Glass or crystal decanters, available in many sizes and shapes, can be seen everywhere wine is served or sold. They are one of the most useful, but one of the most under-used or improperly-used tools in the wine lovers’ repertoire. They are beautiful, and make a lasting impression on an elegantly set dinner table. But beyond beauty, what is their purpose?
As wines age, they lose their color and acquire a richer texture. These assets can only be fully enjoyed with proper handling. During this aging process, sediment precipitates out of the wine into the bottle. This sediment contains harsh tannins and other acids, which fall into the area around the “punt,” (the dimple in the bottom of the bottle) helping the desirable flavors and aromas of a carefully aged wine to shine as they were intended. Decanters are necessary for your ultimate wine experience. The finest are exquisite, but not necessary. A simple, clear glass decanter with a wide base and a decanting funnel (which has a fine mesh screen to stop large particles) are all that is necessary. Cut crystal decanters are beautiful, but don’t allow you to see the pretty wine. Plus, alcohol and acid leeches lead out of crystal, so storage of wine or spirits in them is potentially hazardous.
The purpose of decanting is two-fold: First, to make superior wine which hasn’t been aged to maturity “open up” and showcase both its finesse and big bold fruit. High quality wines ($100 or more, regular retail, including white Burgundies) within an age of 3-7 years after vintage should be poured gently into a large-based decanter a couple of hours before serving. Use your funnel! I’ve seen very expensive, fairly young wines throw substantial amounts of sediment that you don’t want in your glass! Periodically swirl the decanter gently to help release the subtler aromatic elements.
The second reason for decanting is to make a wine that is fully mature (or a little past its prime) taste its best. This will also alleviate an unpleasant sludge in the bottom of your glass, which occurs when poured straight from the bottle. Select the wines you want to enjoy ahead of time and stand them up gently, resting upright overnight or for several days. A few hours before you plan to serve it, assemble your tools – your opener, funnel, decanter and a higher-power LED flashlight (pancake style is great!) Place on a flat, white surface such as a towel with the light shining upward placed between the decanter/funnel combination and the bottle. The bottle still must be handled gently, as the screen in the funnel may keep the sediment and stray bits of cork out of the decanter, but the “flavinoids” which have fallen out can still transfer with the wine, causing it to taste old and out of top condition. Open your bottle gently and position it so the bottle will be in your stronger arm and the side it was resting on in storage is toward the decanter. This will minimize sediment transfer. Now, with the light shining through the neck of the bottle, tip it gently toward the mouth of the funnel. Pour in a single action without standing the bottle back up so you don’t agitate the sediment back through the wine. Allow the wine to dispense slowly into the vessel. This can take a minute or two. As soon as you see a thick band of sediment trail into the neck of the bottle, stop. Throw the rest away. Clear, not cloudy wine in your decanter is happy wine! Now pour some into a glass and swirl both the glass and the decanter. Taste it. You may get some sharp acetic, sulfuric or musty aromas initially which often occur naturally with age, but these should dissipate in a couple of hours. Once the wine has settled down, I will often rinse the bottle and (using the funnel) return the wine to it. This minimizes oxidation and is extremely helpful if you want to take it to a friend’s house to enjoy.
These activities will help preserve the true fruit flavors and subtle nuances of the wine you have treasured and anticipated enjoying. Skillful decanting requires some practice, so don’t get frustrated. A simple guideline is if the wine is under $50 (regular current retail) and over four years past vintage, decant gently. You may not have any sediment at all, but decanting won’t hurt anything. Enjoy!