To decant or not to decant?

Believe it or not, decanting is controversial. Sommeliers discuss it and disagree, sometimes passionately. There is no absolute truth in decanting, as is true with many most vinous matters and, of course, life in general. Basically, it’s a matter of personal taste.

Decanting is done for two reasons:

– to aerate the wine

– to remove sediments, accumulated over time

The controversy revolves around the aeration of wines. No less an authority than the late Emile Peynaud, the great and influential French oenologist, has asserted that decanting should only be performed to remove deposits, and then just prior to serving. Peynaud felt that too much exposure to air diffuses a wines aroma and therefore some of the wine’s sensory attributes may be lost.

My experience, albeit with more modern, concentrated wines, leads me to feel differently. I’ve tracked the development of decanted wines over time in decanter, tasting periodically. I’ve found significant improvements in aroma and flavor development. So I decant young wines, even white wines, to aerate the wine to improve aroma and flavor development. It’s like ageing a wine instantly!

For my tastes, the issue is how long to decant. It’s largely an educated guess. Here’s a rough guide which should be followed with some caution (young wine = 1-3 years old, old wine is 10+ years):

Young Pinot Noir – 1-2 hours

Young Grand Cru red Burgundy – 1-4 hours

Young top tier classified Growth Bordeaux – 4-5 hours, first Growths more time

Young Syrah or Shiraz – 2-3 hours

Young Cabernet or blend – 2-3 hours

Young Zinfandel – 1 hour or less

Young Grand Cru white – 3 hours

Cheap daily drinker reds and whites – why bother? Enjoy now!

Old Bordeaux First Growth from great vintage – 2-18 hours*

Other old Bordeaux – 1-2 hours

Very old Bordeaux or top red Burgundy – less than 30 minutes**

Old California Cabernet – 2 hours

Quilceda Creek – 5-8 hours

It’s critical when decanting for aeration to check the wine periodically so you don’t overdo it. I’m frankly not satisfied with this guide as you need to have good knowledge of the particular wine to be decanted. It varies too much by producer and vintage for the above to be followed religiously. But it’s better than nothing! It will certainly horrify Sommeliers of Peynaud’s persuasion! For best results, ask your wine merchant or look up a reviewer’s tasting notes, if available. Big, concentrated young wines need more decanting time.

One other problem with decanting over a few hours is that the wine may warm up too much.

Double decanting is pouring the wine from bottle to decanter and then back to bottle, preferably after an hour or two in decanter. I prefer to double decant because it further aerates the wine, it is easier to pour wine from a bottle and because your guests can see the bottle and its label.

To double decant, you’ll need a funnel, preferably not plastic. Esquin sells an aerating funnel which I love and use – the Cascadia Wine Funnel. It has a big bowl (very important) and disperses the wine around the walls of the decanter.

If you decant to clarify or remove the wine of deposits, you’ll need a steady hand and steady gaze, slowly and gently pouring the wine out of bottle so that the deposits are left in the bottle’s shoulder. To aide the process, a light, either a candle or flashlight can be used to track the movement of the deposits. Before such decanting, the bottle should be kept upright for a day.

As for decanters, there are many ways to go. I prefer the so-called ship’s decanter. With its wide, flat bottom, you get better aeration due to more of the wine’s surface area being exposed. But in a pinch, even a clean, dry water pitcher will do. Even small, carafe-style decanters are fine – especially when double decanting. When buying a decanter there’s no need to spend big dollars. You can find good decanters from $10-$50. We have a nice selection at Esquin.

What about all those gimmicks that promise to improve wine instantly? So far, I’ve had mixed results with Eisch’s so-called “breathable” glassware. The Nuance Wine Finer seems to work well.

Other approaches are less successful and get the “thumbs down”:

– Sphere oxygenating decanter – a mess which doesn’t work and is difficult to clean

– Rouge electric aerator – are you kidding me?

– Wine Fall aerator – questionable results, difficult to clean like the sphere

– Vinturi Wine Aerator – not yet tested by me but looks too violent on the wine and may be difficult to clean. I’ll check it out soon.

– deSign Wine Aerator – manhandles the wine, does not appear to work, expensive.

Since decanting seems to be a very personal, individual issue, I’d love to hear your thoughts or read your posted replies.

* I once decanted a 1982 Mouton for 5 hours. It wasn’t near enough! I should have decanted it at least 12 or more hours before serving!

** These wines are mature and may be quite delicate. They should be decanted, not for aeration, but rather to remove accumulated sediments and deposits, and just prior to serving.

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