A beginners guide to decanting wine
In simpleton terms, decanting is the process of pouring a bottle of wine into another vessel. Now decanters can come in all shapes and sizes, and there can be a lot of wank-i-ness associated with the ritual, but we will try to demystify it as much as possible.
The key act of decanting old and youthful wines is the incredible effect it can have on the nose (smell) and taste (flavour) of the wine, with it tasting drastically different to when it was first opened. This is due to the introduction of oxygen to the wine. Oxygen has the ability to release the volatile compounds within the wine, which are the base for “lifting” the flavours we can smell/taste out of the glass. It can be quite confusing as volatile definitely sounds like a dirty word, and truthfully in the wine world we use it in both a positive and negative sense (volatile acidity is a negative character associated with nail polish remover/permanent texta flavours which can sour a wine). Oxygen can also “smooth out” all the bumps in the wine. It softens acidity, tames overly astringent tannins, and “blows off” negative aromas (but we’ll touch on that later). Basically, through decanting we can get the best out of a wine. HOWEVER, this is not a firm and fast rule so don’t apply it to every wine you come across i.e. Passion Pop obviously is awesome without decanting..
Typically, older red wines have increasing levels of 'sediment' at the base (also known as punt) of the wine bottle as it ages. This sediment is a completely harmless product of the wine’s quest for stability. It’s a thing called potassium bi-tartrate, which in essence is the colour compounds found in red wine, polymerizing with the tartaric acid (naturally occurring in all wines) to form these gritty little crystals that somehow always manage to catch the unsuspecting drinker out, and leave a sour taste in the mouth (both figuratively and literally). The act of decanting can separate this sediment from the good stuff you want in your mouth hole.
It's not only older wines that require decanting though, as younger wines are generally the ones more in need of a little air. Older wines, especially wines bottled under cork, have already had a lot of the oxygen that is required to bring out the best in them. This is through the slow diffusion of air through the slightly porous cork. And to decant some of these older gems may just hasten the ageing effect, giving you a very short window in which to enjoy the wine and may in fact just exacerbate the fact that the wine is already on the decline.
There are a couple of good reasons to decant younger wines. Most young wines these days are bottled with higher levels of nitrogen than in years gone by, which is used to displace any air in the bottle and to preserve the lifespan of the wine. And also younger wines can have a greater level of dissolved carbon dioxide in them, which can result in a slight “spritziness”. Both these gases can have adverse effects on your enjoyment of the wine, and by decanting, you are 'blowing off' these gases after opening.
Another reason for decanting is when the bottle is under cork (something you don't have to worry about with MAAN - we use screw caps) and the cork breaks whilst opening. There is nothing more revolting than a glass full of corky wine.
As with anything related to wine, the duration of decanting comes down to personal taste. There is a sweet spot between opening the wine and when the wine becomes oxidised (oxygen and wine is a bastard of a thing to manage. Too much and it tastes of shitty arse vinegar, too little and it tastes of an eggy cornhole), so do your best to sample it periodically before knocking the bottle off.
So the next logical question would be, which wines should you decant?
El Cheapo Grog
Decant any cheap wines because it makes them taste better. Cheap wines can have really awkward rotten egg smell sometimes when you first open, which can be due to a gas called hydrogen sulphide. This is a natural by-product of fermentation. But the smell is also more likely to occur due to a reductive character in the wine. Basically, the wine hasn’t had enough oxygen in its life and starts to stink. The cheaper the wine, the greater the chance it was made en masse in a stainless steel tank. Depriving it of the quality-giving oxygen that oak barrels can impart. Some oak alternatives such as oak staves/oak chips/oak powder can help with this, or if used poorly can just make the wine taste like licking the valve of an LPG gas bottle. Our noses are very sensitive to this smell (some more than others) and it can ruin a wine tasting experience. Fortunately, often this smell can burn off very quickly after decanting wine and the resulting value wine can be very tasty!
Skip the goon bag, chuck it straight in the bin you idiot.
Decanting can be a trial and error process, and if you are unfamiliar with the wine in the first place the four important things to consider are age (as was discussed earlier), vintage (as particular seasons can result in tougher or lighter styles), region, and variety. Some regions are renowned for having wines in need of decanting (Piedmont, Bordeaux left-bank, Cahors, etc). And a lot of the bigger red varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Malbec, Durif, Saperavi, Sagarantino, etc) are in need of decanting to soften out some of their aggressive tannins. But generally decanting the more expensive wines, if nothing else, just adds to the experience of enjoying the wine. It makes the bottle a focal point, gets everyone’s attention, starts conversation, heightens excitement, and makes you look like King Shit. Good times.
White Wine & Lighter Reds
Decanting lighter styles (whether that’s lighter style reds, or bigger whites) can be a very handy tool. A lot of these wines (Chardonnays, Semillon, Chenin Blanc, in the whites and Pinot Noir, Gamay, Grenache, etc in the reds) are made in an incredibly tight style. I.e. made to last a loooong time. That means that their flavours can take a while to open up, and their acidity can be quite abrasive early on. In order to get the most out of them at a young age, decanting can definitely help speed up the process. I generally find that unless a white wine has seen some oak, it’s unnecessary to decant. And rose`is purely designed to swill in the sunshine. Don’t get too fancy with it.
If you’ve already bought some of these wines, then it’s probably already too late for you. Actually I feel sorry for you… but anyway let’s put my personal feelings aside for one second. Decanting natural wines is a very fine balance; They are generally very fragile wines, due to their incredibly short shelf life so the introduction of oxygen isn’t necessarily a great thing, HOWEVER, due to the fact that a high proportion of them are incredibly faulty/undrinkable, I understand the inclination to try and remove all the undesirable characters through decanting. A tough call, but may be worth trying. And worse case scenario you tip that horrible swill down the drain and drink a better wine. Problem solved.
Special Decanters For Different Wines?
The most practical advice we can give you about special decanters if you actually want to use them is buy something that is easy to clean. There are regular sized decanters for 750 ml bottles and also magnum decanters (a magnum is the size of 2 bottles).
Believe it or not most restaurants do not use soap to clean the inside of the decanters. It’s too difficult to remove all the detergent and this adversely affects the aromas and flavors of wine. A deep clean is okay now and again, I use a hypoallergenic fragrance free soap. Wash the outside with hot water first and rinse the inside with cold water, this will keep the glass from getting foggy on the inside.
What if I don't have a Decanter?
Pour a half glass out of the bottle into a wine glass, taste first to see what it tastes like beforehand. Put the lid back on the bottle, then shake the living fuck out of it for about 30 seconds. Pour into the same glass (assuming you've polished off the first glass), then taste. Alternatively pour into another glass and taste the two side be side to note the difference.
Basically the key to decanting is introducing oxygen to the wine , so any vessel that will help this process can be used. The trick is to make sure the wine is easy to get back into the glass afterward. I’ve fallen prey to this trap before so be warned… However I will admit that one of the most memorable wines I’ve had in recent memory was a ’98 Jack Mann Cab blend that in desperation was decanted in a soup pot. It was just about the only wine I can remember ladling from pot into a glass, but goddamn did it taste especially good.
We don’t recommend putting your wine in a blender, it's a trend that has taken off recently, and it's frickin ridiculous.