of wines and styles. During his decades of collecting and tasting he has discovered that a wine need not cost a fortune to drink well. Feel free to ask him questions at the Snooth Forums where he regularly engages with beginners and experts alike.
So, this is the point when I realize how much more there is to cover in an intro to serving wine. The first topic really should be on corks, alternate closures and corkscrews, but I think that one will have to wait awhile. I’m going to be including some videos (illustrating the use of the different types of corkscrews) while discussing the advantages and disadvantages of each, so look for that soon, but in the meantime, back to the topic at hand.

We'll start with decanting, since that’s the first thing you might want to do once you get the bottle open. Notice I said might -- I know what you really want to do, but just go with me on this one.

Decanting is simply pouring wine from the bottle into another container. There are two reasons to decant a wine: To separate the wine from any sediment it may have deposited,  or to expose the wine to more oxygen in order to get it to “open up” or become more expressive.

With older wines that have thrown significant sediment I almost always decant the wine, though I frequently do what is called a double decant, which simply means pouring the wine off the sediment, then rinsing the bottle clean before returning to the wine to its original bottle.

While this sounds like a lot of work for little gain, there are 2 good reasons for returning the wine to its original bottle. The first is so you know which wine is which. Sounds pretty obvious, I know, but the truth is if you’ve decanted several wines, and then consumed half of them, knowing what is where can get, shall we say, a little foggy!

The second reason to return the wine to its original bottle it to limit the amount of air a wine encounters. While allowing a wine to breathe can greatly enhance its perfumes, regulating the rate at which the wine breathes helps to make sure that the wine doesn’t give its all in a matter of minutes.

You’ll find that many
decanters are quite wide, providing for a large surface area that exposes the wine to a lot of oxygen. This is particularly good for quickening up the process that allows a young wine to breathe, but it’s not so good for older wines that also need oxygen, but at a much slower rate. The rather narrow and even sides of a wine bottle happen to be perfect for the slow oxygenation that allows older wines to slowly reach their apogee.

In fact, many wine geeks today swear by the slow oxygenation method of allowing a wine to breath for hours without decanting it.  The technique revolves around popping the cork on a bottle, then pouring off a bit of wine to help increase the surface area of wine exposed to air a bit, then letting the bottle sit and wait 6, 10, even 12 hours or longer.

I’m not entirely convinced by the slow oxygenation method, I think that, at times, one sacrifices some aromatic complexity for improvements in a wine’s texture as a result of the overuse of this method. After all, some of the fun of drinking wine is watching it open in the glass and transform from a hard, tough old bird into a majestic wine that soars.

Well, that’s my position, but the truth is there is no absolute right or wrong here. Whatever works for you is the right method, just take some time and play around with your options. You never know, you might be very pleasantly surprised!

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Comments

  • Snooth User: James69
    268854 2

    Hi There. I Really enjoyed The Tips On Decanting.
    Thanks Again. It Does Make A Big Differance In Most Wines. The Older Wine A Big Big Differance.

    Jun 09, 2010 at 1:21 PM


  • Snooth User: jviscomi
    34122 21

    I have definitely lost a couple of older bottles by decanting them. Older wines are fragile and if they are at or near the end of their drinking window decanting may do more harm than good.

    Jun 09, 2010 at 1:31 PM


  • Snooth User: anstett
    Hand of Snooth
    85299 896

    I have never decanted my wine for the simple reason that 95% of the time I am pouring off only one glass (or a second half glass) for my self to enjoy.

    Would decanting a bottle when I first open it help with drinking it a day or three later? Or will that time back in the bottle defeat the purpose of decanting?

    Jun 09, 2010 at 1:45 PM


  • Have you ever performed the Mollydooker shake? No, it's not some arcane Irish two step. Actually, it's Sparky Marquis' method for opening and oxygenating his Mollydooker wines (Australia). It's similar to decanting in that you open the bottle and pour off a small portion of the wine; recap...and using your left hand ("Mollydooker" in Australian) shake several times with the bottle inverted, and then reopen. A small amount of CO2 builds up inside from the agitation and forms a "head" in the top of the bottle. You can really taste the difference between your original pour of wine (pre-shaking) and the oxygenated pour (post shaking). I learned this from Sparky Marquis himself during a tasting last summer. Try it if you get a chance, you won't be disappointed. Cheers!

    Jun 09, 2010 at 2:08 PM



  • have you seen the gadget that you attach to a bottle to aerate? we did blind taste tests and proved it did enhance. Got it at Bed Bath and Beyond, but some local vineyards and wine stores have them.

    Jun 09, 2010 at 2:16 PM


  • Snooth User: Buffee
    305678 2

    I have the Venturi wine aerator and it really works. I was in a restaurant and the bar tender started to pour my glass of Merlot thru the Venturi. He then gave me another glass and poured straight in. I did a taste test and could not believe the difference. Not only in taste but smell. Needless to say I ran right out and bought one. I got mine at Bed Bath & Beyond, but alot of places carry it.

    It really is amazing!!!!

    Jun 09, 2010 at 2:35 PM


  • Snooth User: fashfoto
    122456 3

    The only time I decant wines is when I have a great wine (Petrus, Lafite Rothschild, Haut Brion) and (of course) there is a sediment.

    But, first, I let the bottle remain still (for several days or longer) so the sediment collects and is easy to spot over the light of a candle as I pour into a decanter.

    And, I store the wine at a proper temperature (about 12 degrees Celsius).

    For lesser wines (which is what I usually drink), I only decant to rid the grit that sediment would otherwise provide.

    As for aerating a wine, I think it's either a bit of nonsense or you have a far finer palette than I.

    Jun 09, 2010 at 2:38 PM


  • Snooth User: Buffee
    305678 2

    Well I have to say that I was not a believer until I actually tried it. I had my neighbors and friends try it as well and they were in agreement with me. If you ever have a chnace to try it, please do so and let me know what you think?

    Jun 09, 2010 at 2:51 PM


  • Snooth User: mikeakay
    205453 6

    Hi Greg,
    Question for you: I use an aerator with filter to pour each glass of wine from the bottle. Does this replace decanting or would decanting further enhance the wine? I have one for both red and white wines.

    Jun 09, 2010 at 2:58 PM


  • Snooth User: n2mjo
    462000 1

    Does the sediment give off a bad taste or is it just an undesirable look and or feel?

    If you uncork a bottle and let it breath for an hour or so Wouldn't you also loose some of the alcohol and its wonderful effects?

    I also would think that soap residue or even the local water supply or well water could affect taste on wine glasses and decanters.

    Its a crap shoot! Cheers

    Jun 09, 2010 at 3:06 PM


  • For older wines which have dropped a lot of sediment I use a paper coffee filter on top of the decanter and make note of the deposit in the filter when I have finished. This eliminates the bitterness which can result from drinking suspended tannic sediments which precipitate out during the aging process.

    I have a narrow decanter to pour the wine back into to prevent accelerated degeneration of older wines or wines which are at or near perfection.

    Jun 09, 2010 at 3:26 PM


  • Snooth User: jadenney
    342514 2

    I became a fan of decanting young wines from the years I spent learning about wines in CA. In my mind it is a must for a newly opened bottle of wine.
    There is a wonderful couple who review wines for the Wall Street Journal (I forget their names) that remarked on how much better younger, and cheaper, wines tasted after they had been open for several hours.
    For a person who just wants to pour a glass of wine at a time, the venturi aerators are perfect. If you are not going to finish a bottle in the same evening, do not decant as too much oxidation will occur and the wine will taste like it has been sitting for a month by the next day.

    Jun 09, 2010 at 4:10 PM


  • Snooth User: joeldi
    495667 10

    My wife received a Vinturi for her Birthday a few weeks ago. It is fantastic! We only use it the first day we open the bottle. Following days don't need it. It develops the wine into a full body and allows the bouquet to open up.

    Jun 09, 2010 at 5:23 PM


  • Snooth User: joeldi
    495667 10

    My wife received a Vinturi for her Birthday a few weeks ago. It is fantastic! We only use it the first day we open the bottle. Following days don't need it. It develops the wine into a full body and allows the bouquet to open up.

    Jun 09, 2010 at 5:23 PM


  • Snooth User: joeldi
    495667 10

    My wife received a Vinturi for her Birthday a few weeks ago. It is fantastic! We only use it the first day we open the bottle. Following days don't need it. It develops the wine into a full body and allows the bouquet to open up.

    Jun 09, 2010 at 5:24 PM


  • Snooth User: jamessulis
    Hand of Snooth
    426220 1,500

    Snoothers and Snoothims,

    I too am an avid fan of the wine aerator. I have the Metrokane Rabbit, it attaches to the bottle top and when poured, wine swirls around in a bulb type container and introduces air when tipped and poured. This unit retails for $30. I believe I purchased at at Macy's, or Target.
    The Venturi accomplishes the same thing but at a heftier price. Either one is fine. I did a taste test without then with, and the wine went from great to megawonderful. By employing one of these units you don't have to worry about spilling the precious liquid and staining your embroidered linen when decanting.
    Decanting always seemed like a Chemistry Experiment.

    Lefty - The Great Pacific Northwest

    Jun 09, 2010 at 6:57 PM


  • Snooth User: info210
    Hand of Snooth
    246412 5

    @Anstett - Decanting and then pouring back in to the bottle will allow oxygen to permeate the wine. Depending on the integrity of the wine (tannin, flavor, and structure) your wine may hold up 3 days when back in the bottle. If you're a glass a night person, I def recommend getting an argon gas to help preserve the wine, and even keep it in the fridge. (Vineyard Fresh is my preferred argon preserver).

    @Wanderlush Tim: Love the mention of the molly Dooker shake! They actually bottle with Nitrogen which is why they encourage you to do the shake - which is to get the nitrogen out of the mix. But I have seen winemakers do that with a young wine that needs some opening up. And surely Molly Dooker needs a lot of calming down - so shake it up!

    And what is most exciting is to hear that everyone is playing around with Decanting. As Gregory Dal Piaz wrote, there are a few simple things to make sure you get the most from your wine and money. Glasses, Temperature of wine (average 55-60F varietal dependent), and giving it the right amount of oxygen.

    If you are using an aerator, make sure you try the wine with and without the aerator - your palate will tell you which way you like it more, and that will always be right. And aerators are good for a glass-at-a-time drinker. Where as a shake or full decanter is a commitment that you can not always make.

    Enjoy

    Andrew
    @WineSoiree

    Jun 09, 2010 at 8:45 PM


  • Snooth User: sahunt
    344836 6

    We have a wine aerator by Decantus and we love it. It is quite dramatic the difference it makes in the taste of the wine.

    Jun 09, 2010 at 9:15 PM


  • Snooth User: sahunt
    344836 6

    We have a wine aerator by Decantus and we love it. It is quite dramatic the difference it makes in the taste of the wine.

    Jun 09, 2010 at 9:15 PM


  • Snooth User: ehguy11
    214073 25

    Great information in the article and comments. I've somehow 'collected' a few decanters, and I like to use them on good young wines. The double-decant method is a good idea for older wines like my CdP's. It makes sense. And I'm really looking forward to performing the Mollydooker shake! I have a bottle of Molly in the cellar!

    Jun 09, 2010 at 9:33 PM


  • Snooth User: trevor1
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    389762 18

    Hi I agree with@Anstett - Decanting and then pouring back in to the bottle will allow oxygen to permeate the wine. Depending on the integrity of the wine (tannin, flavor, and structure) your wine may hold up 3 days when back in the bottle. If you're a glass a night person, I def recommend getting an argon gas to help preserve the wine, and even keep it in the fridge. (Vineyard Fresh is my preferred argon preserver).

    All my wines when bottled the bottling plant uses argon in bottle first then pours the wine in and so the leftover gas at top is argon.

    In doing my wine appreciation certificate course decanting especially older wine was important to so as to remove sediment. Nothing worse than taking the last gulp from a glass and getting a mouthful of mud.

    In Australia most wines (I guess about 90% now) are Stelvin (screw cap).

    They are a perfect seal. Cork allows gas loss and hence slow oxidisation of the wine.

    Stelvin nothing comes out over time. This is a bonus but it forces us to dust off the decanter drag it out from the back of the cupboard and use it. Wines need to be aired to release the nasty gas and sulphur from the wine. The quickest way is to decanter making sure the wine splashes. You may then wash the bottle and return the wine to it if you require user presentation. Especially if there are a few wines on the table.

    By the way with stelvin wine is aged standing upright - hooray! we finally get the way it should be. the sludge at the bottom. Makes it so much easier to decant old wine.

    @Wanderlush Tim: Love the mention of the molly Dooker shake! They actually bottle with Nitrogen which is why they encourage you to do the shake - which is to get the nitrogen out of the mix. But I have seen winemakers do that with a young wine that needs some opening up. And surely Molly Dooker needs a lot of calming down - so shake it up!

    Molly dooker shake is silly since you just remixed the sludge at the bottom. (Good red wine should not be heavily filtered).

    Just decanter then you can shake.

    BTW the reason winemakers are shaking young wine is a test to check dissolved oxygen and testing for oxidisation.

    Pour half a glass, smell, taste then put your hand over the glass shake violently until frothy. Wait 10 seconds smell taste. If the wine shows no difference you as the wine owner start crying the wine has been wrecked during wine making.

    If there is a difference then the wine is good.

    To test a wines ability to absorb oxygen with age and that it responds well. A good test is open a young wine. Drink one glass. Put the cap back on leave in fridge. Next day take another glass out and taste. Repeat until the wine is bad. Each glass is one year. If it is still drinkable at the 5th glass (it may not taste fantastic) then you know that the wine will be ok in 5 years and will be a good drop.

    Cheers

    Jun 09, 2010 at 11:49 PM


  • I quite agree with the double decant method.for my experince the wine flavour gone very fast in a wild decanter.It's very good suggestion,thank you.

    Jun 10, 2010 at 1:03 AM


  • Snooth User: Kenner
    118554 32

    Many good points made, especially by Trevor1.
    Done the Mollydooker many times, not knowing it had a name. Once, at a commercial tasting I did it for a pourer whose wine was WAY too young. It showed much better after the shake.

    Which leads me to back to something I have been preaching for years: too much good red wine is drunk too early. As we all recognize, wine is a living thing, changing over time both in the bottle and in the glass. Catching it at its best moment is slippery, but part of the adventure and charm of wine is observing the wonder of this evoulution.

    The industry is such that most wine is released when storage space at the winery, or cash flow dictates, not when the wine is really ready. This means that if you don't have the capacity or patience to cellar your personal purchases, a Venturi, or other aeration scheme is very useful, especially for big, tannic (and often expensive) wines. Screwcaps make this even more neccessary, forcing the consumer to finish the aging process at the table. I prefer the longer, slower route, having several hundred bottles at home to choose from, at varying states of development. But that's me.

    Also, Trevor1, thanks for pointing out the inability of the sulfur compounds to escape the bottle with screwcaps. A little aeration cleans this up fairly easily. I read a paper about this a while ago, but most people are not aware of it. Thanks for the idea of shaking a half glass of new wine to gauge its aging potential. Never thouight of that trick.

    Finally, all this aeration/decanting discussion should be limited to reds, obvious, but it needed to be said.

    Jun 10, 2010 at 10:29 AM


  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 212,848

    @mikeakay

    I don't think the aerator truly replaced decanting. The interaction of oxygen within the wine is a relatively slow process. The aerator certainly helps to introduce oxygen into the wine but it need time to work its magic.

    Letting the aerated wine sit in your glass for 5-10 minutes should do the trick though, so there is some value in doing o, but decanting or aggressive splash decanting, which is just a fancy way of describing an aggressive pouring while decanting, should do just about the same thing.

    Jun 10, 2010 at 5:42 PM


  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 212,848

    @n2mjo

    It can be crap shoot but there are ways to better the odds.

    Sediment can make a wine taste a bit muddy and it sticks in your mouth in an unpleasant way, but hey my dad actually likes it so to each his or her own.

    As far as any soapy residue goes.I only wash my glasses and decanters with hot water and i "wine' them before use. Simply pour a little wine into the glass or decanter, cover the interior surfaces with that wine by twirling it around, then dump it.

    That really help set up yuor glassware for perfect service.

    Jun 10, 2010 at 5:45 PM


  • Snooth User: Kenner
    118554 32

    At most tastings and restaurants with a serious wine program either fresh glasses are used for each wine (cleaned in a dedicated washer with a double rinse), or rinsed with wine if they are not similar.
    Always smell the glass in a restaurant or at home before the bottle is poured to detect soap.
    Careful/gentle pouring from a high shouldered Bourdeax bottle usually stops most sediment thrown off by cabs and older cab blends.

    Jun 10, 2010 at 6:59 PM


  • Snooth User: Jenko
    230452 1

    Thanks very informative

    Jun 11, 2010 at 2:22 PM


  • I use an Oklahoma aerator - pour into an emptied (and rinsed, if you're fancy) Miller lite vortex bottle. Pour back into your wine bottle to impress your friends.

    Jun 14, 2010 at 4:11 PM


  • Snooth User: AndrewKy
    415389 8

    As a novice floundering in ignorance, does it make any sense for someone just having a couple of glasses from a bottle alone, to pour the wine from one receptacle to another a few times & then let sit for a while. Should this be accelerating the process also?

    Jun 15, 2010 at 4:34 AM


  • Snooth User: omarp7
    498393 6

    Love all the comments.

    I do have a question how ever. I am looking for a wine by St. Gabriel. It is a Riesling (Spatlese) MOSEL-SAAR-Ruwer. I do not know where I can purchase it. Can anyone help me?

    omarp7@yahoo.com

    Thank You

    Jun 15, 2010 at 12:45 PM


  • Snooth User: DanSun
    379087 1

    Good article, excellent comments. Learning.....

    Jun 17, 2010 at 1:45 AM


  • Snooth User: strofan23
    480607 45

    Thanks for the comedy, thistle! People can get very serious about their wine, but I find it's a very intriguing topic. I'm beginning to pay more attention to the temperature of my wine, and the glasses I use. I love the bordeaux glasses for almost any red wine.

    Gregory, I have read your article about glasses in the past, but do you have a particular favorite "universal" glass for reds, or do you recommend specific types for certain reds? Thanks in advance!

    Jul 28, 2010 at 7:37 PM


  • Snooth User: Tebinium
    596441 12

    My premise for decanting:

    Makes an average wine drinkable and a good wine better.

    With older, fragile wines I recommend pouring into another bottle or high thin decanter through unbleached coffee filter paper (make sure it is NOT glued paper but either the pressed edge/concertina or plain muslin (again not bleached). Don't decant back into the bottle. The less handling the better.

    Young, ready to drink wines definitely benefit from double decanting. It opens them up nicely and lifts the fruit right up.

    I someone commits the cardinal sin of opening a greatbut too young wine - such as <shudder> a 5ish year old Grange (I have seen it done - horrible) then decant the first time into the decanter - use a nice bowl or wide bottomed one and then swirl it gently - GENTLY!! Don't let it splash, don't let it bubble but get a nice even roll going. After a minute or two slow it down until it settles flat. Pour it in a swirl down the neck of the bottle. Make sure when it is poured that people let it sit in the glass for a while. It may then be somehwere near it's potential.

    Oct 01, 2010 at 2:53 AM


  • Snooth User: Calamus
    1121277 305

    I never decant an older bottle. A wine expert in Bordeaux told me "never be that violent with a great wine". Good advice I thought. From time to time I am happy to use the Vinturi on a young or inexpensive wine. I know there are lots of opinions about this, but it works for me with certain wines. Most of the time I prefer a slow decant or a double decant. It all depends on the wine and the day.

    Jul 24, 2012 at 2:00 PM


  • Snooth User: forro3df
    1164639 42

    Hi there, thanks for your very practical tips on decanting.

    Dec 03, 2012 at 7:14 AM


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