Most experts agree that decanting a wine depends largely on the wine’s age and varietal characteristics. Most young wines, especially big, bold reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Barolo or Syrah benefit from decanting. Not because it helps to soften tannins, but rather by dissipating undesirable sulfer-based compounds it allows the fruit characteristics to concentrate and intensify giving more focused aromas and a smoother mouthfeel, making tannins appear softer. To work effectively, the decanter needs to have lots of surface area such as the Riedel Ultra Decanter or the Riedel Duck Decanter, which combines practicality with aesthetics. In case you’re concerned about leaded glass, try The Ultimate Decanter by Nachtmann or the Eisch Dripless Captain’s Decanter as lead-free alternatives.
In effect, decanting isn’t adding anything to the wine. Instead, it’s subtracting undesirable compounds through dissipation and evaporation. However, allowing the wine to sit too long in a decanter can have a detrimental effect. Decanting any wine too far in advance of serving could rob the wine of the very fruit aromas that you are trying to enhance. With a younger wine, you could be left with an overly-oaky and harsh taste as the fruit characteristics oxidize. With older wines, you could end up with something stale, flat and lacking in richness. So what’s the best way to decant and still hit this elusive sweet-spot?
Allow your wine to settle in an upright position for at least one day for younger wines and preferably as long as four days for wines older than 15 years. This gives the fine particles of sediment time to settle to the bottom of the bottle if you’ve been storing it horizontally.
Plan to open your wine about 90 minutes prior to when you anticipate drinking it. Carefully remove the foil entirely and wipe off the neck of the bottle. Remove the cork without disturbing the wine too much. Start off by trying some of the wine straight out of the bottle. If the aromas are intense and flavors are full and rich, the only reason to decant would be to remove any sediment, so you could wait to decant immediately before serving. Go ahead and stick the cork back in it and wait until you’re ready to serve it. The amount of air exposure from opening the bottle is negligible. If on the other hand the wine seems tight, lacking in aromas and fruit character, or has some slight sulfur odors, you should decant well in advance of drinking.
The traditional proper way to decant wine was using a candle under the neck of the bottle to see when sediment starts to pour out. That’s just too tricky and messy. The new proper way to decant wine is using a bright flashlight. Shine the beam through the neck of the bottle as you gently and slowly pour from the bottle into the decanter. Stop when you begin to see particles or cloudiness. You should have less than an ounce or two left with sediment which is discarded. An easier method uses a funnel with a very fine screen to filter out all but the smallest sediment particles which will most likely remain in the decanter. The sediment in wine occurs naturally as wine ages and molecules of color and tannins precipitate from the wine. This sediment is harmless but gives wine an undesirable cloudy appearance and could add unpleasant bitter flavors and grittiness.
What about white wines? Most white wines won’t have any sediment unless they haven’t been cold-stabilized, in which case, you may get small tartrate crystals. Some white wines will benefit from decanting, allowing more of the fruit and mineral characteristics to shine through as sulfur compounds and fermentation aromas evaporate. But many people like to decant a white wine simply because it makes for better presentation. In this case, a decanter such as the Riedel Amadeo Lyra Decanter makes for an impressive way to serve your white wines. A more cost-conscious yet elegant option is the Riedel Cornetto Sommelier Decanter.
So whether its to filter out sediment or to open up a young wine, or simply to serve your wine with elegance, there’s an art to decanting and IWA has a great selection of decanters to help you decant in style.