There’s nothing like a polarizing topic to get wine geeks worked into a lather, and few topics are as polarizing as decanting. Ask how to decant and the answer is simple, but ask whether to decant and you’re in for an earful. I’m all for a good wine rant, but I believe the controversy stems from a confusion of terms.
There are two reasons to pour a wine out of its bottle before drinking it. In young wines, pouring before drinking serves to aerate the wine, or to “let it breathe.” In older wines, pouring before drinking serves to separate the wine from its sediment. So, while many people call both practices “decanting,” more accurately, the first should be called “aerating” and the second, “decanting.”
The majority of wines sold are thoroughly clarified and meant for immediate consumption with no need for decanting. Aerating, on the other hand, benefits many young wines, red or white, that are tightly wound and uncooperative right out of the bottle. Think of it as gently waking your moody, snoring teenager.
The simplest way to aerate is to pour the wine into another vessel, let it sit (anywhere from an hour or two for a macho 2008 California Cab, up to 24 hours for an intrepid 2005 Bordeaux), and then pour it back into the bottle. Pour quickly and with flair as the sloshing act will expose the wine to oxygen, soothing the wine’s temper and rendering it more expressive. Several bottle-top aerators exist with nightclub-sounding names—Soiree, Vinturi, Nuance —that accelerate the process for less patient drinkers.
In vintage port and red wines at least a decade old that were deeply colored in their youth, sediment is inevitable and decanting is recommended for getting the most out of these wines. Sediment (color and tannin molecules that form longer and longer molecule chains over time until they are so heavy that they drop out of the once-suspended solution) won’t hurt you, but it’s gritty and doesn’t look or taste very nice.
Proper decanting takes some planning, but if you’ve waited 10-plus years to drink a wine, you can wait another day. Start by standing the bottle upright for at least 24 hours to let the sediment sink to the bottom of the bottle. When ready to decant, handle the bottle gingerly to avoid disturbing the sediment, pour slowly into a clean receptacle until the sediment reaches the neck, stop pouring, and discard the dregs—or use them in gravy.
In general, the younger and sturdier the wine (i.e., seven-year-old Brunello di Montalcino), the longer it should stay in the decanter, while older wines and those from more delicate grape varieties (i.e., 15-year-old Pinot Noir from Burgundy) should usually be served immediately after decanting. There is no return after rapidly exposing a wine to air, so if you taste your wine in waiting and decide that it has peaked, start chugging straight from the decanter, lest you miss out on fruit you’ve been nurturing for over a decade.
With all of this said, my favorite way to decant and aerate wine is still the easiest of all: linger over it in your glass and revel in its sojourn from crotchety curmudgeon to smooth-talking gentleman. Fact is, we all do better with a little room to breathe.