Welcome to Vine Geeks, where Brian Reeder and Pavle Milic of AZ Wine Merchants take the drinking game quite seriously. Pay attention -- you might just learn something.
You may have heard of this 'decanting' business. In fact, you may have seen it at a restaurant and wondered why someone was pouring the wine from the bottle into a pretty glass jug before it found its way into glasses.
Was it because it looks so fancy? Yep. Was it to make sure the wine doesn't have all kinds of stuff floating in it? Yep. Was it to aerate or 'open up' the wine and expose it to oxygen? Yep.
Wine is decanted for any of the reasons above. I think that it's primarily done for the fanciness factor, because swirling and swishing your way to snooty-dom is a great way to impress friends and colleagues (or make them think you're a total snob.. or both). But, decanting does have merit - quite a bit of it depending on whom you talk to. Personally I think decanting is a great way to help a wine show it's very best in the right circumstances, and with the right bottle.
Do I decant every bottle I open? God no. For me it's an issue of how much I spent on the bottle, and how old it is. If I'm drinking a Tuesday night wine, you better believe it's going straight from the bottle to my glass - no stops in between needed. But if I'm at a nice dinner or opening a special/fun bottle, I'll try to treat the wine properly so that it's drinking well.
So, why would you decant a bottle of wine? There are primarily two reasons: removing sediment, and aerating the wine.
Decanting for sediment.
This has been the primary reason for decanting over the course of the centuries, as many older wines aren't filtered like their modern day counterparts. No filter = residue at the bottom of the bottle = eventually the bottom of your glass = unpleasant shock in the form of a mouthful of grit. No fun.
The process means leaving a bottle standing upright for a number of hours/days to allow all the sediment to accumulate at the bottom of the bottle, then carefully pouring the wine so that you leave all of the sediment in the bottle (and ideally all the wine in the decanter). Some say that it's ok to assist the process by dumping the wine through cheesecloth, but I wouldn't encourage it - small particles will still make it through and the cheesecloth may impart something to your spendy bottle.
So, what bottles would you decant for sediment? I would decant using this method for any bottle of red wine over 10 years old, as the wine may have had time to accumulate sediment. Be aware, as wines age they also become more delicate - if you're opening a bottle that's 20+ years old, you may just want to pour directly from the bottle to the glass after leaving the bottle upright for a day or two.
How do I decant without dumping all the grit in the decanter as well? Your best bet is to get a small flashlight and shine it through the wine - you'll be able to see where the sediment is and stop pouring before you reach it. Have a friend help out so you're not trying to pour and hold the flashlight and not break the decanter all by yourself.
Decanting for aeration.
This is a more recent reason to decant wine, with the intent of giving the wine additional oxygen in order to trigger the release of additional aromas. Essentially it's like swirling your wine in the glass, just with the whole bottle. Many believe that allowing the wine to 'open up' or 'breathe' allows the wine to become more aromatic and show it's true flavors and nuances, while allowing the wine to mellow out some harsh qualities it may have.
This process is a 180 from the sediment method. Here you are upending the bottle into the decanter, and swirling the bejesus out of it to open the wine as much as possible. In fact, some of taken this a step or two farther (more on this in a minute...)
What wines would you decant for aeration? It's up to you. Personally I would decant most 'big' red wines that have a lot of tannin. This means most cabernet sauvignon, syrah, zinfandel, tempranillo, petite sirah, etc. Anything that's going to knock the enamel off your teeth deserves to open up and soften a bit.
Do I decant every bottle I open? Nope. While some snobs and aficionados will decant white wines and all reds, you don't need to. I won't decant any whites, nor will I decant the more delicate reds - pinot noir or sangiovese. Note that this is subjective - if you want to decant your Diet Coke, who am I to stand in your way?!
Ok, so now that you've decided to decant every liquid you consume, what kind of decanter should you use? My rule of thumb is this; the more surface area exposed to oxygen, the better off you are. This doesn't mean you have to go out and spend $500 on a new Riedel decanter that looks like it'll shatter if a gentle breeze wafts through. In fact, you probably have something you could use as a decanter laying around the house! And if not, there are some great options for decanters you can pick up without breaking the bank.
A water pitcher. Have a pitcher sitting in your cupboard for the once a year you make sun tea? Break it out, clean it, and use it for your next bottle of Malbec. Cost: probably free, since you already have one.
A Vinturi. These little guys are perfect for aerating wine without having to pour from one vessel to another. They don't work for wines that you need to decant for sediment, but will enhance most young wines. Cost: $25-30, unlikely that you'll ever need to replace it.
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A normal decanter. These can be picked up at your neighborhood home store, and will do the trick for any bottle you want to open. Just look for the widest base possible, and be careful while washing them. Cost $20-50, may need to be replaced depending on how clumsy you are.
A fancy-shmancy decanter. You must drink lots of wine, drink expensive wine, want to look super cool while pouring, or like breaking stuff. These decanters are beautiful, delicate, and will get ooohs and aaaahs from your dinner guests. If you use it by yourself, I pity you. Cost: $300+, plan on accidentally breaking it at some point.
A blender. Whoa whoa whoa.. a blender?! Yep. A blender. Why!??! Try it - not on an expensive bottle (at first), but try it. Nathan Mhyrvold (look at his resume and tell me you haven't wasted your life...) coined the term to mean dumping a bottle of younger wine into a blender and cranking it to full power for 30 - 60 seconds, then letting the 'froth' subside. While this may sound crazy, but it accomplishes exactly what we want - aerating the wine. Just try it. It's actually kinda fun.