The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

The Skinny on Decanting: When, Why, and How

Posted on | October 8, 2015 | Written by IWM Staff | No Comments

11-29-decanterFor many years the notion of decanting to remove sediment from wine was pretty much conventional wisdom. However, wisdom has changed and today the application of decanting has shifted. Rather than being a method of removing sediment, decanting now is a method of aeration because so much of the wine we drink today is young.  The philosophy behind decanting has changed, but controversy has remained. We’ve heard many heated discussions on the topic from highly credible sources, so today we’ll try to provide some practical understanding of this confusing subject.

Decanting, in its purest form, should be executed for mature big red wines that will “throw” sediment, which is to say that there is matter in the bottle that has separated from the liquid and can be removed by carefully and slowly pouring the wine into a decanter. Using a light source underneath the bottle allows the pourer to see when the sediment is moving into the liquid, and the pourer should stop decanting at the point when he or she can see the sediment approaching the neck of the bottle. If there is a desire to get every drop of liquid out, the pourer can filter the remaining wine into a separate glass.

This method of decanting had been the traditional method of decanting over the years.  However, both the method and the market has changed. For a long time the fine wine market was enjoyed by a very small group of individuals who had well-stocked cellars that enabled them to drink mature wines. Today wine has become a part of everyone’s culture. And the dynamic is very different.

In the US today 80% of wine is consumed within 48 hours of purchase, and 98% within six months. The bottles are consumed in their youth, before they have had an opportunity to mature. Here the process of decanting is executed to aerate the wine, not to remove sediment. Fortunately the wine community has come to understand the benefits of aeration. A group that was once somewhat divided between a traditional sediment-separating approach and a contemporary aeration approach has reached an accord. We decant.  We open bottles ahead of time, double decant and some even garishly violently decant (which is where most controversy springs from today).  Most young wines will not be hurt by oxygenation over a short period of time, and many will benefit. Perhaps our reference point should be changed all together. Perhaps the question should be: “Which wines shouldn’t be decanted?”

There is a very simple answer. Most sparkling wines should be consumed out of the original vessel to maintain their effervescence.  Older vintages or delicate wines should always be treated with reverence. And among more esoteric wines, there will be bottle variation that will require attention to the unique state of that vessel and may very well need to be handled as little as possible.

At the end of the day, most enthusiastic wine drinkers just want to know if they can get out their new Riedel decanter with the crystal aerator and watch the show. They might even want the sommelier to make the experience a bit more special.   The question is should I tumble that young wine? Yes, you should. The presentation is always more thoughtful and the wine may taste better. Do you need any other reasons? Probably not.

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