Decanters and When to Decant a Wine

(Originally published August 2002)

Hanes suffers from sporadic paroxysms of inadequacy and indecision, second-guessing nearly every choice or act. Should he have bought that Saint-Julien or this Meursault? Should he have waited another two years to open that massive Australian Shiraz? Should he or should he not apply for the "Lifetime Achievement" award at the Betty Ford Clinic?

The latest crisis in Hanes's life involves his decanters. Hanes owns two crystal decanters that have been in the family for generations. They are OK, pretty if you like cut crystal, and functional enough. But lately he has been worrying that they are the wrong shape for maximizing the decanting process. Never mind the stress of schlepping expensive decanters filled with wine around Manhattan to fancy dinners with other wine geeks. Should Hanes buy new decanters? If so, why?

First, one needs to decide why one would decant wine to begin with. The basic two reasons are to remove sediment deposit from older wines and to allow young wines to "breathe" and begin the aeration process which will improve the wine's bouquet, overall complexity and accelerate the softening of astringent tannins and other rough edges. In many respects, the process of sediment formation in older wines is the "softening" of the wine one tries to replicate by decanting younger wines. The presence of sediment is an innocent thing, usually not a sign to be worried about the wine's quality or condition.

As many red wines age sediment forms in the bottle. Contemporary filtration techniques have eliminated a lot of this messy goo but there remain many winemakers who feel unfiltered wines are the best, making the potential presence of sediment an ongoing concern. Sediment can be composed of dead yeast cells, tartrates, phenolic polymers, bits of grape skins, or that Snickers wrapper that fell into the fermentation tank. This sediment can first cloudy the wine, the tiny particles making it less visually appealing. Second, it can ruin those suave moments when you toast a special occasion, lower your glass to smile, and reveal to all chunks of black goo stuck between your teeth (if they don't get stuck in your throat and make you hack a lung). So, it makes sense to remove the sediment.

This process is extremely well documented. First, the bottle needs to be stood upright for 24-48 hours to ensure all the sediment has sunk to the bottom of the bottle (really, any wine of more than eight years of age should be stood upright for some time before consuming regardless of whether or not one decants -- just in case!). You then remove the foil and cork with hopefully a minimum of difficulty or disturbance. Then slowly tilt the bottle and begin pouring the wine into the decanter. Most folks recommend using a candle or flashlight to illuminate the bottle neck to check when the sediment is close to being poured out (note that flashlights don't smell as badly as an extinguished candle). Obviously, stop pouring before the sediment-tainted wine begins to enter the decanter. Don't be cheap and think you can get a little more wine out of the bottle.

If you have the shakes, are very afraid of getting sediment into the decanter, or are very cheap you can also pour the wine through cheesecloth, a cotton tightly woven mesh and lint free material, as it enters the decanter. Hanes had always felt cheesecloth was some urban myth until he actually saw some in a Bed, Bath & Beyond and had to buy it (nine square feet for only $3.99!). This will not effect the wine and should catch finer bits of sediment.

So, what older wines deserve decanting? That, mein Freund, is the big question. The case can be made for Bordeaux, any Cabernet Sauvignon-based wine, Syrah/Shiraz-based wines or big Italian wines like Barolo, Barbaresco or Brunello. The main problems are in determining how far in advance one should decant (hours before or right before serving) or whether or not to decant at all. While decanting will remove sediment you run the risk of exposing more fragile wines to oxidation too swiftly, causing the wine to deteriorate before it can be properly swilled. For example, Hanes has had very old red Burgundy wines that were stunning for half an hour after opening and then fell apart horribly, this occurring without decanting. Decanting these wines would have ruined the entire experience. As a result, Hanes counsels that one err to the side of caution and if the decision has been made to decant, do it right before consuming.

Older red dessert wines such as aged Port, Banyuls or Recioto may throw a lot of sediment and almost always require decanting. Thankfully, they are also sturdier and less likely to suffer from aeration. These wines might also benefit from using a filter such as cheesecloth.

The process used for decanting older wines can more or less be discarded with young wines. Not too many young wines suffer from the presence of sediment so the goal is to speed up the oxygenation process as much as possible to tame the tannins, help the wine open and strut its best stuff. Towards this end the goal is to "splash" as much of the wine again the inside of the decanter while pouring, agitating the wine as much as possible without spilling it outside the decanter. With young wines Hanes has experienced positive effects with wines decanted 24 hours before consuming. One also sees a wine being poured repeatedly between two decanters to speed up the process. Hanes has even on occasion witnessed violent shaking of the decanter to get the puppy moving in the right direction. Anything for the best effect!

The red wines that throw sediment listed above are also the likeliest suspects for decanting while young. In addition to these you can add other such as young high end Italian Sangiovese wines and some especially tannic or acidic red Burgundies.

An infrequently asked question is should white wines be decanted? Hanes thinks so, for the same reasons young red wines should, to allow the oxygenation process to get rolling, improve bouquet, complexity, etc. This helps enjoyment of white wines just as not over-chilling them does. Young white wines that may benefit from decanting include Austrian and Australian Riesling, Loire Sauvignon Blanc (e.g., Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, etc.), high end white Bordeaux, white Hermitage, or Chablis and other especially flinty or steely Burgundy wines. 24 hours of decanting is probably excessive for white wines. Hanes does not know of any older white wines that really benefit from decanting.

Hanes decants more young wines than old thus his conundrum regarding his existing decanters. If sediment removal is the only goal, the shape of the decanter is more or less unimportant. If aeration is the primary goal a decanter with a wide globe/bowl provides maximal surface area of wine exposed to air and is thus a better alternative to taller, narrower decanters with less surface area exposed. Hanes's decanters are of the shouldered variety with just average surface area provided for the wine.

(Please note in passing that by now one should have figured out that simply opening a bottle and letting it sit there does nothing to help it breathe. The surface area exposed to air is about the size of a nickel, while 99.9% of the wine remains unexposed in the bottle. If you want a wine to breathe you must decant!)

Decanters have been made since like forever and in a zillion shapes and sizes. These include the shaft and globe (aka ship's decanter), cruciform, shouldered, bell-shaped, tapered, square, etc. They even make them in the shape of "ducks," which seems to help the pouring besides looking like a duck. Again, for older wines whichever shape pleases your aesthetics best will do. For young wines it seems more or less universally accepted that the "ship's decanter" works best because it has the broadest globe/bowl and thus exposes the most wine to air, although it also can be a bitch to pour the last glass out of it without spilling! This is the type of decanter Hanes thinks he may need.

The question for Hanes is then how much to spend to justify the perceived advantage in drinking his young wines? Most decanters are not cheap. Basic ones can run around $20 and fancy ones from high end stemware producers such as Riedel can cost upwards of $200. That extra cash cuts into the amount of wine Hanes can buy! Ahh, we must all balance practical concerns against the financial exigencies of our lives. Hanes has no answer for himself, never mind you...

A word on cleaning decanters. If at all possible do not clean them with detergent as this will leave a residue inside and impair wine flavors. Cleaning the decanter soon after use helps keep it cleaner and a lot of hot water usually does the trick of washing it out. Some folks recommend using distilled water (probably the distilled water conglomerates). If your decanter remains nasty after such simple washing, try using white vinegar mixed with rock salt. Let it sit for a few hours, swirl it around and then rinse out well with water afterwards. This usually removes most residue and stains. You may need to use a long, soft-bristled brush to agitate the residue, but make sure it is used solely for cleaning the decanter.

So, anyone want to buy Hanes a new decanter? If so, whatever you do don't get him any of those silver decanter labels to hang on his decanter. Whether it says "claret" or "dog spittle" what they really say is "cheesy"!