To Decant or Not to Decant, That is the Question?

The other night while making dinner for a friend, I decided to serve a bottle of 1995 Il Palazzone Riserva Brunello di Montalcino, a coveted Five Star Vintage that I have been eyeing in my collection for quite some time. Since I was busy cooking I gave my friend the task of pouring the wine. Just as I was taking the rack of lamb out of the oven, I looked over and saw my friend about to pour the wine straight from the bottle to our glasses. I quickly interjected and suggested we decant it. With a puzzled look on my friends face, he asked why? I responded (with a slightly unsure answer), letting him know that I typically decant older vintage wines as it helps to remove any sediment and to coax in the development of the flavor profile.

Brunello di Montalcino is one of the most famous and prized red wines produced anywhere in the world. It is made entirely from the Sangiovese grape and it is one of the longest-lived red wines of Italy, with most bottlings drinking well for 12-30 years. According to Alder Yarrow, of the blog Vinography, he suggests to decant Sangiovese as far in advance as possible. As Sangiovese, more so than any other grape, seems to require a lot of oxygen contact to open up. The younger the wine, the more he says to decant it, but even when serving a 20 year old Sangiovese, he suggests should remain in the decanter for at least an hour prior to drinking.

Since it seems there is some controversy about the notion of to decant or not to decant a wine, I decided to do a bit of research and get down to the bottom of it! Many experts say yes to decanting as it helps to soften the wines tannins, where others say it may ruin a wine by overexposing it to oxygen.

Decanting can be defined as pouring a liquid from one vessel to another to separate it from its sediments and to allow it to breathe, to improve its taste. In my research I found that many wines on the shelves today have no real need for decanting. The modern winemaking process ensures the wine is thoroughly clarified before it is bottled, by a process of fining (passing egg whites or bentonite clay through to collect solid matter) and mechanical filtration.

But wines which have aged in bottle (10 years of more), typically red wines rather than white, may acquire sediment. This sediment can be displeasing to the eye, and can also be unpleasant in the mouth, which is why they would deserve decanting.

Some young wines such as bold reds (Cabernet Sauvignon, Barolo, Bordeaux) and even some whites (Mersault , Chardonnay) can also benefit from decanting, although not for the removal of sediment (as there is rarely any such sediment in young wines), but rather to aerate the wine. The action of decanting softens the youthful bite and encourages the development of the more complex aromas that would normally develop when aged in bottle. But, be careful what you choose to decant, author Karen MacNeil, The Wine Bible, notes that it could be harmful for more delicate wines like Chianti and Pinot Noir.

The effectiveness of decanting is still a hot topic with some wine experts like Emile Peynaud claiming that the prolonged exposure to oxygen when decanting actually diffuses and dissipates more aroma compounds than it stimulates. And that the process of decanting over a period of a few hours does not have an effect of softening tannins. The softening of tannins occur during the winemaking process and oak aging when tannins go through a process of polymerization- decanting merely alters the perception of sulfites and other chemical compounds in the wine through oxidation, which can give some drinkers the sense of softer tannins in the wine.

So how do you know if a wine should be decanted? When in doubt, it is always good to verify if a wine needs to be decanted before unloading an entire bottle into a vessel. I suggest, start by pouring a small sip from the bottle to taste, then swirl it around in the glass to incorporate air and let it breathe for a minute or so, next take another sip, if the wine seemed to benefit and opened up after the second sip, then you may want to decant it. This can be slightly different for an older wine, I typically take a candle or flashlight up to the bottle to gage the amount of sediment before choosing to decant, but also tasting the wine works here too.

The How-To of Decanting:

Older Wines:
Since the decanting process in older wines is mainly for removing the sediment, it is best to stand the bottle in which you will decant upright the day before (or at least for several hours) to allow the sediment to settle. When opening, take the cork out and slowly pour the wine at a 60 degree angle into the decanter. Stop pouring when you see sediment start to pour with the wine. Set the wine down and repeat again after 5 minutes. You may have to do this a few times to get all the wine out of the bottle. But since older wines are a bit more fragile, as it could possibly ruin a wine by overexposing it to oxygen, they should be decanted and served immediately.

Younger Wines:
Since the decanting process is to aerate younger wines, simply open the bottle and pour completely upside down into the decanter, this “beats up” the wine a little, giving it more air as you pour, which can speed the aerating process along. Once it is in the decanter, give it a few swirls and let it sit for a bit before serving. Another way to “decant” a younger wine is through an aerator pourer. In recent years several companies have designed these portable pourers, which attach to the opening of the bottle, allows the proper amount of air to be drawn into the wine, letting it breathe instantly. This is a great tool, if you only want a glass or two, as it allows you to pour as much as you want rather than decant an entire bottle.

Cleaning a Decanter:
Some decanters (such as the Eve by Ridel) may be a bit tricky to clean in a standard kitchen sink, so Maximillan Ridel suggest utilizing your bathtub or shower when rinsing one out. It is best to rinse it with mineral water to remove any residual chlorine odor. Never clean your decanter with detergent, because the shape of a decanter makes it very difficult to get the soapy residue out. When storing a cleaned decanter, same as nice stemware, be sure that it is spotless and free from any musty cupboard aromas.

Types of Glass Decanters:
Decanters come in all shapes and sizes, as well as price points. One is not particularly better than the other, but rather a personal preference. Some people like having a simple, clean designed decanter where others, like having a “show-piece” at their dinner table.

Riedel Decanter (from Williams-Sonoma $49) Riedel Amadeo Lyra Decanter ($395)
Decanter Helpers:

Cascadia Aerating Wine Funnel with Stand ($18.99)- Directs wine towards sides of decanter or glass while you pour enhances the bouquet & softens young wine, bringing out flavors that would take hours by simply decanting.

Types of Aerator Pourers:
Much like a decanter, these aerators come in different shapes and sizes, as well as price points. I have the Wine Soiree pourer, and like it, but have also had wine poured from the different aerators, which I think work nice as well. So again, it is up to personal preference!

Wine Soiree Decanter Aerator Pourer ($19.99)
Vinturi Essential Wine Aerator ($39.99)
Versovino Wine Decanting System ($40)


  1. Good to know, as I always just went by the price of the bottle to determine if I would decant or not to decant. If the bottle was cheap I wouldn't, because I was just drinking it to get drunk and if it was pricey I would decant because I would savor it, usually I would have really put the time in when purchasing so I would want the most out of it. Anyways we will discuss further upon your arrival and our wine tasting/party on Dec. 19th. Ciao Ciao.. Barry G

  2. To Decant or Not to Decant, is fully and beautifully illustrated. The same is true for other topics including colorful recipes.
    Thank you Em a La Mode.
    Au Revoir.

  3. Checking out a couple of sites where you can see wine aerator reviews is definitely a step in the right direction if you are looking for a wine aerator to buy. In fact, taking this first step is a must if you want to really get the best there is. You can find good and honest reviews about aerators for wine in both online and offline mediums. Magazines and other periodicals that discuss about these accessories is a good place to start. If you have access to the Internet, you might also want to search for these reviews online.

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