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A lot has been said and written about the advantages and disadvantages, and the convenience or not, of decanting wine. Of course, not all wines are the same, and while this procedure can help a specific wine display all of its power and complexity, it could cancel or hide another wine’s attributes.
We’ll start by explaining what a decanter is and what it’s used for.
The decanter is a transparent glass container, shaped like a bottle, whose base is wider than its mouth.
What do we use a decanter for in a wine tasting or service?
A decanter can be used for two reasons:
Both of these have an effect on our perception of the taste, texture and aroma of the wine.
There are certain wines that, when opened—due to their production method in which they had barely any contact with oxygen—we can find some smells called “reductive,” that is to say, notes of confinement, humidity, or even some sulfuric undertones. If, when we open a bottle, we find this problem; it is necessary to transfer the wine from the bottle to the decanter in order to aerate or oxygenate the wine, making the unpleasant odors disappear. Aeration allows for the wine to express all its flow and aromatic diversity.
We can also carry out this process with the objective of helping wine breathe: there are certain young, structured wines that have had significant aging in the bottle. They are definitely complex wines which will need that imprint of oxygen to be able to fully manifest all of their attributes. In this sense, the decanter works like a wine glass, but with there being much more contact between wine and oxygen, the aeration process will be much faster. Here we evaluate the time that we have: if we want the wine to express itself immediately with all that it has to offer, we will transfer it to the decanter. However, if we do have more time, we can serve the wine directly in a glass so that it starts opening up in layers, in stages; so that we can enjoy and be surprised by its changes.
For oxygenation to make sense, whatever the reason previously described may be, it must be done well in advance: anytime between 1-2 hours before being served.
The prominent Spanish sommelier, Ferran Centelles—who worked in the mythical El Buli—says: “If the wine has sediments, my advice is to always decant it to eliminate them, so that they don’t fall into the glass when serving the wine. If this happens, the wine will close itself up aroma-wise, it will have less expression, and it will develop earthy aromas, since the sediments will react with the oxygen and won’t allow other compounds in the wine to use it. Oxygen, once the bottle is open, combines with aromatic molecules and these become easier to perceive. Therefore, if there are sediments, it’s best to decant.”
If we make reference to the term ‘decant,’ it implies a separation of the phases. In the case of wine, this means separating a solid phase from a liquid phase.
The sediments that are in a wine bottle are due to the passage of time; in certain aged wines, some solubilized components, such as coloring matter or tartaric salts, precipitate. There’s also the case of young wine that has not been filtered, a technique that’s used increasingly in oenology given that excessive filtering can result in the loss of aromas and flavors.
These solids, although they don’t directly harm wine and are completely innocuous, can produce a sensation of roughness or bitterness in the mouth that might compromise the wine’s balance and harmony. That’s why it’s convenient to separate them.
In this manner, we should allow the bottle to stand for a prudent amount of time (ideally 12hrs) before decanting, with the objective of allowing the sediments to settle at the bottom of the bottle. Then we will transfer the wine to the decanter, and when we see that the solids start to appear, we will interrupt the procedure. This way we will have the “clean” liquid in the decanter and the solids will remain in the bottle.
At what point will we do the decanting? It depends on the wine’s profile and style.
In the case of young, corpulent, and complex wines, we will proceed in the same fashion as when oxygenating; meaning, a few hours before serving, given that these wines will be favored by extra oxygenation.
The case for aged wines, which have a significant degree of evolution in the bottle, is different. These are wines with age, very interesting and attractive in their aromatic palette, but with certain structural fragility given the passage of time. Here, the greatest risk is over oxygenating the wine, causing it to lose all of its complexity, its charm, and the captivating aromas that it accumulated during its aging period. That’s why we must proceed with caution, and only decant at the time of serving, not before.
We can conclude that the majority of wines don’t require any action involving the use of a decanter. Only a few manage to express themselves better and improve by utilizing it. If a wine that doesn’t need decanting is decanted, the excess oxygen can cause it to lose its aromatic expression. The ideal path is to try the wine and then ask oneself if there is something that can be gained by decanting it. Our Membership wines are especially suited for decanting, so if you’re ready to try this method, our La Familia wine box would be a great starting point.
Sommelier and lawyer, in that order. Professor in the career of Sommelier at EAV (Argentine School of Wine). Head Sommelier at Vida Wines, importer of Argentine wines in the USA. He used to work at Bodegas Atilio Avena and Goyenecha. He was a member of the tasting panel of Austral Spectator. 50 years.