A Basic Guide.
Decanters are something we always get asked about at our events and tastings. What do they do? When should I use them? And how long should I decant a wine before serving it?
Here’s the general rule: The more common (the more you see it in stores) and younger the wine, the more you should decant it.
Yes. Contrary to popular belief, that old rare bottle of Bordeaux that's been in your uncle's cellar for decades doesn't need much time in a decanter at all. I'll explain why in a moment. For now, let me explain what decanters are used for.
Decanters are used for two main reasons: Evaporation, and Filtration.
Mass produced wines that you see in a large grocery store are produced at scale for immediate consumption. It’s all about margin & economics at this level. Large grocery chains need to be able to buy wine at a lower price so they can make the margin they need when they resell it to you. They also need to be able to buy enough of it to serve the regions they operate in. This means that the producers that they buy from need to be operating at a massive scale and at an incredible level of efficiently. This means that the journey from vine to bottle is highly mechanized, using chemicals to help speed the fermentation and stabilization process. This produces volatile compounds, such as hydrogen sulfide that end up locked in the bottle…. Hmmm tasty. Pouring these wines into a decanter will allow these volatile compounds to rise to the surface and evaporate off. Yay! So, if your go-to bottle is from a grocery store, go ahead and decant that bad boy for a solid 30 minutes or more.
Lesser known brand wines are often produced at a smaller scale and typically involve more manual techniques, using little or no intervention during harvesting or fermentation. These wines will have very little volatility (if any) in them. As a result, these wines will require little or no decanting. Enjoy immediately... headache free!
Now, when a wine gets old (above 5 years), oxidation through the cork starts to affect the wine, forming small amounts of sediment in the bottle. When you see wines that are ‘meant for aging’ (usually found in regions that make very tannic wines, such as Bordeaux, Rioja, and Barolo to name a few) this is exactly what they are talking about. They want this oxidation to occur to smooth out these tannins (Tannins are that dry bitter taste in some red wines that are released from the grape skins & stems when crushed). Decanters are simply used to separate the sediment from the wine. This is why you see the winos of the world slowly pouring a bottle of old Bordeaux into a decanter (while discussing how down-market Monaco has become from their recent sailing trip there). It’s simply to remove sediment. In fact, older wines should be consumed more quickly after decanting, because they have already been exposed to oxidation in the bottle and more exposure to oxygen in the decanter can lead the wine to spoil (although a lot of the winos prefer to drink wine as it oxidizes in the decanter, so they can taste this ‘evolution’).
So, there you have it: If it’s young and mass produced, let it blow off some steam in the ol’ bowl to avoid any unwanted aromas and inevitable headaches. If its old and crusty, likewise (but just to get rid of the bits). If you’re hitting that sweet spot in middle, immediately into the glass it goes.