Wine Myths #1: Decanting

  • Kevin 

Myths, Misconceptions and Misinformation #1: Decanters and Wine Aerators

Two different glass decanters.

Two decanters, left is the “classic” form.

Almost everybody who drinks wine ends up with a decanter or two in their cupboard. Increasingly, it is also fashionable (certainly the manufacturers would have you think so) to have a “wine aerator” in your arsenal of wine paraphernalia. Beyond their aesthetic appeal, the point of all decanters – and the sole purpose of wine aerators – is to bring more oxygen into contact with the wine. How often these things get used is much about personal taste and how you feel about the following, classic question:

When Should I Decant/Aerate a Wine?

Unfortunately, there often seems to be as many answers to this question as there are people answering it. Nevertheless, there are some “wrong” ways to go about it, and they generally stem from a stubborn wine myth, one that has even been perpetuated by some quite well-respected wine personalities who really ought to know better. Since the point of both decanters and aerators is to bring oxygen into contact with the wine, I will write first about decanting in general and save my comments about the differences specific to aerators for later. At the end, I’ll discuss my personal opinion about decanting and aerating.

Before getting too far into this topic, I feel it is important to mention that there are circumstances that make decanting something to consider for all wine styles and colours, including white wines and even sparkling wines. That being said, it is most often red or fortified wines that profit from the practice.

Myth: Decanting Wine Makes It Taste Better

Now before anybody jumps all over me for calling this a myth, allow me to say that you should continue to decant any wine you choose, if that is what you want to do and you enjoy the results. And that is, in fact, my point: what makes a wine taste better is nothing more than a matter of personal preference. Decanting can help to improve the approachability of a wine, it can help some wines to develop their bouquet. But saying that it helps wine taste better in general is simply false. At most, it helps some wines taste better to some people.

Nevertheless, there are some useful reasons to deploy a decanter or aerator, and here they are:

  1. To separate a wine from its sediment.
    It should go without saying that this is not something that can be achieved with an aerator; this is the province of decanters. Sediment is something most often encountered with red wines, particularly older wines or with vintage ports. As filtration at the winery becomes less fashionable, however, many more wines are throwing a deposit with a little time in the bottle – and a “little time” can be anything beyond a few years. The older the wine, the more likely that there is going to be some – or a lot – of sediment in the bottle. It does not affect the flavour of the wine, directly – but it certainly will affect the feeling of that wine in your mouth, and most people do not appreciate the feeling of sand or grit in their drink. And if you are the kind of person who doesn’t like to see a cloudy wine in their glass, then careful decanting is your friend.
  1. To soften or mellow the wine
    For me, this is the most important reason – as long as it is actually necessary. Because, for people like me who don’t have a “real” wine cellar (and who refuse to buy one of those wine refrigerators for long-term storage), it can be very difficult to procure high-quality, ageworthy wines that have sufficient bottle-age to be considered close to ready to drink. I tend to enjoy young, tannic wines, but I’m not a masochist; I enjoy a wine that is  starting to reveal its potential.Oxygen works on the tannins and the acidity of a wine, softening them to make the wine more approachable. This is particularly important if the wine is quite tannic, which is often the case for wines that are made to be aged – such as high-quality wines based on Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo, and Syrah, for example, but also for less well-known wines such as those from Madiran (based on the Tannat grape) and Cahors (based on Malbec). Please consider, however, the age of the wine; if it is young, decanting such wines can be very, very helpful. If it is aged, decanting will be less helpful, completely unnecessary – or even detrimental, depending on the age, vintage and relative quality of the wine. In that way, it is a bit like #4 below.
  1. Aesthetics
    A decanter can be a beautiful thing to look at, so there’s that. Or, maybe you are just a little bit ashamed of the container that surrounds your wine and would rather something else was seen. There’s no shame in that, either. And let’s be honest – nobody thinks a box of wine on the dining room table is an attractive option. If this is the case, and if a decanter is not “needed”, might I suggest a stylish carafe instead of a decanter?
  1. To allow the “bouquet” to develop
    This is a bit of a tricky one. Complex, ageworthy wines, in particular, can often really profit from a bit of time in a decanter – particularly if they are being drunk a little young, as described above. Very structured, complex wines will take some time to start to reveal their intricacy, and will continue to evolve over hours. When they have reached their peak is 100% up to your tastes and the tastes of each of your guests – and each individual’s tastes will likely be slightly different.But there is a risk, particularly when it comes to older wines. Sometimes particularly aged wines can be surprisingly delicate, and they will lose a lot of their precious aromas relatively quickly once the bottle has been opened. Decanting such treasures can lead to a rather disappointing experience, if done for too long – and too long is often not very long at all.
  1. To permit “off” smells to dissipate
    This is a classic reason to decant wines that have been bottled under screwcap: there is often a bit of an “off” odour when they are first opened resulting from the use of sulphur at the time of bottling. But this is by no means confined to screwcap wines; particularly in Germanic countries like Austria and Germany, sulphur continues to be used in abundance, and you notice it when you open a bottle. With a little air, the smell will dissipate. It will dissipate in your glass, too, however; a decanter is not necessary.But be aware: if that “off” odour is a wine defect such as cork taint or too much influence of brettanomyces (a strain of wild yeast that some people appreciate in small amounts, but which can quickly overpower a wine if found in larger doses), no amount of air is going to save it. You may as well open another bottle and start fresh.

Do I Need a “Real” Decanter?

No.

A decanter is just a container that permits a large amount of wine to come into contact with oxygen, while simultaneously allowing the wine to be separated from eventual sediments. The latter is achieved by way of careful pouring from the bottle into your decanter – and it is advisable to first stand the bottle up for at least a few hours before decanting it. You can use any vessel that facilitates this goal as a decanter, should you need to – a pitcher will work for the purpose just as well as an expensive, mouth-blown, dedicated decanter (although with considerably less style).

The main point is to increase the surface area of the wine that is coming into contact with oxygen. This can be improved by swirling the wine once it is in the decanter. “Real” decanters are made in such a way as to allow this without spilling. It is achievable in a pitcher, too…but you may want to wear an apron while you practice. Wine Aerators are designed to achieve this without swirling, and without a decanter – generally also on a per-glass basis, saving you the trouble of decanting at all, as long as you have no sediment to worry about.

Reasons NOT to decant

I have my own reasons which I will get into at the end. But there are a couple of objective reasons that are worth considering otherwise:

  1. The wine is made “ready to drink” off the shelf
    This is, truly, a huge category of wine. Virtually any wine that you buy from a supermarket falls into this column. Most wines from specialty shops, too. In fact, some experts estimate that up to 95% of all wine produced is ready to drink the day it is bought.My point here is not that you shouldn’t decant so much as it is to say that decanting isn’t necessary. Again, personal taste needs to guide your decision. Most of these wines are relatively low-tannin and have moderate acidity, so the mellowing effect is superfluous. They will be filtered, so there is no sediment. The wines are meant to be drunk “on the fruit”, and so allowing them loads of air “to develop” isn’t going to bring very much benefit – although it very well may reduce the intensity of the fruit. I suppose, then, that if your goal is to actually reduce the overall intensity of the wine, then decanting would be a reasonable option.
  1. The wine has been released by the producer when it is “ready”
    There are two kinds of these:
  1. first, wines from appellations where legislation dictates the wine must be held until “ready”. Rioja remains the biggest proponent of this system, with their “Reserva” and “Gran Reserva” bottlings. I do not mean to say that these wines cannot be decanted, but most of them certainly do not need to be. The development that they need will happen in your glass, and you would be well-advised to let that be the case. Very occasionally there are wines from Rioja or Ribera del Duero that could really use some decanting, but they are few and far between, in my opinion.
  2. second, there are the producers that don’t release until they feel their wines have entered the zone where they are ready to be consumed. Bless all producers who have the cellar capacity and the resources to hold on to a vintage until they feel it is ready to be released. These people are rare, and I love every single one of them. It is also most decidedly not the way things normally go; see: Bordeaux. By far, most ageworthy and high-quality wines are put on the market with the expectation that they will be cellared for years before being opened. This is as much a tragedy as it is a sad economic necessity for most producers.

A Note About Wine Aerators

Side view of a "Menu" Venturi Wine Aerater

Air is drawn in through the hole as wine is poured through the device.

End view of a "Menu" Venturi Wine Aerator.

The pouring end of a wine aerator based on the “Venturi” principle.

Wine aerators exist for people who either don’t want to decant and drink a whole bottle of wine or don’t have the time to wait hours for it to develop in the decanter. There are several different kinds, but they all involve a large intake of air that is pulled through the wine as it is poured, thus aerating the wine. The point here is to speed the process up and to make it active – and there are people who take it to extremes. Some people even think it is a good idea to put their wine briefly into a blender to really aerate it. I haven’t tried that, and I’m not likely to do so soon. But I have an aerator – based on the “Venturi” principle and made by a Danish company called Menu – that I used for years on my red wines. I was happy with it, beyond the fact that it was a huge pain to keep clean, and I only stopped using it because I became more interested in seeing how my wines develop over time in glass.

The main drawback of an aerator, after the questionable aesthetic value when serving wine at table to guests, is that, if you are planing on pouring more than one glass, the wine will either need to be filtered as you pour it or it will have to be free of sediment. The designs, as far as I have seen, universally ignore the possibility that there is sediment in the bottle, and the fact that that sediment will be shaken up and mixed into the wine every time the bottle is tipped to pour.

If they work, they are very good for people who want one or two glasses of a wine that needs some air, but who don’t want to drink the whole bottle.  Whether or not you want to deploy one at the dinner table with your guests is another question.

Why I Tend Not to Decant

I like to experience the development of a wine over the course of an evening – or even the course of a couple days, if the situation warrants it. Particularly for big, complex or very fine wines, the journey from first taste to last drop can be endlessly fascinating. If the wine is a bit young, I’ll use big glasses to allow them air. I’ll swirl constantly, sticking my nose into the goblet repeatedly to see how it is coming along. A good wine can be as interesting as a good book, and it will undergo changes over the course of an hour or two that I don’t want to miss. I prefer not to jump in to the middle of a story.

My Advice

Don’t salt your food before you’ve tasted it, and don’t decant a wine before you’ve tried it. Do open your bottle early and taste it – at the drinking temperature. Swirl it for a couple minutes to find out what it has to offer, and decide for yourself if it needs to be decanted. If you feel it is too closed, too stinky, too hard – by all means, decant it for a while. But please, don’t decant on principle – you never know what you might be missing.

Go on to Wine Myths #2: Smelling the Cork

Go on to Wine Myths #3: Old Vines Make Better Wines!

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