Decanting Basics, by Montesquieu Winery: Part 1 — Why and When to Decant?
July 12, 2011, by: Lisa Duff Khajavi
With so many decanters and accessories to choose from, for some the idea of decanting may be intimidating or seem pretentious. We at Montesquieu Winery would like to share the basics of decanting because it is actually a very simple and extremely valuable tool that can bring out the best in your wines!
In the past, before modern winemaking brought the techniques of fining and filtering, wines usually had sediment. Thus the practice of transferring wine to a receptacle to eliminate the sediment was quite common. This need led to a variety of decanting styles and materials including clay earthenware, bronze, silver, gold, crystal and glass, which has over time evolved to the decanters we see today.
Choosing a decanter should be a matter of personal taste. However we recommend selecting a clear uncolored glass in a relatively unadorned style, which will not impair viewing the wine for color, clarity, and the important monitoring of sediment.
Reasons for Decanting Wines
How do you know when to decant wines? It is really fairly simple, falling into three basic categories: removal of sediment, aeration, and aesthetics.
The presence of sediment stems from two main causes, both of which are harmless and do not affect the quality of a wine. The first is from making the wine itself—dead yeast cells (a result of fermentation), tiny pieces of grapes, seeds and stems, tartrates (tartaric salts) and polymers from phenols (compounds that affect the color, taste and mouth feel of a wine) are constantly settling to the bottom of the tank or barrel during the winemaking process, resulting in what we call sediment.
The second cause of sediment is the aging process. As wine matures, phenolic compounds combine with tannins and undergo ‘phenolic polymerization’ where the compounds become too heavy to remain suspended in the wine.Full bodied red wines typically form tannins more readily as they age because of their tannin content, which is integral to this process.
In both cases, it is desirable to remove sediment by decanting because the sediment feels “gritty” in the mouth and can taste bitter, which takes away from thoroughly enjoying your wine. If you ingest sediment, it is in no way harmful, simply unpleasant! Additionally the appearance of the wine will be enhanced by the removal of sediment, allowing you to observe unhindered the color, clarity and viscosity.
These days, many young wines do not need to be decanted for the removal of sediment due to the common winemaking processes of fining and filtering, which eliminate most sediment prior to bottling. However, wines that are designed to age — especially red wines — often develop or “throw” this sediment by ten years in the bottle or so.
The process of “aeration” is the introduction of oxygen to the wine. As air is mixed with the wine, oxidation and evaporation start to occur. As this happens volatile compounds responsible for aromas (hence, taste!) open up, the sensation of alcohol dissipates, and tannins soften. This can be important for improving the taste of young, tannic wines whose components have not yet fully integrated. For example, a young Malbec with a bite due to unintegrated tannins will soften and lose some of that edge as it is exposed to air.
The process of transferring the wine from bottle to decanter in itself aerates the wine, much the same as pouring your wine into a large wine glass and then swirling. However the decanter is a more efficient aerating tool, allowing a much greater surface area for air/wine interaction, which speeds up aeration. If the wine needs it, you can aerate further by gently swirling the decanter (letting the decanter sit in between swirls) or using an aerating device as you pour into the decanter. Letting wine sit in the decanter or glass is also called letting it “breathe,” allowing for further oxidation and evaporation.
How long do you let a wine “breathe” in a decanter before enjoying? For younger reds, experiment with allowing at least an hour or two of aeration based on your preferences. Generally speaking, the more tannic a wine is, the longer you’ll want to leave the wine in the decanter. For older more nuanced reds, Burgundy for example, prepare to enjoy the wine within an hour of decanting, or sooner. As with any wine experience let your palate be your guide, your tastes will tell you what you prefer!
It is a good idea to have a decanter top on hand when decanting older wines. With wines that are 10 or 20 years or older, the primary purpose is to decant for sediment since the aging process has already mellowed and integrated the wine. Older more delicate wines should be decanted very gently. After allowing the wine to breathe a half hour or so, you may want to apply the decanter top to keep the precious volatile aromas from escaping, giving you time to enjoy your wine longer without having too much air introduced to the wine. Too much aeration can cause the complex and nuanced secondary flavors and aromas of older wines to dissipate.
In the case of wine presentation, how things look and feel factor in to our experience, such as the type of stemware we choose, for example. Decanting simply looks and feels lovely! A beautifully set table with heirloom china and finery is a fabulous match for an antique decanter or another you feel complements your table. The enjoyment that comes from tasting a fine wine on its own or paired with an elegant meal can be heightened by using a decanter. And many special occasions present the opportunity to pour our best which naturally would benefit from decanting, including special aged bottles or a younger favorite you are cellaring but just can’t wait to open.
Who can resist the shapely options these days? There are so many stunning styles to choose from—many are veritable art pieces. Whether employed at a more formal occasion or for casual dining, the process of decanting is pleasing to the senses, enhancing our wine experience!
So now you have a better idea of why you should decant your wine and when to do so. In Part 2, we’ll get down to business and discuss how best to go about it. Stay tuned!