Even people who have a casual acquaintance with wine have heard about decanting — that fabled process of allowing wine to “breathe” before you drink. Decanting has been extremely popular among wine enthusiasts for centuries, and today there’s vast array of interesting pitchers that can be used as decanters.
But do they really do anything? Does decanting really make the wine taste different? For those of you who regard it as nothing more than a long-term fad, here are several important facts you should know.
Agitation does help … with young wines
Agitation is the fancy word for stirring up the wine a bit, which typically happens when the wine is decanted. This is intended to mix some oxygen and air with the wine, to allow for a little bit of separation that’s designed to improve the flavor and more equally distribute the body of the wine.
Agitation has a minimal impact, but most wine fans agree it makes a difference, especially for younger wines that need a little vigor before they are drunk.
Older wines have a different problem: sediment
Here’s the scoop: Decanting was originally designed to solve the very real problem of sediment in old, dark wines. Dark wines that have sat in the same position for a long time tend to gather sediment of grape pulp and skin, and certain salts and other chemicals.
When a bottle is poured, this sediment gets stirred up and instead of a glass of pure wine, drinkers get a mouthful of often-bitter dregs. Decanting became fashionable for wines without even a trace of sediment, but it’s still a great practice for an older red wine.
You don’t need a fancy decanting jar
A decanting jar is not really necessary for removing sediment. If you don’t have one of those decanters handy, there’s a widely practiced trick: Let the wine sit in one place for at least a couple of hours so the sediment settles. Then carefully open the wine without disturbing it, and shine a flashlight into the glass as you pour.
This will allow you to pour out a glass carefully, but stop when the darker sediment nears the brim. As a result, you and your friends can enjoy the pure wine without worrying about the dregs.
Volatile substances will often evaporate
If you do let the wine sit out for a long period of time, its taste will eventually change. It’s difficult to say how much, but the wine may taste a little smoother or lighter after it’s decanted. This is because decanting allows the volatile substances in wine to evaporate into the air — especially if the wine is already room temperature.
The longer the wine sits, the more noticeable the effects. Wine snobs generally enjoy the flavor of wine without the most volatile, alcoholic particles ruining their first taste, which is why decanting for an appreciable time before drinking is often practiced.
The more air exposure, the faster the process
If you accept that the small amount of evaporation that occurs after decanting still improves the first tastes and that key “aroma” of wine, then choose a decanter that allows maximum exposure to the wine. This is why so many decanters have those wide brims and shallow bases that allow for as much exposure as possible.
It works for any type of wine, but it’s still most suitable for those richer, older, darker wines.
If you can’t decant, you can still improve the bouquet
The evaporation and settling effects can be achieved mildly by simply uncorking the wine and leaving it in the bottle for a while. This works if you don’t have a decanter available. Of course, if you want to decant, then by all means look for a fancy decanter to impress your friends.