An Introduction to Decanting

Decanting is one of those subjects that keeps coming up at wine tastings. Why should you do it? When should you do it? How do you do it? This week Eater provides an excellent introduction in Ask a Somm: When Should I Decant?

As the article points out, not all wines benefit from decanting. How do you decide whether or not to decant when you don’t know the wine well and don’t happen to have a sommelier on hand to advise you? You let your taste buds tell you.

Open the bottle before serving time and give it a taste, then decide whether to decant or not. For an older bottle, this would typically be right before serving, for a younger one allow an hour or more.  You don’t need to know the wine well, just have some idea of how wine changes as it interacts with the air. You probably have some sense of this already, but I have a simple experiment to help you sharpen your skills.

Pick a bottle that you think might benefit from decanting. A good place to start would be a mid-price cabernet sauvignon or a syrah that’s 2 or 3 years old, but pick anything you like, you will learn something. Then get some large bowl red wine glasses out.

Open the bottle, pour a glass right up to the widest part of the bowl, then re-cork the bottle. Taste the wine, but don’t drink it up! You’re going to need it later. Make some notes on the color, aroma, and flavor, then go away for 30 or 40 minutes. Here’s the hard part: only drink water while you’re waiting.

When you come back, pour a second glass just like you did with the first. Taste it and compare to the notes you made when you first opened the bottle. It may have changed some, but probably not too much. Now taste the one that has been sitting out for a while and make notes on color, aroma, and flavor. When you compare these notes to those from your first taste you probably are going to find some differences, and that’s what decanting gets you, just a bottle at a time instead of a glass at a time.

If you have the curiosity and patience, keep going with another glass every 30 to 40 minutes to see how the wine changes. Whether you keep adding new glasses or just continue with your first two or three, I recommend varying the order you taste them in as doing so may reveal different qualities in the wine.

Now that you know what to expect, you’re ready to start decanting. Don’t let the lack of a decanter hold you back on a wine that needs it. Any glass container that allows the wine to spread out and interact with the air can work. A one-quart measuring cup, for example. It may not be pretty, but that’s easily solved– when the wine is ready, just use a funnel to pour it back into the bottle for serving.

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