Let It Breathe: When to decant a bottle of wine

A bottle of wine being poured into a decanter // Photo by Aaron Job

A bottle of wine being poured into a decanter // Photo by Aaron Job

To decant or not to decant, that is the question.

Hold up—what is decanting anyway? In the simplest terms, it’s the act of pouring a liquid (wine) from a vessel (bottle) into another vessel (usually a glass carafe). Sounds easy enough. But should you do it? And why?

Some people think decanting is completely unnecessary and even potentially harmful to a wine. Others stand by it as an effective tool in their wine service arsenal. Personally, I am a fan of decanting. For me, it’s like the wine’s equivalent of getting home from work, putting on sweatpants, and cracking a cold beer. Which version of you feels better: the you that’s stuck in traffic unable to get out of your car or the you that is relaxing in the living room about to pop on your fave Netflix Original?

Aside from applying weird anthropomorphic personality traits to wine, there ​are two practical reasons for removing wine from the bottle before you drink—sediment and aeration.

Sediment

As wines age, they often collect sediment in the bottle. Older wines are more prone—the interaction between molecules like tannin and pigment causes them to fall out of solution over time. This is also why tannins tend to soften in older wines and the color is often less robust than their younger counterparts. 

But some wines are bottled unfiltered and even young wine (think boutique California cabernet sauvignon) may contain natural sediment. While not harmful to drink, sediment can be bitter and unpalatable. To decant for sediment, place a light under the bottle so you can see inside as you gently pour the wine down the side of the decanter. Stop pouring when you start to see sediment collecting near the neck of the bottle.

Aeration

Wine being aerated in a decanter // Photo by Aaron Job

Wine being aerated in a decanter // Photo by Aaron Job

Aerating is probably the most subjective reason to decant. In my opinion, most wines can benefit from a little aeration (even that little swirl you do in your glass counts), but some, including fine white Burgundy and young nebbiolo, may require quite a bit more. 

If you take a sip and feel the wine is “closed” or “tight,” like it’s missing some layers, aroma, or complexity, this might be a good reason to decant. According to Jancis Robinson, one of the world’s foremost wine experts, “Decanting a young wine can mimic the aging process to a certain extent.” 

If you opened a bottle and it seems a bit “spritzy” when it isn’t supposed to be, there may be residual CO2 in the bottle that decanting can help remove. If the wine doesn’t smell like much, or you are getting unpleasant aromas of nail polish remover, burnt matches, cooked vegetables, or hard-boiled eggs, your wine is an excellent candidate for decanting. There is a good chance that aeration will take care of these flaws, showing you the true expression of the wine underneath. I’ve been known to vigorously shake some wines in my decanter while trying to encourage volatile compounds to blow off.

Ultimately, it is up to you whether or not you want to experiment with decanting your bottle. Smell it, taste it, and make the call. And no, you don’t need an expensive glass carafe (I have even used a clean flower vase to decant when in need). Happy drinking!