The Art of Decanting
And how to get the best from your wine.
Decanting is a very useful but often underused practice with wine. Yet most well-made wines benefit enormously from it, enhancing the experience of the drinker. I would say that I decant the majority of the wines that I drink, especially if I’m sharing a bottle over dinner. I tend to use quite large glasses as well, so even if I don’t decant something, then my stemware is doing the job for me.
Well, there’s a complex set of interactions that take place between the flavour (and aroma!) compounds in wine and air. These can be divided into two main groups; evaporation and oxidation.
Evaporation occurs when there’s a phase transition of a compound from liquid to vapour form. Wine contains a lot of volatile compounds, which more readily disperse into air than the more stable ones. Many of the more volatile components of wine are considered less desirable, so the right amount of air exposure will allow them to evaporate whilst the more desirable aromatic compounds remain intact. This should allow you to get a better picture of what’s in store when you take a sip and is inherently more pleasurable as well.
Oxidation occurs when oxygen interacts with the flavour compounds in the wine. Too much can make the wine very unpleasant and flat as surface tension decreases, but a small amount actually enhances not only the flavour but also the texture of the wine. The flavour compounds in wine that interact the most readily with air are antioxidants – molecules that readily bind to oxygen.
This is the reason why it’s so useful to decant almost all natural wines, including whites, roses and sparklings. They’re higher in antioxidants compared to most conventional wines because of the way that they’re farmed, and they’re made without the use of processes that strip the wine of antioxidants. Because of their higher antioxidant concentration, they’re more stable in the presence of oxygen but need some extra coaxing to reveal their full flavour spectrum.
The oxygen molecules that bind to antioxidants enhance the texture of the wine, by creating larger, smoother structures with less tension. As far as flavour goes, I think of it as being a bit like adding a frame to the antioxidant molecule – oxygen doesn’t actually have any detectable flavour for humans, so it creates a flavour gap around the molecule, making each one more distinct and enunciated.
Which wines should you decant?
As I’ve said, I advise decanting most natural wines – or at least putting them into a glass big enough to let them breathe – but there’s an art to undertaking the task of decanting in the most helpful way for the particular wine in question.
Older natural wines will likely have a bit of sediment – they should be poured very carefully into the decanter. Aim to hit the side of the decanter’s neck so that the wine gently streams down across the glass. If you don’t have good natural light, then use a torch or your phone to check for sediment in the shoulder and neck of the bottle as you get down to the final third. Pick the decanter up and angle it a little if you need a little help to get more control over your pouring speed. The sediment should collect neatly in the neck if you’re pouring slow enough.
Sparkling wines can also benefit from decanting. As with older wines, though, you want to be a little bit more gentle and take care to pour down the side of the glass to avoid too much splashing, which will deteriorate the bubbles in the wine. If it’s still a little closed, you can help it by gently swirling the whole decanter round in circles, avoiding any movements that are frenzied or vigorous.
I like to decant acidic whites as well – the higher the acidity (i.e. the lower the pH), the less the wine absorbs oxygen, so a good swirl in a decanter often takes the edge off and brings out all sorts of flavours. The Riesling’s from Peter Lauer, in the Saar, are a classic case of dry high-acid whites that absolutely shine with a bit of air. Whites from the Jura, especially Savagnin, fall into this category as well.
For younger wines, particularly those that are a little bit reductive, you can be far more boisterous with your decanting. You could deliberately pour into the decanter from a height to create more splashing as you pour, aiming for the bottom centre of the decanter rather than the sides. Pour slowly but steadily, to create a bit more splash.
Or, if you have a wine that’s really tight or has a lot of volatiles that you want to evaporate, you can cover the mouth of the decanter with one hand and shake it vigorously with the other. It seems a bit brutal at first, but some wines just need a bit more oomph! when being decanted. You should be able to tell if the wine’s ready to be drunk by smelling it in between. If it’s still a bit closed (i.e. lacking in aroma) then give it a bit more of a shake, but do make sure to give it a few minutes to settle after shaking.
These techniques can also be used if you’re simply pouring into a glass - just be careful if you shake it…
How long to decant before drinking?
It really depends on the wine. I think it’s a bit of a shame, to decant for too long before you drink. The transformation that the wine undergoes from its interaction with air is so fascinating, and tells so much about the wine, that I don’t like to miss out on its various stages. Sometimes, without seeing the before and after, you miss out on the aha! moment, when you feel as though you truly understand the wine. I like to use big glasses for this reason, particularly if you’re not planning on finishing the bottle – they allow you to see wine on every stage of its journey once opened. If I have a dinner party, and there are a few wines in particular that I know will benefit from decanting, I like to do so early on, but offer curious guests a taste before decanting, so that they get a sense of what’s changed over time. It’s always a good talking point at a dinner party and for me, noticing all those little changes heightens my appreciation of the wine.
Or, if I’m sharing a bottle with just one other person, I decant and then take care to drink it very slowly, paying attention the whole way.
On the odd occasion, I have left wines in decanters overnight (generally when they’ve been poured at the end of a long night, and we’ve already had a bit too much to finish them). A lot of natural wines, particularly denser, chewier reds and orange wines (i.e. high in antioxidants), or whites with a lot of acid, can actually withstand this treatment and may even benefit. I remember finding a half-drunk bottle of Gravner one morning after a party sitting in my decanter. It still looked very bright and clear so I poured it into a glass to taste. It was glorious. So don’t be shy if you find that you can’t finish all of what’s in a decanter – chances are, it’ll be ok, so long as you don’t leave it for too long. Or, pop a bowl or a glass over the mouth of it overnight to stop it becoming oxidised if you’re a bit concerned.
There is one other very important function that decanting can fulfil.
Decanting can also act as temperature control. I’m not talking about cooling it down though – I’m talking about warming it up.
So often in Australia, white wine, sparkling wine and rose are served far too cold. When wine is too cold, the aromatic compounds don’t interact properly with air so we cannot smell them. Nor can our tastebuds detect the flavour compounds, so the wines taste far more bland; all we taste is acid. Even sparkling wines benefit from being drunk at warmer temperatures than fridge-cold; remember, they are a wine in and of themselves and as such, will yield all sorts of interesting flavours and textures if only you’ll allow them to.
I tend to recommend taking chilled wine out of the fridge a half hour before drinking, to bring it up to temperature so that it can be smelled and tasted properly. Or, you could decant it, which increases the surface area to volume ratio and allows the wine to warm up far more quickly.
Above all, when it comes to decanting, experiment. The best way to learn is, of course, to try different things, taste, observe, and learn from your mistakes. The more you practice, the more you’ll perfect it as an art, and the greater will be your reward.