Invaluable guide to the not-so-humble wine decanter 

1960s Lalique Wine Decanter Grouping. 1960s Lalique Wine Decanter Grouping. Sold for $510 via Mastro Auctions (December 2007).

By Kristine Hansen 

A wine accessory that dates back around 300 years, according to Decanter Magazine, is popular again at auctions and at retail stores. Welcome back, decanter. 

The rise of the decanter 

British retailers reported at the end of the financial year an unexpected spike in decanter sales. In fact, when British department store John Lewis reopened in April decanters were “flying off the shelves,” particularly one costing only £25. Suggested reasons for the item’s popularity were a desire to improve wine’s taste while still sticking to a budget, and improving gastronomic experiences at home due to the lockdown. 

Considered both functional (aeration allows a wine to “breathe” when wine is separated from the sediment) and decorative (as any exquisite crystal or antique version proves), the truth is that there are a lot of decanter designs out there. Which one is right for you? All wine decanters – which are usually large enough to hold a 750ml bottle of wine – profess to make a good wine taste excellent and a poor wine better after time in a decanter.  

First documented references to “decanters” appeared around 1700. Noted in customs records as decanters, it’s thought that Roman glass-blowers crafted the first ones. What’s interesting about the decanter is that there is no universal shape for the design, although when it comes to contemporary decanter designs, choice of shape may be dictated by the material from which it has been crafted. Crystal is more durable, therefore it is frequently used to create larger, more sculptural decanters. Glass, on the other hand, tends to be used for simpler decanter shapes.

An example of a sculptural contemporary decanter made from crystal: The Black Tie Decanter by Riedel.

An example of a sculptural contemporary decanter made from crystal: The Black Tie Decanter by Riedel. Sold for AUD200 via Leonard Joel (June 2018).

A carafe is another helpful tool when serving wine. But the difference between a decanter and a carafe is the width of the bottom: a carafe is essentially a pitcher where the top and bottom widths are close in size.

Of course, decanters are commonly also used for liquor, such as whisky and cognac, and their shapes tend to differ from those of wine decanters in a few ways (most notably they possess stoppers since, rather than improving with contact with the open air, spirits may evaporate!) – watch out for an upcoming article on these! 

But before you rush into the cellar in search of your oldest vintage to decant, here’s a primer about this understated – but quickly becoming more popular – wine-sipping tool. 

Common decanter shapes 

Ship’s Decanter 

Also called a “Rodney”, what makes this decanter design set apart from the others here is that it has a wide, flat base. This design was created out of necessity: sailors would need to make sure their tipple wouldn’t be easily toppled by the motion of the waves! Ship’s decanters were commonly used interchangeably for both wine or spirits, and so this category of decanters is where you’ll find the most antique versions. 

Sugarloaf Decanter

So named after the sugarloaf shape (in which refined sugar was produced and sold until the late 19th century, when sugar became more commonly sold in granulated and cube form), the sugarloaf decanter is one of most common shapes for antique decanters. This shape would commonly be used for claret as an alternative to a claret jug, but may also have been used for fortified wines, white wine or even ale. Sugarloaf decanters are often decorated with cut glass or etched designs.

Claret Jug

Also called ‘claret decanters’, claret jugs often have a spherical or globe-like body. While the body will usually be made from glass or crystal, they frequently have a handle and spout with a lid, and base, which may be made from silver, silverplated metal, or lead. In some cases these latter parts are moulded from the same glass as the rest of the jug.

Swan-shaped Decanter

A more common contemporary design, so-called because the neck looks precisely like that of a swan, this horseshoe-shaped decanter is named for the white-winged waterfowl. Reidel’s eye-catching version, which was introduced in 2008 is dubbed Winewings as it appears to be ready to take flight.  

Duck Decanter

Just like the Swan decanters, the inspiration for this design’s long, graceful neck comes from waterfowl. They usually sit at an angle and have a handle to aid pouring.  

How to care for and clean a decanter 

Common build-ups on wine decanters come from tannins, pigments, residual sugars, acids and various organic molecules. As a rule of thumb, it’s always recommended to rinse out and clean your decanter after every use. 

Given what you may have spent on your decanter, and that it’s crafted from delicate glass or crystal, it’s important to treat it with care. 

Cleaning a standard glass or crystal decanter

Let’s talk about the best ways to clean and dry your decanter. Failure to do so means that wine will cake on the bottom and build up over time.

The Brush Technique

Investing in a tall wire brush like this one, sold through Wine Enthusiast or on Amazon, and running it over the bottom of a decanter in about an inch of warm, soapy water—removes that possibility, though. The advent of stainless-steel water bottles have brought more designs for these brushes to the market, with long handles that help you access hard-to-reach corners.

The Baking Soda Technique

If you’ve ever wondered how to clean a decanter with baking soda, it’s actually pretty easy and does a fantastic job. All you need to do is fill the decanter with lukewarm water and stir in a spoonful of baking soda. The mixture should rest for 30 minutes before you rinse again, according to BinWise, a company that creates inventory-management systems for bars and restaurants, and is very schooled in caring for wine accessories like decanters.  

The Rice + Vinegar Technique

Cleaning a decanter with rice (plus vinegar) makes perfect sense. Only you don’t need to boil the water and cook the rice. The ratio for this cleaning formula is one part of uncooked rice with equal parts water and white vinegar. Gently swish the formula inside the decanter. The idea is that rice cleans the sides with a little more impact than just water by gently bouncing against the glass and picking up whatever stains are there. Just make sure to rinse thoroughly! Some of the rice will break down into pieces and the last thing you want to serve a dinner guest is a Red Bordeaux wine with grit floating on top. 

Removing “cloudy” calcium deposits

Do you need to clean a cut-glass decanter? You’d be amazed how fast build-up that’s not even wine (such as calcium deposits) can occur on the exterior if you don’t thoroughly wash after each use. When the decanter takes on a cloudy aesthetic, you’ll know you’ve got build-up. Heritage Auction’s tips for cleaning cut glass that’s gone cloudy are not specific to antiques – they can also be used on more contemporary decanters.  

  1. Soak in vinegar and water overnight to loosen build-up, then rinse with water and dry. (Note: if your decanter is very fragile and curvaceous, do not lie it flat.) 
  2. Dab Vaseline (or other petroleum jelly) on affected (cloudy) spots and let it sit for 4-5 days before removing. 
  3. Fill the decanter with lukewarm water and drop in a denture cleaning tablet. 

Drying your decanter

Wine Enthusiast sells two-packs of reusable Wine Decanter Dryers, essentially muslin sleeves designed to curve into the decanter and capture remaining crystals. 

To dry the outside, you’ll need a microfiber towel that won’t leave fibers behind. Amazon sells an eight-pack of reusable microfiber towels for $16.98. One hack that some people swear by for drying is to use a hairdryer (on low setting) – on the lowest possible setting, of course. One of the most esteemed makers of wine glassware, Reidel, even endorses it

Now that you’re aware of different decanter designs—and how to properly clean and care for them—which one will you choose?  


Looking for more? Browse wine decanters for sale at auction now on Invaluable.

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