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Decanting – allowing aromas to fully unfold

Serving wine from a decanter is far more than just an affectation. It really works wonders with flavours. In some cases it can release a veritable explosion of aromas.

Why decant a wine?

Often a wine only fully reveals its character after being decanted. Pouring the wine into a wide-bodied glass carafe separates it from bitter sediments and exposes it to oxygen so it can breathe. But this is something that needs to be learned – good timing and the right vessel are essential. Mondovino tells you all you need to know.
Why not simply pour the wine directly from the bottle? Decanting a wine may seem like unnecessary faff but there are good reasons for it. Decanting helps to
  • remove sediment from old wine
  • aerate young wine to reveal its aromas
  • make a good impression – wine is more enjoyable when poured from a stylish carafe instead of from a scruffy, musty smelling bottle.
Wine may have been stored for several months or years. During ageing, tartrate crystals can form from the tartaric acid in the wine and settle together with pigments and tannins at the bottom of the bottle. If you pour them directly into a wine glass, sediments are not only unappetizing, they also destroy the aroma. The overall impression is of bitterness, and the mouthfeel of the wine will be unpleasant. A decanter separates the wine from the sediment – absolutely essential after lengthy ageing.
When it comes to aerating wine, opinions are divided. Aeration has both enthusiastic proponents and strong opponents among wine experts. As there is no concrete evidence one way or the other, it is not possible to objectively decide who is right and who is wrong. It ultimately comes down to one's own experience, personal preference and good timing. What is true though is that many young red wines, and white wines too, can seem rather bland immediately after opening, but then exhibit more complex notes after a time. There are also other wines that are very fragile and once they are past their prime, their aromatic balance disintegrates. So a wine decanter could achieve the opposite of what was intended: after just a few minutes the wines develop an unpleasant smell and lose their freshness and fruitiness.
The reason that wines are so mutable after the bottle has been opened lies in the way they have been stored. After bottling, a wine gradually uses up oxygen. Once the cork has been removed, it therefore reacts more vigorously when it comes into contact with air. Rapid oxidation then has an impact on its aroma and flavour. As their tannins are less ripe, decanting is usually only suitable for young red wines.
The special shape of a wine decanter creates a greater surface area for the wine to come into contact with air. Wide-bodied carafes with narrow necks have space for a lot of oxygen. The wide surface area ensures even aeration. The bigger the opening, the more air the wine will have to breathe. The decanter should hold about twice the amount of the wine in the bottle to be decanted. Only clear glass will allow you to assess the colour and keep a close eye on the sediment.

What wines should be decanted?

Every wine is different. There are a couple of general guidelines based on grape variety and age however:
  • Young red wines: Wines made from very tannic grape varieties benefit from decanting to soften the tannins. These include Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Carignan, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Tempranillo and Tannat. Proceed with caution with varieties that are not so tannic such as Pinot noir, Gamay and Merlot.
  • Red wines ready for drinking: Age is a factor irrespective of grape variety. Sometimes even a few minutes makes a difference. Wines that have been aged for a long time are very fragile and can be spoiled by contact with air as it makes them sour and metallic-tasting. It is therefore usually unwise to decant such wines.
  • White wines: As a rule, decanting will intensify the aromas and flavours of all white wines. Aeration is beneficial for ones aged in oak barrels in particular. Chardonnays, for instance, require several hours for this to dissipate yeasty aromas and ensure that oak never gains the upper hand in the balance of flavours.

Removing sediment – how to decant a wine

Decanting requires a measure of patience and skill. Take it step by step:
  • Fetch the wine from the cellar and stand it upright: Before decanting it is important to bring the bottle out of your wine cellar without shaking it. And unlike in the cellar, you should then stand the bottle upright. Allow the bottle to rest for a while so the sediment falls to the bottom, ideally for several days.
  • Carefully open the bottle: Take care not to disturb the sediment when you open the bottle. It's best to uncork it with the bottle standing upright.
  • Decant the wine into the decanter over a light: This requires a steady hand and considerable dexterity. Hold the bottle in front of a light source so you can watch the sediment moving. The focused beam of a candle or a torch is best. Slowly pour the wine into the carafe. Put down the bottle as soon as the hazy sediment appears at the neck of the bottle. It helps to twist the bottle slightly at the end. This prevents the particles advancing any further. A small amount of wine is left behind in the bottle.
Various aids are available for those with less steady hands. The most gentle way is to use a decanting machine. This allows a bottle to be decanted using a hand crank while it is still lying horizontally in the cellar. Funnels with an integrated filter also make it easier to decant a wine. Special cradles that hold the bottle at a constant angle so the sediment can settle are available as well.
It is only necessary to separate the sediment in older wines that have formed sediments due to prolonged ageing. As a rule, the older the wine, the more it will suffer from contact with oxygen. It is therefore advisable to decant older wines immediately before drinking. A slim decanter with a narrow neck or an empty wine bottle are good for old red wines.

How to aerate wine

Wide-bodied carafes with a flat base and wide necks are best for aerating wines. Decanting funnels help to aerate the wine already while pouring it into the carafe. Giving the bottle a good swirl then rapidly pouring the wine into the carafe also aerates it and accelerates the process.
If the decanter was previously chilled, the wine must be brought up to temperature. It will need to stand for a long time so should not warm up too quickly. Now wait. How long you need to wait depends on the age of the wine. The younger the wine, the longer it should be kept in the decanter so its flavours can continue evolving. Young reds will sometimes need only two hours. More time will be required for immature white wines. Regular wine tasters can easily watch how the flavours develop.
Try it for yourself and discover the subtle differences. Red or white, young or old – with just a few clicks you can order one of these fine wines from Mondovino to be delivered directly to your door.