Among other things, for yesterday’s Thanksgiving dinner we drank, a nice Bourgueil that I had enjoyed before. This time it was on another level of enjoyment. The difference was that about an hour before we sat down to eat, I decanted it. This reminded me that many wines benefit from decanting.
Decanting is simply the act of pouring a wine from one container (the bottle) into another (the decanter). The decanter can be any container that will hold the wine and you can pour from. There are a multitude of designs for decanters but the best have a fairly wide mouth and neck followed by an even wider base. The first two make easy to pour the wine in. The last exposes the wine to more air.
There are two benefits to decanting. First many wines have some degree of sediment in them. If you carefully pour the wine into the decanter, you can stop before you get to the sediment. The second is you expose the wine to the air and the oxygen in the air.
If you have read other posts in the Wine Basics section you will see that wine has a love hate relationship with oxygen. Oxygen is needed when the juice is fermenting. No oxygen means no fermentation and thus no wine (shudder). Once fermentation is complete oxygen becomes something of an enemy. Anything other than a minute amount of oxygen can make a wine spoil. Oxygen is what makes badly sealed bottle go bad over time. When you open a bottle it is your friend again. All those wonderful aromas need air to develop. Sometimes some less than good smells disappear after a bottle has been open a while. Flavors seem to soften and meld better when they have had some time in the air. After that night though oxygen switches back to being bad as too much oxygen over time makes a wine go bad.
So what wines benefit from being decanted? First, almost exclusively red wines. While white wines and Rose can benefit from the oxygen, they can be hard to keep cool in a decanter and they tend to get to much oxygen much more quickly than red wines. Second only decant wines you intend to finish that night.
So which red wines? Any wine that has a lot of sediment can most easily be separated by decanting. That said, the conventional wisdom is that older bottles really benefit as they are the ones most likely to have sediment. While this is true, I am cautious about decanting a really old bottle as if they are past their prime you can loose a lot of flavor and aroma if you decant too soon. I tend to just pour with care from the bottle if I am opening a wine that is over 15 years old.
I find the most benefit comes from decanting younger bottles. For economic and space reasons many wines are sold and consumed when they are on the young side. While you can’t age a wine to maturity in a decanter you can let it show all that it has.