How often do we get asked whether we would like to decant our wines at a restaurant? Not often enough!
I am a firm believer that decanting wine can indeed improve the wine-experience. Decanting wine is simply the ‘art’ of slowly pouring wine from one vessel into another. We call it ‘art’ because in many cases one must pour the wine without disturbing the sediment that accumulated at the bottom of the bottle, to avoid clouding the rest of the wine.
There are generally two reasons to decant your wine.
1. In older, more mature wines, sediment often accumulates at the bottom of the wine bottle. The sediment is nothing more than insoluble tartrates, phenolic polymers and clarification compounds that settle to the bottom of the bottle over a period of time. This sediment, which in no way means that the wine is bad, can cloud the wine or worse still give a ‘sandy’ texture to the wine and spoil and otherwise beautiful experience. By slowly pouring the wine from the bottle into a decanter, whilst leaving the sediment in the bottle avoids this issue.
2. When wines spend a long time in a bottle without oxygen exposure, aeration is needed to wake up all the dormant flavours and aromas, by releasing accumulated gases and softening the tannins. Sometimes wines that have an aroma of rotten-eggs or canned vegetables which are volatile compounds that usually disappear after decanting for some time. However, keep in mind that in especially mature wines, long exposure to air can ruin a wine, so best to limit the exposure and taste the wine periodically to avoid spoiling.
How long should I decant my wine?
Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast rule to length of decanting, however a general rule of thumb is that very young wines often need longer exposure to soften the tannins and release the flavours that give the wine complexity. Extremely young wines can frequently benefit from decanting for an hour or two before drinking, however keep in mind that too long an exposure on especially older wines, can spoil the flavours and it is usually recommended to taste the wine at regular intervals to see how it is progressing in the decanter.
How to decant your wine
Decanting wine is not difficult affair but does require some time and a little patience.
If the wine is mature or relatively old (therefore with sediment) start by leaving your bottle upright for at least 24 hours before decanting, especially if you store your wines horizontally. This will make sure that all the sediment settles at the bottom of the bottle before opening it.
· Open the bottle and remove the cork/screwcap
· Slowly tilt the bottle toward the decanter. Always keep the bottom of the bottle low to keep the sediment from reaching the neck and avoid disturbing the sediment.
· Pour the wine into the decanter slowly and steadily. If the sediment starts reaching the top, stop pouring and tilt the bottle upright to let it settle down again. Sometimes, classy restaurants place a candle under the bottle so that the sommelier can see the sediment and avoid tipping the sediment into the decanter
· To avoid pouring sediment into the decanter, always leave a bit of liquid in the bottle (usually with the sediment)
Though you can decant your wine a couple of hours before you plan to drink it, bear in mind that each wine has different decanting times.
Which wines should you decant?
I believe almost all wines can benefit from some decanting, in the same way that all wines benefit from the ‘swirling’ in our glass to aerate the wine before drinking. Younger red wines tend to need some time to soften the tannins, release the right compounds and perform better. Usually between 20 minutes up to a 1 hour 30 minutes. Lighter wines such as Gamay (Beaujolais), Pinot Noir or Grenache can benefit from decanting up to 30 minutes, whereas medium bodied wines such as Merlot, Tempranillo or Cabernet Franc may require up to an hour decanting and full-bodied wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Nebbiolo may require between 1 hour and 2 hours to really get the best experience from the bottle.
Most white wines and rosés do not really require much decanting, however if strange rotten-egg or sulphur and garlic smells emerge from the bottle, decanting may solve the problem. For fuller bodied, oak-aged wines decanting up to 30 minutes can often also benefit the wines and add tot eh experience. Champagne and sparkling wines are not usually decanted, but I have been served a vintage Veuve Clicquot from decanter, when dining at Veuve Clicquot themselves. Due the vintage being young, it benefitted from a bit of decanting to release the best flavours from the bottle – it was wonderful!
Note: Personal preference
Since the enjoyment of wine is a very personal affair, you may come across many different and opposing views on decanting times and to simply shrug everyone else’s opinion is plain silly in eyes. My suggestion is to see what works for you. It's true that tasting your wine at different intervals requires patience (and plenty time) but enjoy the journey, have fun in the process and take note of the how you enjoy the progress - wine is meant to be fun!