July 5, 2011

Decanting Wine

Move over Wedgewood, it’s time for Riedel! 

I’ll bet that you have an old china cabinet in your dining room. I will also wager that it’s filled with the same dishes that you painstakingly chose for your wedding registry while David Bowie was singing songs about modern love. Can I suggest that when you’ve finished reading this article, you will need that space for some new glassware…

In discussing wine and service, the question I am most frequently asked is ‘should I decant the bottle after opening it?’ Decanting is an age-old debate and many strong opinions on the subject exist, but before we dive into a discussion, let us first define the concept. To decant is to carefully pour the contents from the bottle into another flask of some description. This transfer accomplishes a number of things: primarily, aeration of the liquid, but the process also allows one to separate the wine from any sediment that has settled in the bottle over time. To explain, I’ll let you learn from my mistake, for in a moment of haste, I found myself scrambling down the stairs in search of another bottle from the cellar… “Really, it’s no trouble at all, there’s plenty of food; we’ll just set two more chairs at the table. Please, come in and make yourselves at home.” My wife is such a good-natured person. I had no idea they were planning to bring another couple with them, grumbling under my breath as I slide a second bottle from its resting place amidst the others in our cobweb crusted cellar.

Over time, older wine tends to throw unsightly sediment that will settle in the bottle. To abruptly move such a bottle is certain to stir the contents, and while the wine may appear reasonably clear as you pour, the dregs will reappear at the bottom of each glass as you enjoy your meal. Inevitably someone at the table will blurt out: “Hey, why is there powder in the bottom of my glass? Is this homemade wine or something? I thought you were some kind of wine expert…” The swine!

Having salvaged all but a fraction of my dignity since that awkward moment, I’ve since learned to keep a back-up bottle of the same label in a ready-to-go location prior each meal. It needn’t be at the table but should certainly be standing upright somewhere convenient. If upon tasting choice number one, you find it to be 'slightly off’ or as the lesson learned in my case, you run short, simply call-up the understudy and decant if necessary.

The formation of sediment will always necessitate decanting and the amount of dregs present in the bottle is a function of the type of wine, its age, and the degree of filtration received during production. I’ll recall from a previous article that better wine is that which undergoes the least amount of processing i.e. filtration, chemical additives, and industrial meddling. During the ageing process, the tannin (bitterness) and colour pigment of the wine begin to fall out of solution as a powder-like substance in the bottle. If you note sediment in the bottle, I suggest that you pour the wine through a filter after standing the bottle upright the day before to allow the dregs time to settle.

Decanting for aeration is a matter of personal preference though you should ask yourself: when is it applicable? With prolonged storage and partly due to the minute amount of air present in the bottle, better wine will change, becoming less tannic, softer, and more approachable. Decanting simply expedites this process and typically an hour or two of breathing time is enough to smooth a young wine’s hard edges, though in some cases, you might want to decant the bottle that you intend to serve with dinner as early as breakfast on the same day. It really does make a significant difference.

In terms of presentation, I think you’ll agree that wine is more enjoyable when we dress it up with a touch of class. That might include a special meal or simply a beautifully polished glass or crystal decanter.  But what if you are partial to the bottle and would prefer that your guests see it as well? Other than placing the empty on the table, you might consider ‘double-decanting’ which involves pouring the wine into a flask and then back into the original bottle. By doing so, you filter out the sediment, initiate some aeration, and can still pour from the original vessel. Just remember to rinse out the dregs left behind in the bottle. For this, I use a little of the wine, though water is sufficient provided you get most of it out before refilling the bottle.

Decanting technique is more a question of style than anything else and you can opt for the quick, easy, and failsafe method of simply pouring the wine through a filter, or perhaps the more formal and traditional practice of decanting by candlelight; I guarantee this will raise eyebrows, let me explain: After allowing the sediment to settle overnight, carefully uncork and pour the wine in one continuous motion into the decanter while watching the candle’s flame through the neck of the bottle (a flashlight is a better source of light, but let’s go for some pizzazz here). With the absence of a filter to catch the dregs, you must stop pouring once the sediment begins to appear in the neck of the bottle. The amount remaining is contaminated with sediment and should be discarded – it’s all part of the show and with a little practice, you’ll be able to salvage all but a swallow of the wine.

Regardless of colour or style, the majority of wine for sale in your local wine shop does not require decanting. In general, if it follows the 3F principle (Fun, Frilly, and Fruity) or if it comes in a box, tin can, tetra-pack, or with a unicorn or fuzzy friend on the label, don’t insult yourself or anyone else by suggesting that it will improve with some breathing time – it will not. Decanting is normally reserved for full-bodied red wines such as Vintage Port, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Malbec, and the big Italians like Amarone, Barolo, and Brunello. 

A quick word on decanting white wine: the consensus is no, do not, unless the bottle contains tartrate crystals (white flakes floating about in the wine) or falls under the category of high-end Burgundy (chardonnay) or perhaps a heavily oaked example of the same from California.

As for a particular style of decanter, the possibilities are endless and you can really let your creativity run wild here. A perfectly suitable glass decanter will cost around $10 or run you in excess of $500 for something unusual – they do exactly the same thing. Just make sure it fits in Grandma’s old china cabinet before you fork out the cash.


This article was written by T.Philp and first published in the Summer 2011 edition of Footprints Magazine.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Great article, Tyler! I really should go out and buy a decanter one of these days.

  3. I want, want, want the serpent looking decanter from reidel so badly!! Seghesio uses it to serve their "venom" wine. Awesome!!!

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  5. But it can be difficult to find out whether it is really worth buying an aerator to use in your own home or not. Are they just for show or for professional use, or can you get plenty of good use out of them at home? More to the point are there worth buying at all?

    decantus wine aerator


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Tyler is a member of the Wine Writers' Circle of Canada and the Guild of Sommeliers. He writes about and reviews wine both online and via a variety of circulating publications. In 2009 Tyler founded North of 9 Fine Wine, a free public wine education resource where he publishes his Thoughts, Theory, and Recommendations. For additional vinous related information and learning, follow on Twitter @TylerOnWine