The 5 W's to Decanting Wine
Use this baller move improve your wine – and impress your guests – every time.
by Erin Henderson
When I was starting out as a somm, my first job was at a private club in Toronto. There, I inherited a cellar full of aging Spanish, Italian, and French wines, among other bottles. The nature of these maturing red wines was that most had granular bits of sediment lining the bottom and sides of the bottles, and required decanting before being served.
I created a decanting table in the cozy, candlelit dining room. A dedicated area of the restaurant where I had my selection of decanters, a candle, lighter, linens for wiping drips and dust from bottles, and tasting glasses. After the guest had approved the wine, I’d decamp to my station, open each wine carefully, and go about the process of decanting for sediment.
The first time I did this, I was so focused on the task at hand, I didn’t realize the small, 40-seat dining room went silent, and all eyes turned towards me. When I finished, I looked up only to receive a round of applause! Apparently, this was dinner and a show.
Since those early days, I’ve been quite a fan of decanting almost all my bottles – and not just for the adoration and accolades. Even if the wine is particle-free, most wines (red and white) benefit from a good decant. And except for very old and delicate wines, they all improve – and certainly don’t get worse – so why not add a little flare to your wine service? After the few years we’ve been through, we could all benefit from a little pomp and circumstance.
The Big Show
Decanting offers a bit of showmanship to elevate your standard wine pour. There’s a case to be made for finding the beauty in the everyday. Just like setting a proper table, using good napkins, or buying yourself fresh flowers, it’s nice to incorporate a little style into your daily routine.
Your decanter doesn’t always have to be the swanky, crystal art piece worth hundreds of dollars. In fact, I bought one of those flashy pieces for my sister and brother-in-law for their wedding, and you know how many times we’ve used it? Once. The risk of it smashing is too great, and cleaning all the swirls, twists, and narrow spouts is impossible – no matter what gadget promises otherwise. So it now sits in a glass cupboard in my sister’s kitchen for a few casual glances every now and again.
My favourite decanter is a turquoise ceramic pitcher that I picked up for 20 Euro at a farmers’ market in Lyon, France. Aesthetically, I think it adds an air of bohemian chic to the dinner table. Practically, I love the ease of the handle and spout, not to mention it’s easy to clean, and the all-important surface area of wine-to-oxygen is perfect.
Don’t let the actual vessel limit you, or the term intimidate you. Uncork that bottle, pour it into something else and embrace the casually fabulous.
Related: How to Find Your Perfect Wine Glass
These days, this is likely the most common reason for decanting. Aeration simply means getting a little oxygen into the wine, to help it open up and breath. Air is both the friend and enemy of wine – the frenemie, if you will. Leave a glass on the counter overnight and chances are you won’t want to drink that soured wine the next day. But, pouring your bottle into another jug an hour or two before serving will allow for just enough air to allow the wine’s flavours and aromas to perk up.
Think about it: the last time you were on a long plane ride, were you bright eyed and bushy tailed after you sat for hours in a cramped seat? Doubt it. You likely wanted to stretch, brush your hair, and take a shower before you were ready to present yourself. Wine is the same: it’s been trapped in a bottle for at least a year, and maybe even several. It needs time to stretch out. That smallish amount of air that mixes with the wine, both while being poured, and sitting in a larger-mouthed vessel, is like a wine massage – it’s relaxing and releasing all its delicious notes.
This is likely less of an issue, but sometimes wine is just too cold. Frigid temperatures inhibit the wine’s aromas and flavours. The only thing you’ll be able to detect in an ice-cold wine is the exacerbated bitter tannins and sour acids – not overly pleasing on their own. Pouring wine out of the frosty bottle and into a room temperature decanter will help it warm up quicker and start revealing the flavours the winemaker intended you to enjoy.
Related: Best Serving Temperatures for Wine
If you suspect your wine will have sediment – grainy bits that sit at the bottom or your wine, or along the side of the bottle if it’s been lying down for a while – you will want to decant it – carefully.
It’s ok if your wine is a bit cloudy, you just don’t want the hard bits, for obvious reasons.
- Remove the foil from the top and neck of the bottle. Wipe it clean if it’s dusty.
- Uncork the bottle, being careful not to shake it or move it around too much. It’s helpful to do this leaving the bottle still on a table-top, instead of twisting it freely in your hands.
- Get your decanter and light source. Back in the day this was done with a candle, but the more efficient way is to use a flashlight. It may not be as romantic, but it’s brighter, so you can see easier and achieve a better result.
- Place the shoulder of the bottle over the light source and look straight down into the light through the glass. Slowly start pouring your wine into the decanter, always watching the wine move through the light. Eventually you will see the heavier particles start to move up to the shoulder.
- Stop pouring.
- If you find there’s still a lot of wine left over in the bottle, you can pour your wine through a coffee filter to separate further (do this is a different vessel).
Related: The Difference Between Tannin and Acid