By Gordon and Jean Leidner
To Decant or Not to Decant? That is the Question!
Actually, this question about decanting wine could be more appropriately asked about aerating wine. Is there a difference between decanting and aerating? Technically, there is. Although decanting does, in fact, aerate the wine, aerating does not necessarily decant. Intrigued? Read on.
Purpose of Decanting
For centuries, a wine decanter was primarily used for the purpose of minimizing the sediment that ended up in the wine glass. By letting wine sit for an hour or two in a wide-bottom decanter, the sediment would settle to the bottom, and thanks to the shape of the decanter, be less likely to end up in the wine glass after pouring.
Today, thanks to better aging and refining techniques, relatively few wines need to be poured from a decanter for this purpose. The exception would be red wine that has been aged eight to ten years or more.
A much more common use for decanters today is to aerate the wine—allowing it to “breathe.” Simply uncorking a bottle of wine and letting it sit for a bit will not sufficiently aerate wine. More of the wine needs to mingle with air. A decanter is the perfect solution. Its shape, rounded at the bottom with an open mouth, allows a large surface area for wine and air to mix.
Other Aerating Methods
There are two other methods for aerating wine. One is to pour the wine through an aerator, a gadget that forces air through the wine as it is being poured. A second and much simpler method is to swirl the wine in the glass before drinking.
However, the subject of aerating wine is a controversial one among oenologists and sommeliers and other people that are supposed to know about stuff like that. Proponents of aerating wine say that it enhances the wine’s aroma and reduces the harshness, or puckery mouth-feel, caused by tannins. They encourage you to let it sit for an hour or more.
Opponents claim that it actually dissipates the wine’s aroma, and only gives the perception of softer tannins. They say all you need to do for aeration is to swirl the glass.
What are We to Believe?
One thing that most people agree on is that some degree of aeration is beneficial. Young wines, particularly full-bodied reds with higher tannins (think Cabernet Sauvignon, Italian Borolo, French Bordeaux, or Zinfandel) probably benefit the most from aeration. Whether the tannins are actually reduced by aeration, or are only perceived to be reduced, is of little consequence. The important thing is that the more tannic wines can be “smoothed” by decanting.
Be Your Own Judge
You can determine for yourself whether the nose of the wine or the harshness of the tannins is improved by aeration. When you first pour the wine into the decanter, take a good whiff. Better yet, pour it into a glass, swirl, sniff, and sip. Repeat. Take note of what you smell and taste.
Let the decanter sit for fifteen minutes and repeat the process. Do it again in half an hour. Again, in an hour. Compare notes between tasting. Did the wine soften over time? At what point did it have the fullest flavor and aroma? Was there a point at which the flavor profiles seemed to fade? You be the judge!
Keep in mind that aeration will not have the same effect on all varietals and vintages of wine. Some of the more delicate wines such as Chianti or especially Pinot Noir can lose their aroma quickly from too much aeration. We’ve found that we prefer Pinot Noir straight out of the bottle!
Experimenting with aeration is part of the fun of drinking wine. So whether you use a decanter, a fancy wine aerator, or simply swirl a lot—raise a glass and enjoy!
Gordon and Jean Leidner have been wine enthusiasts for years. They enjoy visiting wineries, hosting wine parties, and have even dabbled in making wine from kits. Gordon has been a history buff for most of his life, and blogs at his website Great American History.