Decanting Wine: When and Why

Picture this: You are having dinner in a fine restaurant and order a bottle of red wine. The waiter brings it to the table, opens it up, offers the cork for you to sniff and then pours the wine into a glass decanter. All part of the service experience but not really necessary. Right? Well actually no. Decanting – transferring the contents from one container to another – wine serves several useful purposes.

You decant wine before serving to improve the taste and clarity. However there are two distinct reasons for doing so.

Back in early days of wine drinking, wines came straight from the barrel to the table in an earthenware pitcher. While the ancient Romans introduced glass decanters, it wasn’t until the 17th Century that glass bottles became common and the art of decanting became more widespread.


Reason #1: To Remove Sediment
When: Decanting to remove sediment is most appropriate for older red wines and unfiltered wines.

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When wine, especially red wine, is stored in bottles for a length of time visible particles, called sediment, can develop. Until more recent days wines were not filtered or only roughly filtered and as a result contained more sediment. Even today some wines are not filtered on purpose. Sediment can also occur in filtered wines when colour pigments and tannins (the astringent compound) combine. Potassium bitartrate (Cream of Tartar) occurs naturally in all wines, and after bottling can form cyrstals in the wine sometimes called “wine diamonds”. Although sediment is safe to drink it generally has a gritty texture and is not appealing.
When decanting to remove sediment, use a gentle touch and try not to disturb it! Your goal is to leave the sediment intact and in the bottle, not to spread it throughout the wine.

Reason #2: To Enhance Aromatics and Flavour
When: Decanting to increase the surface area and letting a wine ‘breathe’ is most applicable to younger wines..

Once a wine is bottled it is basically ‘closed up.' When you pour wine into a decanter, the agitation allows oxygen to mix with the wine. The result is three-fold: it helps release any dissolved gases such as nitrogen and carbon dioxide, opens up the aromas and flavours; and softens the harsh texture of tight, young tannins. Be vigourous when decanting to open up wine and let the wine splash around as it goes into the decanter. 

Should You Decant White Wines?
Yes and no. Opinions within the wine industry are mixed about whether there is a benefit from decanting. Those who support decanting say it encourages wines to open up. However most everyday young whites do not need decanting and you do not need to worry about sediment or wine diamonds in white wine. 

Wines that probably are better off not being decanted are old wines whose fragrance is both delicate and evanescent. And remember, if you or your guests think a wine tastes better after decanting, it will.
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