Knowing which wines should be decanted is an essential skill, whether you’re a casual wine drinker or a serious collector. Nearly all fine wines, especially young ones, benefit from some decanting, as the process releases subtle aromas and flavors in the wine. However, while most wines—young or old, valuable or inexpensive—can be decanted, that doesn’t mean you must, or should, decant every bottle. To find out which wines should be decanted and for how long, follow your eyes and nose, consider the bottle’s age, and make an estimate based on the wine variety and style. This guide will walk you through this decision process so you can enjoy your wine at its best.
Why Is Decanting Important?
To determine which wines you should decant, it’s helpful to understand how and why this process works. There are two main reasons that you should consider decanting most of the bottles in your collection:
Reason #1: Oxidation Changes the Flavor of Many Wines
When you expose wine to the air in a decanter, oxidation “blows off” some of the unpleasant aromatics in the wine and opens up the more desirable notes. For instance, high-end white Burgundy can smell like burnt matches when you first uncork the bottle (the wines of Domaine Leflaive are known to have this quality). If you smell burnt matches when you first open the bottle, try decanting the wine for 30 minutes and continue decanting until the smell dissipates. Usually, this aroma will soften in less than an hour, and you’ll be left with more pleasant notes like white peaches and wood spices. This technique can be used to soften any bitter or astringent notes. While decanting doesn’t always remove these aromas or flavors from a wine, it can push them to the background so they meld into the other complex flavors. If you’re not impressed with a wine on first sip, try decanting it for a while before passing judgment—the results may surprise you.
Additionally, if you taste a wine and find that it’s a bit too bland or simplistic in flavor, let it sit in the decanter for about an hour. The more the wine makes contact with the air, the more aromatics are released, which improve the way the wine tastes (since so much of taste is dependent on aroma). This is why professional wine critics swirl their wine glasses—they want the wine to release its aromatics around the lip of the glass.
Reason #2: Decanting Separates Sediment from the Wine
Decanting wine allows the wine’s sediment to sink to the base of the decanter before you pour it into a glass. As wine ages, solid particles of sediment naturally separate from the liquid and fall to the bottom of the bottle. However, when you take that bottle off the rack and uncork it, you disturb the sediment, and it mixes with the rest of the wine. Because this sediment has a bitter taste, many people like to pour the entire bottle into a decanter at least an hour before serving, which gives the sediment time to sink back down to the bottom.
After you decant the bottle, check on the wine every 30 minutes and serve it when all or most of the sediment has reached the bottom.
You can actually use sediment to decide how long to decant your wine. Hold the bottle up to the light and look for solid material floating in the liquid; the more sediment you see, the longer you typically need to decant. After you decant the bottle, check on the wine every 30 minutes and serve it when all or most of the sediment has reached the bottom. This process usually takes about an hour, sometimes more. You can safely drink sediment, so don’t fret if some still makes its way into your wine glasses.
It’s also important to remember that some older wines can only be decanted for a very short period of time, if at all. For example, aged bottles of Chateau d’Yquem may be decanted, but if they spend too much time in a decanter some of the nuanced flavors will be lost to the atmosphere. You should never try to remove sediment from a wine if it means compromising its delicate flavors. If you want to avoid sediment, you can always let the wine sit in the bottle after opening it and pour the wine more carefully into your glass directly from the bottle. You don’t necessarily need to go through the extra step of decanting the entire bottle.
Which Wines Should Be Decanted?
One way to decide whether you should decant a wine is to smell or taste it first. A wine’s flavor can change based on storage conditions, travel (extensive travel may cause wine to taste blander than usual for a few days, a phenomenon called bottle shock), and other factors. So, it’s wise to test your specific bottle before you commit to decanting it. Consider decanting the wine if:
- You smell bitter notes or heavy oak/wood (some young Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is heavily oaked and benefits from decanting)
- You smell very little when you open the bottle
- The wine tastes overly acidic (young Italian wines made from Sangiovese often have this quality)
- You can only pick out a few notes (the wine lacks complexity)
You can also make an educated guess on whether a wine is worth decanting by looking at the wine variety’s typical characteristics. Some styles and varieties of wine are known for decanting well and, in fact, may require some decanting to bring out the full complexity of their flavors and aromas. Here are a few recommended decanting times based on the type of wine you have:
- High-Tannin, Bold Reds: Decant intense, tight wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Barolo for about two hours (unless they are more than 20 years old or already taste superb).
- Young Light Reds: Decant lighter reds like Pinot Noir and Gamay for 30 minutes to one hour, if you feel they need it, and taste often to ensure you’re not losing flavor.
- Rich, Bold Whites: Decant bolder white wines like Chardonnay for about one hour.
- Light Whites: Decant light white wines like Pinot Grigio for only a few minutes at a time, up to a maximum of 30 minutes.
- Champagne: You can actually decant Champagne, however, keep your decanting times under one hour, and follow this detailed guide to decanting Champagne.
- Table Wine: There’s little point in decanting most table wine since it is designed to be approachable immediately after opening. However, you might get some unexpected complexity when you decant certain table wines for long periods. Bold reds can usually withstand as much as four hours of decanting, while whites can handle about an hour or two—taste test the wine every 30 minutes until it starts to open up.
These rules don’t apply to older wines as they tend to be more delicate. To decide which older wines should be decanted, consider when the wine was made, the region it is from, the producer that made it, and how well it was stored throughout its lifetime.
Before Decanting, Consider the Wine’s Age
Before you decant a bottle of 1982 Château La Mission Haut-Brion, you should know that age impacts how well a wine will hold together inside of a decanter. The older a wine is, the less time it can safely spend decanting. This is because mature wines start to lose their intense fruit flavors and their aromatics over time; any exposure to air will speed up this flavor loss. Decant wines that are 20 years old or older for no longer than 30 minutes, at most. Older wines that naturally have more intensity (like California Cabernet Sauvignon or top-quality Bordeaux) can withstand longer air exposure in a decanter, whereas lighter wines (like Pinot Noir or most white Burgundy vintages), can’t tolerate much decanting at all.
Collectors who are knowledgeable about which wines should be decanted can get more enjoyment from their wine by giving it time to open up.
Whether a wine is young or old, decanting can’t fix a bottle that is truly flawed or suffered under poor storage conditions. What it can do is improve your ability to taste flavors already present in the wine. Collectors who are knowledgeable about which wines should be decanted can get more enjoyment from their wine by giving it time to open up. Even the finest collectible wines in the world become more delicious when they spend time in a decanter. So next time you pull a bottle of fine wine out of storage, don’t let your decanter collect dust in the corner; take advantage of this simple and effective tool.
Whether you are starting your high-end wine collection or adding to an established portfolio, Vinfolio is your partner in buying, selling, and professional storage. Contact us today to get access to the world’s finest wine.