The subject of decanting wine is often seen to be one of the arcane rituals belonging to the wine connoisseur and the terminally pretentious. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth as it is often young, everyday wines that can benefit the most from being poured from the bottle into a decanter to be served at table.

In the following article The Cardinal's Cellar will explain why, when and how to decant your wine, anything from a simple varietal bottle to the grandest single estate vintages, enabling you to extract the maximum enjoyment from your purchases.


Why Decant Wine?

As far back as the Romans, and possibly earlier, wine has been transferred from storage to serving vessels. Rather more recently wines such as mature classed growth clarets from Bordeaux were decanted to be served at the dinner table to avoid pouring any sediment into the glass. The reasons for this were to avoid an unattractive cloudy appearance when served and also because the sediment has an unpleasant mouth-feel and imparts bitterness. Other red wines that should be decanted for these same reasons include vintage and crusted ports as well as unfiltered wines from Burgundy (Bourgogne), the Rhone Valley and other high-quality wine producing regions including, but not limited to, California's Napa Valley, Coonawarra and the Barossa Valley in Australia all of which will "throw" or deposit sediment at between approximately five and ten years of age. A word of warning about decanting mature unfiltered red burgundy is in order however. The lighter wines, and those that are very mature, may not have the constitution to withstand the amount of oxygen introduced by decanting. These are best served with great care in one go directly into stem-ware. Should you be fortunate enough to be sharing such a bottle with very few friends a pouring basket or cradle is recommended for the bottle so that the sediment remains as undisturbed as possible between glasses.

The golden rule must be - if in doubt consult your wine merchant who will be in a much better position to offer advice about specific wines.

Although the vast majority of wine drunk the world over today is young and filtered it still makes a great deal of sense to decant such wine for the table. First, even an inexpensive, basic carafe will enhance the dinner table but the overriding reason to decant is that the very process will expose the young, sometimes aggressive, wine to the softening effect of oxygen and the opening up of its aroma or bouquet. Aerating wine in this way can greatly increase its enjoyment.


When to Decant

If you've forked out a decent amount of money for a really good, well-structured mature red Bordeaux or Burgundy, or you've bought a bottle or several to lay down until the window of drinking perfection is open, then the last thing that you will want to do is decant your bottle far in advance of drinking it. Its complex bouquet will fade and flavours dissipate all too quickly. It is recommended to decant such treasures just before you intend to drink them.

On the other hand young wines will benefit from being decanted anything between thirty minutes to six hours ahead of consumption, some even longer.

It is not only the act of pouring which aerates the wine but the greater surface area of the wine in contact with oxygen within the decanter or carafe that allows the process of oxidation to continue developing the aromas, opening up the flavours and appearing to soften the tannins. The more concentrated, tannic and "closed" the wine the longer it will benefit from this process.

It's not just red wines that can benefit either. Young white wines with a degree of concentration, especially those that were left to macerate on the grape skins, will also improve and give more pleasure as a result of aeration, in particular white Burgundies and similar styles of wine.


How to Decant a Bottle of Wine

If you are decanting a young bottle with no sediment then there is no particular procedure to follow other than to pour it carefully with both the bottle and carafe or decanter held in such a way as to allow the wine to be poured gently down the inside of the vessel.

The method for decanting wine off its sediment is a bit more involved and requires a degree of forward planning. Almost if not all wine benefiting from careful ageing will be sealed with natural cork and stored on its side to prevent it drying out and allowing the unwanted introduction of oxygen which would spoil the wine during its lengthy maturation. Unless you are fortunate enough to have a decanting cradle, in which case the bottle should be gently removed from its storage position and placed equally carefully in the cradle, your mature bottle of wine should be stood upright for a period of one to two days allowing the sediment to settle at the bottom of the bottle. You will also need a wine waiter's knife or a corkscrew and knife, a clean carafe or decanter that is free of unwanted odours, a cloth and either a candle or small torch with a focussed beam.

First the capsule should either be cut and removed below the lip or, as some people prefer, removed altogether to allow the wine to be seen clearly in the neck of the bottle as it is poured. Done this way it is easier to see the sediment approach the neck and to stop pouring before it escapes the bottle. Wine that is mature enough to have thrown a deposit of sediment will usually need the neck and lip of the bottle cleaned. A slightly damp, clean cloth should do the trick. After the cork has been drawn with the utmost care it may be necessary to clean inside the neck of the bottle as well. Before pouring make sure that the lit candle or torch is in a good position to illuminate the neck of the bottle either from behind, or better still, beneath.

Holding both bottle and receiving vessel at an angle to enable gentle pouring decant the wine slowly but steadily until the first sign of sediment is seen in the bottle neck. At this point STOP POURING! There will probably be about half a glass of wine or so left in the bottle. A good use for this is either as an addition to the gravy or sauce to accompany your dinner or pour it through a strainer and store in a small jar and use either to de-glaze a meat or fish pan or to make a salad dressing with in the future.

The Cardinal's Cellar hopes that the information contained herein has made the subject of decanting wine less mysterious and given you the desire to try it out for yourself. Happy drinking.


Short video showing how to decant wine


Wine Decanters and Accessories