Decanting is the act of pouring wine from a bottle into a second vessel before serving. With a bit of forethought and extra attention, it’s a simple step to elevate any wine experience. But what can (and can’t) decanting do? Read on for the basics of this rewarding technique.
What Can Decanting Do?
Decanting can be useful for a number of reasons. For older or unfiltered wines, decanting is used to separate the wine from its sediment. Sediment isn’t harmful — it’s typically just potassium bitartrate (cream of tartar) and grape skins — but it’s visually unappealing in the glass, and will give a gritty texture and bitter, astringent flavor when drunk in wine.
Another reason to decant is to allow the wine to aerate, or take in oxygen. Highly tannic and full-bodied wines in particular often benefit from exposure to air, which can help soften their taste and texture, making way for more subtle complexity of flavor.
Decanting may also solve some volatile sulfur issues, including excess hydrogen sulfide, which can cause smells like rotten eggs, as well as problems with mercaptans, which can cause the aroma of burnt matches.
How Long To Decant For
While the active time of decanting is merely the length of pouring a bottle of wine, wait time can vary, typically from five minutes to two hours. It’s possible to over-decant, however, so taste-testing as you go is a good idea. If over-decanted, a wine may lose its aromas or develop dry, bitter off-notes due to oxidation. There’s no coming back from too much oxygen exposure, so be careful!
So how long DO you decant for? That depends on the wine. High-tannin, full-bodied red wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, or Barolo will often want about two hours, and it’s a good idea to start tasting about an hour in, while lighter reds like Beaujolais or Pinot Noir generally only require 30-45 minutes, with more frequent tasting to make sure they’re not dropping off. Rich whites like Chardonnays can decant about an hour, while lighter whites like Pinot Gris may only need a few minutes to half an hour at most. You can also decant Champagne and other sparkling wines: It’s a delicate balance, however, allowing the wine to open up without losing its desirable fizz, so read this detailed guide first and don’t plan to decant bubbly for any more than an hour maximum.
What Can’t Decanting Do?
Decanting will not fix a wine that has been corked. “Corked” or “cork taint” refers to wine damaged by 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole (TCA), observed as the unsavory aroma and taste of wet newspaper, musty basement, or wet dog.
Decanting won’t fix heat or light damage either. Heat damage can present as an overly sweet, processed, burnt-sugar quality, while light-struck wine may taste like wet sweater. Bottles that have been carelessly handled and stored too hot or in direct light can suffer from these faults and, unfortunately, decanting will be unable to save them.
In order to prevent these flaws, since decanting can’t fix them, make sure to purchase wine from a reputable merchant who will take proper care of bottles during storage and transport to prevent heat or light damage and who will refund any bottles that turn out to have cork taint.