Why decant in the first place?
There are no hard and fast rules, but the main reason is to separate the wine from any sediment that may have formed in the bottle. Primarily, we’re talking about red wines aged in bottle, especially those that are unfiltered; the best example being Vintage Port. While the sediment is harmless (it is the colour and tannin that over time forms into solids) it can taste bitter. Mature red Bordeaux, Rhône, Chianti, Ribera del Duero, southern hemisphere fine wines, made to model these classic styles, are all likely to throw some sediment after about five years.
The other reason to decant is to aerate the wine or help it ‘breathe’. This really helps to open up the bouquet but be careful not to decant too early as you might find the wine’s aromatic complexity has inadvertently been dispersed. Age (of the wine) matters, as does personal taste. Young wines are more robust but older ones tend to be fragile and prone to oxidation once opened. I might decant really old bottles immediately before serving. I remember opening bottles of Chateau Musar 1977 for a members’ tasting some years ago – the wine was so delicate and refined, we found the optimum way to serve it was straight from the bottle into the glass, accepting that the appearance would be slightly cloudy. The bouquet jumped out of the glass immediately, it needed no encouragement! By contrast, buyer Marcel Orford-Williams recounts being given mature Hermitage La Chapelle 1989, decanted several hours beforehand, and finding it totally oxidised, all three bottles!
When it comes to young reds, most benefit from aeration, even, some might say, especially, inexpensive everyday reds, but again this is controversial and depends who you talk to. Rioja winemakers rarely decant or aerate their wines preferring the pleasure of seeing the wine change and evolve in the glass (rather than speed this up by decanting). Whether it’s a young crianza or top gran reserva, the same rule applies in Rioja. Perhaps it’s simply a reflection of Spain’s convivial culture where life is enjoyed at its own pace, letting food, conversation and wine flow naturally.
Style counsel: modern winemaking
Winemaking today is highly skilled and technical, with an incredible attention to detail to protect the healthy, natural flavours of the freshly picked grapes. (It means there are fewer examples of oxidised wines which is great news for wine lovers). Referred to as a protective style of winemaking, it can sometimes lead to a fault called ‘reduction’ – a completely harmless burnt-match or sulphury aroma or flavour – think of it as the opposite of oxidation. The good news is that it is one of the few wine faults that you can do something about because oxygen helps dispel it; all you need to do is decant. Some of the world’s finest chardonnays, syrahs and wines bottled under screwcap can be prone to reduction. So, don’t be afraid to decant white wines. Toby Morrhall who buys Burgundy for The Society recommends decanting all white Burgundy over £15.
How to decant?
Ideally, stand the bottle upright the day before and make sure your decanter is clean (use hot water to rinse, avoid any detergents, and by far the best way to do it properly is to use ‘magic balls’ which remove stains from the glass).
Pour steadily with a light underneath the neck of the bottle to help identify the sediment as you pour. For very fine sediment or a crumbly cork, use a filter such as muslin or a domestic coffee filter.
Pierre’s top tips
- The younger the wine, the earlier it can be decanted
- Young red fine wines usually benefit from decanting an hour before serving, sometimes longer
- Decant fully mature reds just before serving
- Traditionally made reds tend to benefit the most – Bordeaux, Rhône, Chianti, Vintage Port and any reds made without filtration
- Use a coffee filter to remove very fine sediment
- Certain whites are often worth decanting – chardonnay, grüner veltliner, oak-aged sauvignon blanc
- Inexpensive reds can really benefit from being aerated – ever noticed that ‘Tuesday-evening’ bottle you opened is even better a few days later?
- Screwcap wines often need more aeration than cork-closed bottles
- Double decant – you don’t need a decanter to decant – pour the wine into any vessel then back into the bottle
- The shape and size of a decanter can make a difference but usually simple works best.
The Society sells the Riedel Cabernet Decanter, pictured above, and the Magnum Cabernet Decanter (same design, just larger). Modern and elegant in design, they work for both young and old wines and would make an attractive addition to any wine lover’s glassware.
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