To decant wine is to pour it from one vessel into another, either to expose it briefly to oxygen or to pour it away from the collection of sediment at the bottom of its bottle. There are many expensive and beautiful decanters available, but wine can also be satisfactorily decanted into any carafe or even a large wine glass.
Decanting to Aerate
Exposure to oxygen seems to "open up" both red and white wines -- softening the harsh, chalky feel of a red wine's tannins and mellowing the rich fruit flavors of a good white wine. Some people open a wine bottle 30 minutes or so before serving to let it "breathe," but aerating does more to improve the flavor. You can pour a bottle of wine into a decanter or pour a single serving into a large wine glass and let it sit. If you have a very good red wine that tastes harsh, try pouring it back and forth from one carafe to another for a few minutes.
Decanting for Sediment
Older, high quality red wines need decanting because they throw sediment. The sediment is made of spent yeast cells left from the fermentation process, plus some of the chemical compounds that give red wine its color. To decant for sediment, slowly pour the wine from its bottle into a clean glass carafe, taking care to stop pouring when the first grains of sediment enter the neck of the bottle. Work in a good light. Traditionally, a host would decant a red wine while holding the neck of the bottle near a candle, so as to see the sediment clearly.
What Wines Need Decanting?
The wines that most often need decanting, either for aerating or sediment, are fine Bordeaux varieties and vintage ports. Bordeaux wines are made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes, which are high in the tannins and coloring agents that either make wine taste harsh or precipitate out over time, or both. Vintage ports age for years in the bottle, throwing off many spent yeast cells as they sit. Fine winemakers, in general, often leave their best wines unfiltered to take advantage of the flavors that develop from residual yeasts and even bits of grape skin remaining in the bottle.
The Decanter as Bottle
Modern decanters come in many fanciful shapes, and they often don't have stoppers. In past centuries, when people bought wine by the barrel, the decanter served as the wine bottle, so it needed a stopper. Today, most wine drinkers decant young, vigorous red wines for aeration and immediate consumption. The decanter is no longer a storage vessel.
A decanter can be pretty and fun to use, but since most good, economical wines don't need aeration and have no sediment, the decanter is often superfluous. They are surprisingly fragile and, after washing, the fanciest models are hard to dry thoroughly. They require storage space or display space. Simply glugging the wine roughly into your glass sufficiently aerates a good but everyday wine.
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