How to Decant Wine

Wine decanter

By: Kristine Hansen

Giving an open bottle of wine some “air” and letting it “breathe” before drinking are code words for decanting wine. By removing some of the wine’s “tightness” and restraint on the palate, this allows all of its nuances to be celebrated, resulting in a smoother-tasting wine with a longer finish that lingers beautifully. Wine critics and winemakers alike believe only by aerating can a wine express its truest authenticity. Contrary to what some might think, this is not a pomp-and-circumstance show with theatrical swoops in transferring the wine from one vessel to another. The process involved in how to decant wine actually makes sense.

How do you get to this paradise on the palate, exactly? And what if you don’t have half a day for the wine to open up before you take that first sip? There are so many gadgets on the market right now for decanting wine that ultimately, it comes down more for style than it does function.

But first, take the time to understand the science behind wine decanting, as this knowledge will inform your evaluation and tasting of the wine. Once you connect with the reasons why decanting is done, and have personally tasted wine before it’s decanted, and then after, you will no doubt be a convert.

Why We Decant Wine

Without getting too technical, the reason sommeliers and wine directors at restaurants decant wine—especially when pouring older vintages of wines from storied regions around the world—is to introduce air. The term “airing out” applies to a lot of things, including hanging freshly laundered sheets on the clothesline or opening the house windows on a summer day to rid a space of “stuffiness.” We also “pull” things in the culinary world, such as pork and noodles, with an eye on extracting the most intense flavors. Wine is no different.

There is also another reason to decant: to separate a wine from any sediment. You’ll find sediment more often with vintage ports as well as red wines several vintages past (generally, at least five years). If you were to pour that wine directly into the glass—without decanting—it would be nearly undrinkable. Bitterness, a cloudy appearance and gritty texture would get in the way of one’s enjoyment.

How to Decant Wine

There are numerous ways to decant wine, from investing in an antique crystal decanter to utilizing a hand-held aerator pourer (costing around $25). It even comes with a rubber base and a travel bag so you can tote it to a picnic or outdoor concert for some aerated Chianti on the fly. Many have reported that they love this gadget as the decanting is quick and easy—instantaneous, in fact. Try not to use this hand-held toy on a wine that’s aged more than five years. It’s a better device for tannic reds that are newer vintages.

As long as you are moving the wine from one vessel to another, you are decanting. (But note that the new vessel should be one you can pour from.) Beyond products specifically noted as “decanters,” and labeled as such, there are many household items—such as a plastic pitcher—that can work in a pinch. You may even find you like them so much you turn to them again and again, not minding that it’s not an official decanter. Some even swear by a blender, but be cautious about this technique: never use the highest speed or for more than 20 seconds. The point is to pour the wine—directly from the bottle—into a device that aerates it. 

Blown, Cut and Gilt Decorated Glass Stemware Service

Blown, Cut and Gilt Decorated Glass Stemware Service. Sold for $3,125 via Doyle New York (May 2015).

How Long to Decant Wine

How long before you plan to drink the wine should you decant it? Thirty minutes is about right for a wine eight years or older. If it’s still a younger wine (under eight years), and high in tannins, devote 1-2 hours for decanting. Remember, you can’t ruin the wine—but shortcutting the process won’t make the wine any better. This handy guide, published by, actually breaks down suggested decanting lengths for specific grape varietals, such as two hours for Madeira or vintage Port, or a half hour for Pinot Noir. The most you would ever want to age a wine is three hours. Beyond that, you won’t taste much difference.

A common question is how to know when the wine is done decanting and ready to be consumed. The simple answer is to taste and decide for yourself, just as you would dip a spoon into a sauce, soup or dip while seasoning with spices. Swirl the glass, as if you normally would just before drinking, and pay attention to what you smell. Fruit aromas should be immediately detectable.

If you’re not sure whether or not a wine needs decanting, take a sip and try to answer the following: can you identify aromas? (If not, the wine needs decanting.) Is it very tannic on the finish? (If so, decanting is necessary to cultivate an elegant finish that lingers.)

Types of Decanters

This is the fun part of the process. Choosing a decanter to work with is akin to decorating because there are so many different types of decanters out there to choose from. Start by thinking about the type of bar set-up you already have. Is it on display in a prominent space, like your dining area? Do you often entertain by pouring wines for a small group? (By all means, spring for that curvaceous, hand-blown crystal decanter, because a less-formal piece won’t jive with your other beverage tools.) Or is it tucked into a pantry? If so, perhaps it’s better to choose function over style. 

19th century wine decanters and ewers

Suite of 19th century English cut glass wine decanters and ewers. Sold for £475 via Lyon & Turnbull (September 2014).

Materials and Shape

A common question comes down to the material used to craft the decanter, such as plastic, metal, recycled glass, crystal or glass. Is one better than the other? It’s often assumed that, like wine poured into a wine glass, the taste post-decanting could be impacted by the decanter’s material. When sipping Champagne, for example, the glass you pour those bubbles into does matter. While convention always coached us to pour into a flute-style glass, in recent years, bar staff are turning to coupe glasses from the Art Deco period, Victorian-era goblets, or even stemware that’s typically reserved for red wines. The reason: the wide opening at the top of the glass provides air, something that cannot be done in a slender flute.

The good news is that, with decanters, materials don’t factor in as heavily. What does matter is the shape of the decanter: Look for a wide neck. Bottom line is that the decanter should be easy to use and the last thing you want to have happen is spill your special wine because the opening is too narrow.

Looking for a decanter that can double as decorative art? A swan-shaped (also referred to as a horn shape) design might make you swoon, Stainless-steel decanters are hard to find but still out there, proof that your decanter need not be crystal. 

Among the most artsy are crystal decanters shaped like a duck or even globe-shaped (it’s even etched and embossed!), to commemorate one’s love for travel and world culture. You could also, if you are into vintages and antiques, find suitable options at antiques stores, auction houses and flea markets. Just be sure that the neck is wide and there aren’t any cracks (you wouldn’t want the wine to leak!).

Regency wine glasses and decanter

Set of eight Regency wine glasses, together with a Regency decanter, early 19th century. Sold for £400 via Lyon & Turnbull (June 2014).

What Wines to Decant

While you won’t ever ruin a wine by decanting, or make it worse, there’s also no need to undergo this process with every single wine. The reason is that some wines simply don’t need “air.” For example, white wines don’t require decanting. They are ready to drink, always, no matter if it’s a new-release Sauvignon Blanc or an aged French Chardonnay.

General rules of thumb when determining whether or not to decant are the younger the wine, the longer it will need to decant. During the aging process, a wine is already inching towards “mellow” status and therefore requires less time decanting.

You can also go by taste. If the first sip seems tight and constrained, try decanting. (This is when a quick-to-decant product, like an aerator pourer, makes sense. Otherwise, you could be sipping that wine right before bed—not with dinner.)

Don’t be afraid to play around with decanting. This should be a fun, educational process to deepen your love of wine, just as much as you might tinker around in the kitchen. Who knows, you may even find that your favorite wines take on new nuances and the food-pairings possibilities will consequently multiply for your next night in or small dinner party.

Looking for more? Explore wine and spirits on Invaluable now.