The do’s and the don’ts of decanting
Question from Chris: What wine should I decant? How long should I decant it for and what should my decanter look like? Thanks!
In a nut shell: Decant cheap wine, young wine and big reds (cheap or expensive) like Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz/Syrah and Italian reds like Barolo, Chianti and Montepulciano d’Abuzzo. Acidic wines like Pinot Noir will develop in a decanter too.
Sometimes your wine should be decanted and drunk immediately but mostly it should be left for up to two hours (you’ll get the detail in the clam shell). When buying a decanter make sure it’s clear (I prefer glass over crystal because the facets can hide the sediment) with a narrow neck and wide centre.
In a clam shell: So let’s start with the first question – what wine should I decant?
Decant cheap wines because they’ll taste better if you do (and you can piff the bottle and tell your guests it was an expensive drop). By mixing the wine with oxygen you’ll enable the flavours to develop and you’ll also soften those harsh characteristics. Also, some cheap wines smell like… well… a fart… due to sulphur dioxide trapped in the bottle. Decanting them will allow those not so pleasant smells to dissipate.
Decant young wines to increase the complexity and soften harsh tannins and/or acid. As an aside sometimes it’s difficult to tell the difference between tannin and acid but you’ll know when you’re drinking a wine that’s high in either because it won’t be smooth. Your mouth will feel really dry and chalky (tannin) or water like you’ve just sucked on a lemon (acid).
Decant big bold reds that are high in tannin, again to soften the tannins and allow the wine to open up and the fruit favours to shine. I’m talking Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz/Syrah, Chianti, Sangiovese, Barolo, Nebbiolo and Montepulciano d’Abuzzo.
I’m a huge fan of decanting wine and think it really does make a difference so if in doubt decant, decant, decant (even if it’s a white). But be mindful that you can ruin an old wine if you decant it for too long. An old wine has already had plenty of time to age in the barrel and bottle so if you leave it exposed to oxygen for too long you’re going to overexpose it and lose those subtle flavours. Decant an old wine to separate it from the sediment but please drink it immediately.
How long should I decant it for?
So you now know that if it’s an old wine you should decant it and drink it immediately but if it’s a young wine or a big red you can let it sit for a few hours (if you can wait that long). Don’t leave it for much more than three hours or you might start to lose some of those complex aromas and flavours.
If you’ve had a terrible day at work and you simply can’t wait while your wine develops in the decanter just pour yourself a glass and sip it slowly to allow the flavours to evolve in the glass. Or decant the wine twice – the action of pouring the wine from bottle to decanter, then back in the bottle, to the decanter and finally to the glass does most of the aerating anyway.
What should my decanter look like?
Seriously, anything is better than nothing. On a weeknight when we’re not having anything too fancy we use a water jug because we can’t be bothered cleaning a fragile decanter. As long as the wine is exposed to oxygen you’ve got the right idea – a water jug does just the trick.
However, if you want to invest in a fancy pants decanter (and I advise you do if you’re drinking fancy pants wines) go for a decanter with a narrow neck and a wide centre. The wide centre will ensure that plenty of wine is exposed to oxygen.
Make sure your decanter is clear, so you can see the wine and the sediment if there is any. And if you’re picking between a crystal or glass decanter I’d personally go glass because the facets in the crystal can mask the sediment too – but that’s getting really fussy – a water jug is fine.
Oh and probably the most important element when selecting a decanter is to make sure it’s easy to clean! It’s such a pain to clean a decanter and you shouldn’t be using soap either because it’s very hard to get out the suds which can taint the wine. Warm water is fine and perhaps a good clean with fragrance free soap once in a blue moon.
If you want to read more about the effects of oxygen on wine click here!