When to decant?

Hi all!

I’m new here, 36 years old and from Belgium. I’m not a total newbie anymore when it comes to wine but I don’t consider myself very knowledgable either. I started getting into wines 7 years ago and have around 200 bottles at the moment which I manage through an app/website I am making (my job is programming).

Anyway, one thing I’ve always wondered and heard contradictory things about is when to decant a wine. Some say young wines have to be decanted to really loosen up those odours and flavours. Others say especially old wines have to be decanted but then I’ve also heard that it can “destroy” really old wines from the shock of decanting.

My personal experience is that for some wines it didn’t seem to matter much but for others it made a huge difference to decant them. I didn’t really find a correlation regarding to age.

I am wondering what your opinions are?

i decant everything, almost.

young wines need it. old wines need it, usually. but for different reasons, sometimes.

it’s also pretty / pleasing to pour from a decanter.

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I occasionally decant white wines, but generally do not. Certainly there are some that need air (Chenin, Vin Jaune and Musar Blanc come to mind). I never ever ever decant sparkling wines, because to me a lot of the charm is in the bubbles – if it needs air, I open it early and let it breath in the bottle.

For red wines, which I assume your question is more focused on – old red wines I’ll decant to remove sediment. The exception is if I have a reason to believe the wine might only need a little bit of air, but would be ruined by a lot of air. CellarTracker notes are your friend here. I drink a lot of Bordeaux, which generally speaking benefits from air and you’re safe to decant. Thinner skinned varietals I think are where you need to be more careful. That said, I struggle to think of a time when I’ve regretted decanting a wine because it got too much air… but I know it has happened. I’m sure those here who drink really old Burgundy will advocate for the slow-ox method (ie don’t decant).

Younger reds, it sort of depends. There are “quaffable” wines where frankly it doesn’t matter – pop, pour, drink, and enjoy. Then you have ageworthy wines that are opened early - these you definitely need to decant. If you open a younger red and it’s totally shut down, you for sure want to get it in a wide bowl decanter and hope it opens up. You can always pour it back in the bottle to decrease the surface area exposed to air if the wine has opened up, but you don’t plan to drink it for a few hours.

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Thanks Jon and ybarselah,

Your answers were enlightening. Yes I was talking about red wines, should have specified that. I think you are right about those old Burgundy wines. My father in law drinks a lot of old Burgundy (25-30 years) and I’ve never seen him decant it and he’s a huge wine buff.

I think it depends on the specific wine, but I ALWAYS decant Barolo, or any other Nebbiolo based wine, hours in advance of serving.

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Decant young wines to open up, especially when you’re early in the drinking window. This can take place hours before serving because they have the youth to stand up to the exposure to air. We opened a 2016 Alion last month and it was so bad upon opening I almost poured it down the drain. I went back to it 2 hours later, after we had dinner, and it started to open up. After 5 hours open, it was honestly a different wine. It was absolutely spectacular! When we finished the bottle the next day, it was still a bright as it was the night before.

I usually decant old wines for less time because they’re more mature and may even be past their drinking window. We recently opened a 1998 magnum of Clos Mogador and decanted it to filter out sediment (commonly required process in older wines) but poured it right away. During the course of the 2-3 hours it was open, it was quite stable and changed very little. But it threw a ton of sediment.

You can also over decant. I made this mistake with a few bottles of 2010 Brunellos last year. I opened them 5-6 hours before dinner and by then two of the four bottles were flat as compared to when they were first opened. This is why you take notes.

As for decanting Champagne… This is more about the style you’re looking for. As mentioned earlier some like the bubbles while others may be looking for a more “still wine” like experience. On the advice of someone who works for the winery, we opened a magnum 1998 Rare Champagne and drank the first two glasses right at opening and then decanted the rest for about 20 minutes. The experience between the two glasses couldn’t have been more different. Decanting the Rare made it an almost lightly effervescent version of a great white Burgundy.

I always decent. I recommend having several decanters. Yes, it is fun to have fancy looking swan decanters, but in reality you only need 2 types.

1 Decanter for breathing and opening up the wine, and another just for serving. Large decanters for opening up a wine tend to have a very wide bowl to increase the amount of surface area of the wine, thus increasing the amount of air contact. These types of decanters I think are best for wine that are around 10 years or younger, especially 5 and under (although double decanting is prob better for very young wines). A serving decanter is usually smaller and when you pour a bottle of wine into it, one bottle will usually fill it up except for an inch or 2 off the top. The purpose of a serving decanter is to transfer the wine from the bottle just to remove the sediment, then serve. I like these decanters for very old wine. Wines in the 30-40 year old range I usually use a serving decanter just to de-sediment the wine, then serve soon after.

All my recommendations of course depend on the wines provenance and varietal.

Like John, I have both types of decanters.

In practice, I rarely decant.

  • As far as young wines go, I prefer to follow them as they open up. It’s an informative process to follow. Much of the time there are multiple bottles open, with multiple glasses per person, so you can set a glass aside to breathe and revisit. As with older wines, a subsequent pour from the bottle will be close to the initial pour, so you can follow the process again.
  • You can always decide it needs air and decant it. We’ve done this when tasting before dinner (like at parties) and we hit a wine that needs air. Then it has a chance to show well in time for dinner.
  • I don’t make a practice of cradle robbing wines that aren’t ready. That being known age-worthy wines that you just can’t coax anything near their potential out of them. Why bother? I and many friends have mature wines.
  • With mature wines, like 30+++ years, in my experience they generally open up just fine in the glass. I’ve rarely encountered the necessity and seen the downside too often. With a group, you can do the pours without tilting the bottle too much and stirring up sediment. Not sure I’ve seen an old wine fall apart in a narrow decanter, but most wine geeks don’t seem to even have one. (A $5 carafe works just fine.)

Another issue with groups is it becomes difficult for everyone to keep track of what wine is in what decanter. I recommend bottle string tags. Otherwise there’s a lot of confusion. I’ve also seen, at parties, decanters fall victim to the shiny object phenomenon. With plenty of bottles of wines people want to try, they don’t exert effort to find out what’s in the decanter or get around to trying it.