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An Essential Guide to Wine Decanting

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The decanter is an indispensable tool in the wine connoisseur’s arsenal.  Not only is it an elegant way to serve wine, it also serves a purpose. More than one actually! Read on to learn more about when to decant wine, how to decant wine, and what type of decanter you should use.

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What is a Wine Decanter?

The wine decanter is both practical and decorative.  It assists in eliminating sediment and allows for a greater expression of aromas by way of aeration. Transparency also allows you to admire the full color spectrum and watch the way your wine glints in the light.

When wines have been aging for a long time on racks, sediment begins to build up along the sides of the bottle. While sediment is a perfectly normal occurrence, it does affect the clarity and texture of the wine.

Time inside the bottle also means very little exposure to oxygen. Aromatic molecules need air to express themselves and their evolution. Imagine a butterfly inside the chrysalis. Assuming your wine has been stored properly and has enough structure to survive the ages, it needs to escape the confines of a bottle to truly spread its wings.

You’ve waited a long time to enjoy these wines. It’s worth the effort to experience them in all their glory.

When to use a Wine Decanter

Decanters are optional.  A capacious wine glass with a small and slow pour will do the trick, but a decanter can speed the process.

For wines like Barolo and Barbaresco that begin quite tannic and later release incredible aromas and evolve a velvety palate over decades, a decanter allows to you to enjoy these characteristics more completely minus the long wait.

Use a decanter on wines that are several years old and need time to open and release their aromas, as well as red wines in particular that are very old and have been stored on their sides.

Decant wines that haven’t aged long enough to smooth out entirely, but have a lot to offer aromatically and on the palate, like Cabernet Sauvignons or Sagrantino.

Why Do You Decant Red Wines?

Red wines traditionally spend more time fermenting on the skins during the wine making process.  The same molecules that provide color, as well as the acidity and tannin that allow the wines to ages for so long will eventually separate from lighter molecules and form sediment.

Decanting can also have the effect of smoothing out the rougher characteristics of like acidity and tannins in full-bodied, robust wines like Cabernet Sauvignon, Sagrantino, and Tempranillo.

How to Decant Wine

The most important part of decanting is to take your time. The whole point of the decanting process is to aerate the wine. Hold the wine bottle at a subtle diagonal and tilt the mouth of the decanter up to meet it. Create a slow and steady flow while allowing the wine to wash over the edges of the decanter.

If you are decanting a very old bottle and trying to consolidate sediment, keep the bottle as level as possible and watch carefully when you get toward the end.

A classic trick involves lighting a candle just below the neck of the bottle. This will illuminate dark glass bottles and allow you to see when traces of sediment approach the opening.

How Long Should Wine Decant?

Wine can take up to three hours in a decanter to really open up.

Rules for Decanting Wine

  • Full-bodied and particularly tannic red wines: Use a wide-based decanter for up to three hours.
  • Medium-bodied Red Wines like Merlot, Barbera, Gamey, Montepulciano, and Cabernet Franc: Use a medium-sized decanter.
  • Light-bodied Red Wines like Pinot Noir or Nerello: serve in a small to medium-sized decanter, or simply open the bottle and let them open up naturally.

Go ahead and pour yourself a small glass every half-hour. Part of the fun is tasting it at different stages. Every wine and every vintage is different.  Some wines peak and collapse if left open for too long. If you have access to the winery notes for the current vintage there may be some directions to follow.

Do You Decant White Wine?

White and Rosé Wines do not require decanting.  If you do go that route, use a small decanter and keep it chilled.

Wine Decanting Throughout History

Vessels for wine have existed for thousands of years. Pop into the Ancient Civilizations exhibition at your local history museum and you’ll likely find decorative earthenware Greek urns, anfora or amphorae. Before the advent of commercial production of wine bottles, wine was parsed out directly from the casks used for production, and sold or served from smaller ones.

Ancient anfora wine urn

Archaeology has uncovered wine vessels and goblets in ceramic, bronze, silver and gold.  Romans worked with glass as well, but it wasn’t until the height of the Venetian Empire during the Renaissance that the art and industry of glass-blowing led to glassware and glass bottles for wine.

Eighteenth-century English saw the invention and introduction of glass stoppers. Public drinking establishments as well as well-to-homes adopted the glass decanter and stopper as a more elegant way of storing and serving wine. The tradition spread to distilled liquors and is still in use today for prized bottles of whiskey and cognac, among others.

Modern-Day Decanters

Lead crystal decanters are considered the top of the line. The unique clarity of crystal is equivalent to technicolor for film. Wine connoisseurs value the visual observation of wine, and crystal offers the brightest and most beautiful expression of color and opacity.

That said, you can also find gorgeous glass decanters in the Venetian tradition.

Useable Art

Vintage and contemporary crystal decanters make beautiful gifts. When not in use, or not in use as a flower vase, they catch and cast the light in remarkable ways. On the table a crystal decanter really elevates the aesthetic wine experience.

Types of Decanters

Wide Bottom Decanter

This is what most people think of when they picture a wine decanter. The wide base helps capture sediment but also exposes a greater surface area of the wine to oxygen. The process of aeration is what releases all of those complex aromas that make your wine so special. Then, in the same way a Champagne flute funnels aromas upwards into your nose, the long elegant neck channels evolving earth notes and ripe fruit and floral notes up as the wine opens up.

Wide Bottom Decanter

Pros and Cons

As stunning and elegant as they are functional, the wide bottom decanter is a little tricky to pour from and quite difficult to clean.

Small and Medium Decanter

If you buy only one decanter, make it one of these. The globe-shaped bottom is spacious enough to move the wine around and the narrow neck siphons aromas upward. This model works for just about any wine you wish to decant and it’s also easy to pour from, which makes service much simpler. We’ve got one at DiVino headquarters, plus a back-up!

A Classic Carafe

You can use a standard carafe for a basic decant of a wine that isn’t too old and merely needs some time out of the bottle to come back to life.

Italian class masters, Bormioli, made this one with a charming bistro feel.

A Wine Aerator

If you’re looking to aerate your wine without the hassle and wait of a proper decant, a wine aerator will do the trick. These attachments fit most bottle types and come at a very reasonable price. They’re also dishwasher safe! This a a great tool to keep around. It’s also a great gift idea for the wine-lovers in your life.

Wine Aerator Pourer

If you are decanting a very old bottle and trying to consolidate sediment, keep the bottle as level as possible and watch carefully when you get toward the end. A classic trick involves lighting a candle just below the neck of the bottle. This will illuminate dark glass bottles and allow you to see when traces of sediment approach the opening.

How Long Should I Decant Wine?

Wine can take up to three hours in a decanter to really open up.

As a general rule, you can go ahead and pour yourself a small glass every half-hour. Part of the fun is tasting it at different stages. Every wine and every vintage is different.  Some wines peak and collapse if left open for too long. If you have access to the winery notes for the current vintage there may be some directions.

Cleaning Your Decanter

Avoid harsh chemical soaps at all cost. The shape of decanters, especially the wide bottom decanter makes them particularly susceptible to residue. Minerals in the water and soap scum will affect the quality of the wine.

Decanter cleaning tools exist!

Just like aquariums and pools, vessels of all sizes require regular cleaning. You can order a set for under $20.

Warm water and unscented soap work fine too, turn the decanters upside down on its side and allow to air dry before putting it away. There’s even such a thing as a decanter-drying stand if you really need one!

Annie Shapero

Certified sommelier and DiVino founder, Annie believes that the language of wine is more than vocabulary. It is history, culture and most of all, storytelling. She created DiVino as a writer, educator, and wine consultant to bring those stories to life and give people the tools to join the conversation. Watch her free, 21-episode introduction to wine tasting on Youtube, 21 Days to Wine.

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