Using a Wine Decanter

wine decanterA wine decanter is a glass vessel which is used to hold and serve wine. When you decant wine something magical happens. You turn a pedestrian thing in a showpiece, an elegant presentation of wine. But decanting wine is not all just about appearances, it can also cause a magical transformation in the wine as well, helping to optimize your experience of a fine wine. When learning how to serve wine, a wine decanter can help bring you into the big leagues of fine wine presentation.

  • What is a Wine Decanter
    A decanter is any vessel, usually glass, into which wine can be decanted, or poured from the bottle into the decanter. Decanters vary in size and shape dramatically, from wide squat ones which maximize the air to wine contact surface area to narrow carafes.
  • What are Decanters for? or,
    When Should You Use a Wine Decanter?

    There are three primary uses for a wine decanter which will be listed below. There is a great deal of controversy amongst wine enthusiasts about which wines should be decanted and for how long they should be decanted prior to serving. While there are no absolute rules for decanting wine, there are some general considerations to consider.

    1. Presentation - There is something very elegant and beautiful about a wine being served in a pretty decanter. It serves to highlight the wine and let your guests know that they are in for something special. Both red and white wines look beautiful in a clear, crystal wine decanter. While this is a purely aesthetic reason to decant a wine, it does aid in the presentation of fine wines and, besides, enjoying fine wine is an aesthetic pastime anyway, is it not?
    2. Aeration - The act of decanting a wine exposes the wine to oxygen in the air. In the bottle, the wine in its long rest has been largely devoid of oxygen exposure (except for the small amount inside the bottle and the miniscule amount that diffuses through the cork). Oxygen can cause dramatic changes in a wine and when a wine first breaths its first breaths after its long sleep amazing things can happen. Just the act of pouring the wine into the decanter exposes the wine to air but most decanters also increase this aeration of the wine by providing a large surface area of wine to air contact to allow the wine to continue to absorb and react with air. While long term exposure to air can lead to oxidation which is not usually desirable, in the short term it can do wondrous things for some wines.

      Many wines will present themselves as "closed" when first poured from the bottle after removing the cork. Their aromatics are somewhat reserved and even in the mouth they can seem closed in, hiding the depths of flavor which are potentially there, even seeming lean and tight. Exposure to oxygen helps the wine to "open up", revealing more of itself, unfolding its legs and starting to strut its stuff. While not all wines will respond in this way, a great many will. How much air does this take? It depends a lot on the specific wine in question. While some will improve with only a few minutes of air contact, others may take hours to unfurl and show best. While it is hard to generalize, typically full-bodied young wines will require more time to soften and open up while lighter bodied and older wines will show themselves rather quickly. In fact, with a very old wine sometimes too much air exposure can then quickly start leading to fading of the aromas and flavors. Some powerful wines like vintage port, a sweet, dessert-style red wine, can improve from several hours of decanting.

      While some tasters prefer not to decant wine but rather like to see the evolution of the wine in their glass over several hours, others want the wine to show its best from the get go when the wine is served at dinner or the wine tasting. Wine will develop along the same lines just sitting in the glass, but most tastings or dinners do not last the many hours that a wine will take to show its best. For this reason, decanting wine hours ahead may be the most practical means to ensure your wine shows its best for your guests.

    3. Removing Sediment - Most people agree that wines that are excessively filtered by the producer prior to bottling loose much of their depth and complexity. Therefore, most fine wines are not filtered or only lightly so. These wines tend to throw a sediment, a solid that precipitates in the bottle, particularly with aging. This is a perfectly normal thing and actually a sign that the wine is alive and natural and hasn't been excessively filtered. However, most people prefer that when serving wine the sediment does not end up in their or their guests glass. Wines that throw the most sediment tend to be full-bodied red wines that are aged for extended periods. Some dark, old wines like vintage port can throw extensive sediment. The first step in removing sediment is to stand the bottle upright for an extended period of time. It is usually recommended that a wine with sediment should be stood up for at least a day prior to serving. This allows the sediment to collect in the bottom of the bottle. When first pouring wine out of the bottle, the sediment will stay in place, but with prolonged up and down movement the sediment can get stirred up back into the wine. This results in sediment in everyone's glass. The solution is to only tip the bottle once, decanting the wine into a decanter so that the sediment is left behind. The wine can then be served easily from the decanter.
  • When Not to Decant Wine
    While there is controversy about which wines should be decanted and for how long, there are some situations in which decanting may not be ideal. For example, very old wines may be quite light and fragile. If exposed to excessive oxygen they may improve shortly but then quickly start to fade and fall apart. This optimal drinking window may be only minutes to hours for very old wines. To try to prolong this window, most people recommend not decanting or only decanting (to remove the sediment) into a narrow wine decanter which does not create a large wine to air surface contact. Most light, simple, fruity wines (like Beaujolais Nouveau for example) do not improve significantly from decanting. However, while some people say there are certain rules, like you never decant white wines or Burgundy, these are by no means absolute or agreed on by all wine experts. In fact, many people, including ourselves, feel that many young white wines can improve dramatically in a decanter and many Burgundies do likewise. There are no absolute rules.
  • Types of Wine Decanters
    Decanters vary greatly in style, size and shape. Most are made to fit one normal sized bottle, but larger versions are also available for magnum or larger bottles. On this page you can see a couple different versions. The top one increases the air contact surface greatly for maximum aeration while the carafe limits it.
  • How to Decant Wine
    For most wines decanting wine is as simple as pouring your wine into the decanter. For wines with extensive sediment, like old Bordeaux or Vintage Port, the process is a bit slower. After letting the bottle sit upright for a day or more, the bottle is slowly tipped to pour the wine into the decanter in one controlled movement. Traditionally this is done over a candle or in front of a light bulb so that you can see within the neck of the bottle. When you start to see sediment moving into the neck of the bottle, you stop decanting. Another option is to filter the wine lightly to remove the sediment. This can be effective if the bottle has not been sitting upright or for wines with very fine sediment which does not settle well. Funnels with a mesh screen are made for this purpose. Whatever you use, be sure it is a neutral, non-reactive and food-safe material that will not react with the wine. One option that is used by many is to decant through a cheesecloth lined funnel. Cheesecloth is completely inert and adds no flavor to the wine.

    The duration that you leave wine in the decanter depends entirely on the type of wine as discussed above.

  • Double Decanting
    Some wine drinkers prefer to decant their wine, either for removal of sediment or for aeration, or both, but want a more controlled and subtle exposure to air. One option is to double decant the wine. This means that the wine is decanted into a wine decanter or clean wine bottle. Then, after the original bottle has been cleaned of any sediment, the wine is decanted back into the wine bottle. This aerates the wine by the process of pouring it back and forth but does not leave the wine in contact with a large surface area of air for a prolonged period. Many tasters prefer this method if they are taking their wine somewhere, such as a restaurant or another person's house for a wine tasting or dinner. It makes transport of the decanted wine easier and limits the exposure to excess air.
  • Alternatives to a Traditional Wine Decanter
    Most traditional crystal wine decanters are relatively expensive. While they will last a long time if cared for properly and the investment is largely worth it, many of use will not want to spend that much money. There are alternatives. First of all, many discount type stores (Target, Cost Plus World Market, etc.), have inexpensive decanters. While they may not be as beautiful or fancy as their more expensive counterparts, they do the job. If you want to save even more money, then there are other options. As I mentioned at the start, a decanter is any inert vessel that the wine can be poured into for service. One cheap alternative is a large, old Mason jar (as pictured here) or other glass jar or jug. As long as it is cleaned well before decanting the wine, these will serve perfectly well as a wine decanter. They may appear a bit funny on your dinner table, but they work. These can be particularly handy if you are having a dinner or wine tasting at which many wines will be served that need decanters. While most of us don't have several decanters, we can reasonably find several other options.

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