What is wine decanting and why do people do it?

Published by Tamara Harrison - 28th Oct 2019

Is decanting one of those wine serving processes that remain a mystery to you?: What does it mean? Which wines need it? When should you do it?

If your answer was ‘yes’, not to worry, winemaker Cathy Howard from Boots and All is here to clarify by explaining the process of decanting. Keep on reading to find out what it is and why people do it.

Do you notice when you open a bottle of red wine and pour a glass, the wine gets better over time, especially the second glass (not a trick question!)? You start to notice the wine smells better, the fruit flavours become pronounced and the tannins are softer? That’s because the wine has “opened up” due to the increased contact with the air. Decanting introduces oxygen, which releases aromas and flavours in all red wine.

I do advise to decant young wines, and you will have seen me talk to me about this a lot in my replies to Angels.

Decanting wine is essentially the process of pouring (decanting) the contents from one vessel (typically a bottle) into another vessel (typically a decanter). Usually, the wine is then served from the decanter, but sometimes in a restaurant, it is decanted back into the original bottle for service.

So why decant a wine? There are two reasons. One is that slow and gentle decanting works really well for older red wines which can throw a lot of sediment as they age. Decanting separates the wine from the sediment. Sediment in your glass is not only gritty to swallow but it also makes the wine taste more drying and astringent. Slowly and carefully decanting the wine ensures that the sediment stays in the bottle and you get a nice clear wine in the decanter, and subsequently in your glass.

The second and more everyday reason which I am a big fan of is to decant to aerate the wine. Many young wines can be tight or closed on the nose or palate. As the wine is slowly poured from the bottle to the decanter it takes in oxygen, which helps open up the aromas and flavours. Highly tannic and full-bodied wines benefit most from this, wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet blends, Shiraz, and Shiraz blends.

What I suggest doing is the following:
1. Start by tasting the wine straight from the bottle. If there is very little fruit when you smell or taste the wine, or it is overly tannic, or hard to identify aromas, this means the wine is ‘closed’ and will need decanting.

2. Try it again immediately after Decanting: Decant the wine and leave it in the decanter for an hour. Then taste it again. If the wine hasn’t changed much, I would suggest giving the decanter a gentle swirl then keep waiting (30 minutes to 1 hour)

3. Ready now? If the wine is ready it will be noticeably more pleasant and aromatic and the tannins will be softer when you taste the wine. You should be able to smell fruit flavours. If it’s still not ready, try swirling it again, double-decanting* or aerating it.

(Double decanting is pouring the wine from the decanter back into the bottle and then pouring back into the decanter again. Swirling your decanter, like swirling the wine in a glass introduces the wine to more oxygen. Wine aerators are faster than decanters but are not advisable for aged wines).

As for a decanter, Neil and I have some beauties! The wider bottom ones work best for aerating young, closed wines as they will introduce more air into your wine, and they are super easy to swirl. Our stainless steel one is very chic and looks great on the dinner table! A decanter can be just as simple as a jug, which works well as a decanter too.

Try decanting a red wine sometime soon, and let me know how you go. Learning about, and experimenting with wine is fun!

Cheers Cathy


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