Let me start this post by adding a bit of background. I am a bit of a bookworm. As a child I devoured everything that I could get my hands on, regularly going to sleep very late and refusing trips to Granny’s so that I could finish my page, chapter or book. My nose was constantly in a book, I would bring one to mealtimes, would walk down the street with one, would stay in reading on hot, sunny days. It drove my parents mad, but I didn’t care. I loved, still love, the glorious, colourful, escapism that good fiction gave.
One of my favourite authors was Roald Dahl. Most of you will be familiar with Dahl’s work for children – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Mathilda etc … I loved these as a child, the vivacity and sheer detail of each character thrilled my over active, juvenile mind. While of course, I loved his books for younger readers, my favourite works of his were by far the Tales of the Unexpected series. These never really gained the following they deserved anywhere apart from England (where I am from) but these slightly sinister, beautifully written tales were one of the highlights of my teenage years.
There is a reason for this rather long and seemingly pointless preamble. One tale in particular fascinated me. It was named simply “Taste” and told the story of a dinner party held between a stockbroker and his friend who was a famous, if rather pompous, gourmet. The narrator (our stockbroker) enjoys trying to find niche bottles of wine that might fox the friend. A small wager is usually made and if the gourmet gets the vintage and producer right, then he leaves with his $100 (or something). If he gets it wrong, he does the washing up.
Naturally this wine is always decanted. And any good wine lover – whether an amateur or a professional gourmet like our friend – will understand the importance of the science behind decanting wine.
I won’t give the end of the story away, you really should read it as it is very good, but Dahl illustrates the way how wine can change taste when properly served.
So the question is, if you want to be a bona fide wine buff, how do you decant wine?
What Does It Mean to Decant Wine?
Let’s start with four little words that every wine lover wants to hear. Decanting makes a difference. The simple act of transferring your best bottle of Bordeaux from one vessel to another makes it taste much, much better. It might sound silly, but it works.
Wine aficionados love to sit around for hours and debate the to decant or not to decant questions but I’m confident when I say that careful decanting can improve almost any wine. So come on guys and gals – when in doubt, pour it out!
What Does Wine Decanting Do?
Obviously, decanting is a bit more than simply sloshing the contents of your Cabernet into another container. It’s not the mere act of shifting liquid from one thing to another that accounts for the magic of decanting. Rather, when you decant a bottle of wine, two things happen:
Decanting for Sediment
First, slow and careful decanting allows your wine (particularly mature wines) to separate from the little particles of sediment that form during the time it is laid down. This sediment, which, if left mixed in with the wine, will impart a very noticeable bitter, astringent flavour, and obviously no one wants that.
Decanting for Oxygen
Second, when you pour wine into a decanter, the resulting agitation causes oxygenation, enabling it to develop and come to life faster than it would had it just been left in an open bottle. The moral of the story? Decant, decant, decant.
Which Wines Need Decanting?
It is thought that typically only mature red wines should be decanted – ergo wines that are at least 10 years old. At Vindome, we don’t believe that to be true. Our view is that young red wines also benefit from decanting, as well as whites, roses and yes, even Champagnes. The aeration makes them all smoother and rounder, speeding up the ageing process.
See below for more on how to decant a younger wine (spoiler alert: it’s not the same as decanting a wine with sediment).
All wines benefit from decanting, but those which absolutely must be decanted regardless of age are:
How to Decant Wine?
Decanting wine is not as easy as you might think. Yes, essentially it is just pouring your prize plonk into another glass bottle, but actually, it goes a little deeper than that.
Decanting a young wine, ergo one with little or no sediment, is easy. Pour it into the decanter, let it sit for about 20 minutes before serving and voila! A dramatic increase in subtlety and complexity, toute suite. If you can, and depending on the calibre of the wine (we are talking a fine wine here, not a Beaujolais Nouveau), extend this decanting period to an hour plus to really let the results shine through. And don’t let anybody tell you that you should only decant certain types of wine (Bordeaux) and not others (Burgundy). Every wine, yes that includes you white, will benefit from decanting.
To begin with, older wines, especially if they have been correctly stored, have had plenty of time to age on their own, so don’t need the boost of oxygenation. In fact, the reverse can quite often be true – you may even ruin your prize Pinot by overexposing it to oxygen before serving. Thus, you should decant older wine about 20 minutes before serving (or two hours maximum), before it begins to change flavour.
As older wines will have formed sediment, there is a certain skill in separating the liquid from the masses. One tried and tested method is to stand the bottle upright for a couple of days before you plan to drink it, so all the sediment falls to the bottom. However, this requires a certain amount of careful pre planning, and is not always possible.
Thus, any wine aficionado worth their salt needs to know how to decant on the fly. To decant on without warning, you’ll need two pieces of equipment: a light source (a small torch, like the one on your phone is fine) and a wine cradle.
- Place the bottle gently into the cradle so that it’s not quite horizontal – think about a 20 degree angle.
- Next, open the bottle. It may seem odd to be opening the bottle at this angle but you can do it; as long as you’re patient and careful. If the bottle’s opening remains above the level of the liquid, a spill is nigh impossible, even if you’re the world’s clumsiest person. Perhaps practice a little first though, it would be a terrible shame to ruin a prize bottle of red just because your hands are a bit slippery.
- Clean the bottle’s neck with a cloth, then begin turning the cradle slowly to pour the wine into the decanter.
- This is where your little light comes in – keep it shining on the neck so you can watch for sediment creeping up. This usually happens when you get towards the end of the bottle. When you see the dreaded masses, stop pouring. The wine you’ve just decanted will be clean and clear, with hopefully no sediment in sight.
Chances are you’ll still have about a glass worth at the bottom of the bottle. You can strain this through a muslin or clean tea towel (a coffee filter also works) into a glass if you like. The result will not be quite as good as what is in the decanter, but not bad all the same.
How Long Do You Leave Wine in a Decanter?
So, the next big question is, do you need to drink your decanted wine immediately, or can you leave it for a few days?
Well, while some younger wines can be stored in the decanter for a couple of days or so (2-3 maximum), we recommend mature wines are returned to the (sediment-less) bottle.
When doing this, it is a good idea to invest in a vacuum pump. These fantastic inventions remove excess air from the bottle, while at the same time, not letting any more in. This will slow down the oxidation of the wine, meaning you can keep it for a little longer than if you just left it in the decanter.
How Long Does it Take to Decant Red Wine?
If you have been reading this from the very beginning, you will have by now realised that not all wines require the same amount of time from decantation to drinking. If you have just joined us, then let me remind you that, contrary to popular belief, older wines require less time than younger ones depending on the age, style and body. If you don’t know your full bodied wine for your light, then we have a great article here that will tell you all you need to know.
- Red wines: from 20-minutes to maximum two hours. This time spectrum is dependent on the maturity of the wine (pre or post 10 years).
- Light bodied red wines such as Pinot Noir, Gamay, Cinsault and Frappato need no more than 20-minutes
- Medium bodied red wines such as Grenache, Sangiovese, Merlot, Montepulciano and Cabernet Franc benefit from between 30-60 minutes.
Medium bodied red wines such as Merlot, Malbec, Bordeaux Blends, Petit Verdot, Tannat and Sagrantino should be decanted between an one to two hours before serving.
Do You Need to Decant White Wine?
In a word, yes. White wines, even champagnes, improve greatly when opened up in a decanter. This will open it up quickly, allowing all the flavours and notes to shine through. A smaller decanter can work better here, as the act of transferring the wine from one vessel to another is usually enough to let the wine breathe. Additionally, smaller decanters can usually fit into an ice bucket.
How Long Should You Decant White Wine before Serving?
- White Wines and Roses: No more than 30-minutes
- Champagnes: No more than 30 minutes
How to Choose Your Decanter?
Now comes the fun part. Shopping. There are many, many great decanters on the market, so it is really up to you to choose one that you like the look of (check out our favourite one here).
As not all wines require the same amount of decanting time, there is not a one size fits all rule here; some wines will take longer to oxygenate than others. Older, full bodied wines need a bit longer to settle prior to drinking, so benefit from a decanter with a wide base which will increase the amount of oxygen exposure to the wine. Medium bodied wines should be decanted into a medium sized decanter and light wines – including whites, roses and Champagnes, into a smaller one. But the best advice we can give about how to decant wine effectively and efficiently is to simply choose one you love and enjoy!
Now that you know how to decant wine, check out these wine tasting terms & tips for wine tasting!