To Decant or Not to Decant, That is the Question

The world is filled with polarising opinions, many of which are expressed online in a binary fashion, but arguably the biggest head-scratcher among wine enthusiasts surrounds the necessity of decanting. Let's review the pros and cons of this approach, confirming whether you should invest in a decanter before serving a wine.

Firstly, we should establish the purpose of decanting. The primary aim of this practice is to allow your wine to breathe. Any corked container, including a magnum, restricts access to oxygen. Carefully applying wine to a decanter encourages aeration, which in turn releases any trapped gas, softens the impact of tannins on the palate, and enhances the aroma of the wine. 

This makes decanting sound like a necessity, but this is not the case. A magnum of sparkling wine or champagne should rarely be decanted. Taking this action will reduce the ferocity of bubbles when popping the cork, reducing the risk of inadvertently soaking your guests in the style of an F1 podium placer, but it may lead to the bubbles evaporating entirely. If you are to decant a sparking wine or champagne, potentially to ease any unwelcome aroma found in the neck of the bottle, proceed to serve at your earliest convenience.

Caution should also be practised when decanting white and rosé wine. Young whites and rosés may contain more thiols, which lead to a sulphurous aroma upon uncorking. In these instances, around 10 to 15 minutes of decanting will allow your magnum of wine to shed this scent without sacrificing flavour. Alas, exposing white or rosé wine to excess oxygen can lead to a loss of appealing nose, reducing the impact of the drinking experience.

Decanting is most commonly associated with premium red wine, for good reason. Red wines, especially when young, contain more tannins, an excess of which can lead to a bitter or acidic taste – as well as being a leading cause of the dreaded morning-after hangover. Appropriately applying red wine to a decanter will allow these tannins to oxidise and soften, leading to a smoother drinking experience.

Skilfully pouring red wine into a decanter will also separate the liquid from sediment, also known as 'wine crystals' - though at least some wine should be left in the bottom of the bottle or magnum and not applied to the decanter to minimise sediment exposure.

Decanting red wine is often referred to as "letting the wine breathe," but like white wine, a premium red can enjoy too much of a good thing. Understanding how much oxygen a wine requires is at the heart of successful decanting. A light-bodied red, such as a Pinot Noir, will typically be ready to drink within 30 minutes of decanting. A medium red, like Merlot, will benefit from up to an hour of oxygenation. Deep-bodied red wine, most notably Sirah, is most delectable when decanted for around two hours. Leaving a red wine in a decanter for too long, especially an older vintage, can result in a loss of flavour – and even a risk of decay.

If you wish to embrace decanting, ensure you follow the optimum procedure. Always allow your bottle or magnum of wine to stand for at least 24 hours in advance, allowing the sediment to settle at the bottom of the vessel. When you are ready to decant, very slowly and patiently pour the wine, keeping the bottom of the bottle as low as possible. This will keep sediment at the bottom of the wine. If you notice sediment rising toward the neck, return the bottle to a vertical position and wait for it to settle again before recommencing.

Decanting wine will always be a matter of personal preference, though it remains advisable when serving and enjoying a luxury red wine on a special occasion. In addition to maintaining the superior taste and aroma of luxury wine, decanting can create a powerful and impressive aesthetic – especially when paired with the undeniable impact of producing a magnum of red wine. If you invest in a fine decanter and master the art of utilising this accessory, your experience will be significantly enhanced.