Decanting 101

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By Courtney Cochran
Twitter: @HipTastesMaven

From a purely practical standpoint, we decant wine for two reasons: to remove sediment from older bottles, and to aerate younger wines to enhance their aromas and flavors. But there's a third reason for decanting that's equally important, though rarely acknowledged: Decanting wine is one of the most visually captivating things you can do surrounding wine service, and the act adds an undeniable sense of heightened ceremony to any special occasion.

Given all of these perks, don't you think it's time you mastered the art of decanting?
Decanting for Sediment
Decanting for sediment is the technique that most often comes to mind when you think of decanting.  When should you do it?  When bottles - almost singularly red - have been in a cellar for five or more years, and you have reason to believe they may have "thrown a sediment" during this time.  Sediment is simply particulate matter that naturally precipitates out of wine as it ages.  Wines likely to accumulate it include old Bordeaux (based on Cabernet Sauvignon), a number of Italian reds including Brunello di Montalcino, vintage Port and select New World reds, most often those based on Cabernet Sauvignon.  

Because bottles are stored over time on their sides to keep the cork moist and prevent oxidation, they should ideally be stood up for a full day or two prior to decanting so that the sediment may settle to the bottom of the bottle.  When it's time to open the wine, it's important that you handle it gently so that the sediment remains at the bottom of the bottle; if you plan to do a lot of decanting, you may wish to invest in a decanting cradle, which helps ensure the bottle remains stable throughout the process.  When ready, tip the bottle and pour the wine slowly and continuously into a decanter.  When you're nearly through, shine a bright light source (a candle or lighter will work, though a bright flashlight does the job best) through the neck and shoulder of the bottle, watching for the sediment to appear.  When it does, stop pouring; what remains in the bottle should be an ounce or two of wine and the sediment.  The rest is ready to drink - enjoy!

Tip: Because very old wines deteriorate rapidly once exposed to air, it's best to handle them gently (i.e. don't swirl the decanter!) and serve them quickly.

Decanting for Aeration
Given our buy-and-drink wine culture (some 70% of all wine bought in the US is consumed within 3 days of purchase, according to The Wine Institute), it's far more common that we decant wines for aeration than for sediment.  When to do it?  The technique lends itself well - and does little or no harm, so why not experiment? - to just about any young wine you'll find on the market, though young reds benefit the most given their relatively high levels of tannin (the substance that makes your teeth feel chalky after you sip a full-bodied red).  Over time, the tannins in red wine bind with oxygen and precipitate out of wine, effectively making it taste "softer"; decanting for aeration simulates this process - also known as bottle age - to a certain degree by introducing the wine to lots of oxygen all at once.  Besides approximating the effects of a bit of bottle age, decanting for aeration also "opens up" the bouquet of a wine, since its aroma esters are similarly stoked by contact with oxygen.  

How to do it?  Decanting for aeration is far easier than decanting for sediment:  Simply open up the bottle, pour it into a decanter, and swish it around inside for maximum oxygen impact.  Some decanters come with special funnels that cause the wine to twist and flow in special formations around the inside of the decanter; the purpose here, too, is simply to encourage maximum interaction of wine and oxygen.  Finally, leaving the wine in the decanter for 30 minutes to several hours prior to enjoying can go still further towards increasing your enjoyment of it, since oxygen acts on the surface of the wine during this time.  This is why the best decanters for aeration are those with wide bases, which allow the maximum amount of wine to be exposed to oxygen when inside.  

Tip: Certain white wines like good quality French Burgundy and California Chardonnay also benefit from aeration thanks to the presence of wood tannins in the wine from oak aging.  Treat these just as you would reds when decanting, though you'll also need to chill these bottles prior to serving (to do so, pour the wines back into their bottles to chill, or set the decanters on ice).

For more on decanting, including lush images covering the history of decanter as decorative art and other elegant wine service-related finery, check out the gorgeous book, "The Art of Decanting: Bringing Wine to Life" (Chronicle) by Sandra Jordan.

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