Who actually owns a decanter nowadays? People who live in stately homes, or perhaps the proprietors of antique and curiosity shops? No, not at all. Anyone who wants the best from their wine should own one. Decanting wines is not just for show, and even in this modern age of industrial, fined and filtered wines, some will still benefit from spending some time in a decanter.
Why Does a Wine Need Decanting?
In times gone by, before so many wines were routinely fined and filtered to a crystal clear state, it was quite common for wines poured from both barrel and bottle to contain a considerable degree of solid matter. In order to avoid bringing an unsightly looking wine to the table, it was quite the norm to decant the wine into a suitably resplendent receptacle. The need for such a receptacle led to the development of the many and varied elegant decanters which are available today.
Most wines on the shelves today, however, have no real need for decanting. The winemaking process ensures the wine is thoroughly clarified (even if it may mean stripping the wine of some of its flavour) before it is bottled, by a process of fining (passing egg whites, bentonite clay or other unsavoury substances through the fine to collect solid matter) and mechanical filtration. Although these wines are often best served from the bottle (after all, you've paid for the label), many others still benefit from decanting.
Wines which have aged in bottle, typically red wines rather than white, will generally throw a sediment by perhaps ten years of age or more. Not only is this sediment displeasing to the eye, it can also be quite unpleasant in the mouth. More than any other wines, these are the ones that deserve decanting. Young wines also benefit from decanting, although the aim is not to take the wine off its sediment (there is rarely any such sediment in young wines), but rather to aerate the wine. The action of decanting itself, and the large surface area in contact with the air in the decanter, alters the wine, softening its youthful bite and encouraging the development of the more complex aromas that normally develop with years in bottle. For this reason even inexpensive wines plucked from the shelves of the local supermarket can benefit from decanting, if a first taste reveals a tannic, grippy, youthful structure.
Decanting Wine: How to do it
Assuming that we are decanting a wine in order to remove it from its sediment, there is a simple procedure to follow. If decanting a wine simply to aerate it and perhaps liven it up a little, this procedure doesn't really matter. Simply pour the wine into any suitable receptacle with minimal fuss.
First, take the wine from where it has been stored, hopefully lying on its side in a suitably cool, dark environment. If you suspect a considerable amount of sediment, as may occur with older wines, it's advisable to stand the bottle upright for a day or so prior to decanting, thus allowing the sediment to fall to the bottom of the bottle. When the time comes to decant the wine, assemble the few things which you will need. These are corkscrew and bottle (obviously), together with a suitable receptacle, which does not have to be anything fancy, a simple carafe such as the one shown here will do, together with a suitable source of light. I use a small candle, as shown here, but a small torch or anything similar will do.
Firstly, remove the entire capsule from around the neck of the bottle, using a knife or other implement. It's important to remove the whole capsule, and not just the top, as you need to have a clear view into the neck of the bottle whilst decanting. This is so that you can observe the wine coming through the neck for sediment. To enhance your view of the wine in the neck, position the light source shining through the neck from behind. Once done, you are ready to pour.
Hold the receptacle in one hand and the bottle in the other, and with a smooth and steady action, pour the wine into the decanter. Don't rush when decanting, rather use a gentle, steady movement, to avoid disturbing the sediment in the wine. Keep the neck of the bottle over the light source, so that you can observe for an arrowhead of sediment moving into the neck of the bottle. This is your cue to stop pouring.
If you've done it all correctly, this should be the end result. A full carafe or decanter of clear wine, with just half a glass or so of sediment-laden wine remaining. This remaining portion makes a great addition to the gravy, should you be decanting the wine as an accompaniment to a roast dinner. Don't fret too much if you haven't achieved a crystal clear pour, as a small amount of very fine sediment is not a great concern - as long as the large, unpalatable pieces have been removed.