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When Should You Decant Wine?

My clients often ask me about when to decant wine. The answer is fairly simple.

The decanting rule of thumb: You should decant older red wines, ports, Madeira, and fine, older, white dessert wines that exhibit obvious sedimentation. Consider decanting to be a ritual reserved for fine wines and vintage wines. Your everyday drinking wines do not need to be decanted unless they are too tight or closed up. Please read “How to Decant Wine” and look for the section on the Slam Dunk method, the decanting procedure that is appropriate for younger, tight wines.

Decanting is usually done to remove sediments from old and fine wines. This and two others make up the three main reasons for decanting wine.

When to Decant Wine: Three Reasons for Decanting Wine

1.  Decant wine to preserve quality.

This has already been discussed above. When wine exhibits sedimentation, you need to decant it. How can you tell that sedimentation has occurred? Check the wine to see if there are bits of sediment “suspended” in it. These sediments make the wine look hazy. Sedimentation not only undermines the visual quality of your wine; it can also kill a great wine.

In this instance, therefore, wine is decanted to preserve wine quality. As mentioned above, however, wine decanting is actually crucial only in fine wines and vintage wines.

2.  Decant wines to aerate them.

Younger, “closed” wines, which need plenty of time to breathe, may also be decanted. Wines of this type may be opened and allowed to breathe up to 2 hours prior to serving.

A word of caution: When decanting to aerate wine, make sure that room temperature is not above 65-67 degrees as this will accelerate the oxidation process. Older wines need less aeration time.

Please read “How to Decant Wine” for more information about this.

3. Decant wine for visual impact.

People also decant wines for psychological reasons. Wine decanters lend a touch of class and elegance to any dinner party. Let’s say that you are hosting a dinner party tonight. Your budget is tight, but you want to make a great impression on your guests. What you can do is serve wine in a decanter, so your guests will think that you are serving them a great wine.

I personally do NOT recommend that you do this, however. If your guests are wine challenged (i.e. do not know a lot about wines), then you can probably get away with it. If your guests know their wines, however, this ploy will only make you look bad. Furthermore, most cheap wines tend to loose what little bouquet they have when served in a wine decanter. On the contrary, a great wine’s bouquet can be smelled in a glass hours after the wine has been consumed, in which case decanting does little harm. For more information, please read “Aromas vs. Bouquet: What Is the Difference?”

A wine decanter should really be used only when you are serving your guests a fine, old wine that will benefit from (or that will not be degraded by) decanting.