A few weeks ago, I opened a bottle of California Zinfandel and found the wine as dull as nails. Since this is a vintage that a good friend raved about, I decided to give it another shot, this time pouring it through my handheld wine aerator. Within moments, the bland Zinfandel transformed into a heady bouquet of flowers and rich red fruit; I could see why my friend recommended it. The best wine aerators and decanters won’t necessarily make a bad vintage taste like 2005 Latour, but they can greatly improve the aroma and flavor of your wine.
Types of Wine Aerators
You have a choice between two main types of wine aerators: handheld and in-bottle stoppers. All wine aerators add extra oxygen to the wine as it’s poured into the glass. Oxygen allows the aromatic compounds in the wine to expand, which means that you can taste more of these flavors. A study found that one trip through an aerator makes wine taste as open and delicious as a wine that’s been sitting in a decanter for 30 minutes. Aerators speed up the wine’s exposure to air to save you hours of decanting time.
A handheld aerator looks like a chemistry beaker or a miniature wine glass, depending on the brand. You hold these types of aerators above the glass, and the wine filters through the aerator’s chambers. Alternatively, some aerators sit on top of the glass, allowing you to pour the wine without balancing the aerator in your other hand. I personally use an aerator that sits on top of the glass because it makes the wine easier to pour, however, either version is equally effective. The main quality to look for in a great handheld aerator is a large bowl for the wine to filter through. The larger the surface area of the aerator, the more oxygen will flow through the wine, making it aromatic and flavorful.
Some aerators work by adding oxygen to the wine as it is poured out of the bottle. You push these types of aerators into the bottle like a stopper, then pour the wine as usual. Rather than letting the liquid flow freely, the aerator only allows a small amount of wine out at once, and this wine usually gets further filtered through a small bowl at the tip of the aerator. Make sure an in-bottle stopper has a bowl attached, or some other chamber that mixes the wine with oxygen. I don’t recommend using an in-bottle stopper without this feature, since in my experience they don’t aerate the wine as effectively.
Types of Wine Decanters
Like aerators, wine decanters come in an almost infinite number of shapes, but you’ll usually only come across four main styles: standard, cornetto, duck, and swan.
These are among the largest decanters on the market, with a wide base that forms the shape of the letter J. You pour the wine through the wide end, and its wide base allows the wine to absorb oxygen while the sediment inside sinks to the bottom. When you’re ready to serve, you pour the wine through the thin flute on the other side, mixing even more oxygen into the wine as you do so. This is the best decanter for bold wines that need both aeration and sediment separation. Use this for a wine like 2007 Screaming Eagle.
A duck decanter is a squat bowl that appears to be tipped on its side. It usually has just one tapered opening at the top, and a glass handle for easy pouring. This decanter won’t aerate your wine as much as a swan, but it’s perfect for sediment-heavy wines or dinner parties. The handle makes it one of the easiest decanters to use on a daily basis. Try this for wines heavy in sediment, like vintage Port.
A cornetto has a wide base and a long, slightly curved neck. The length of the neck helps aerate the wine after the sediment is separated. This is a great option for wines that are slightly more fragile than their bold red peers, since the base is narrow enough to only let in a small amount of oxygen at a time. Use this for aged Leflaive, which only needs a small amount of decanting.
The best option is to invest in a quality standard decanter, since it gives you a balance between sediment separation and aeration. A standard decanter has a wide base and a tapered neck that works well for both red and white wines. Buy one small standard decanter as well as one large version. Use the large decanter for big, bold reds like Syrah, and the smaller decanter for white wines or light-bodied reds, like Pinot Noir. Your lighter wines are more delicate, so they will need less contact with oxygen than a bold wine.
When to Use Each Type
A decanter does the work of an aerator, but in a gentler process that takes much longer. Although using a decanter is a longer process, this method is more effective for older wines as it’s able to separate out the wine’s sediment. If you just use an aerator, you may end up mixing the sediment in with the rest of the wine, which could alter its flavor for the worse. Because of this, I use a handheld aerator for young wines and a standard decanter for my older wines.
However, if I have a massive, bold red wine with plenty of sediment, I use both an aerator and a standard decanter for the best results. A wine like this can withstand far more oxygen than a crisp Riesling. Your delicate white wines must be treated like fragile works of art; don’t slosh them from container to container. My grandmother used to tell me, “Pour your white wine as if every spilled drop takes a year off your life.”
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