“What’s your view on decanting?” is one of the first questions wine world denizens ask each other upon meeting. Whether they will become lifelong friends, colleagues or mortal enemies depends heavily on the answer. My personal answer (“decant it if you like”) has doubtless won me some nemeses, but like virtually everything in wine I feel it comes down to personal choice as long as you treat the wine with sufficient respect (for instance if you’re thinking about chucking a young Opus One in the blender, that’s your choice but we’re probably not going to be friends).
For every wine I’ve drunk that felt a little reticent, I’ve had at least one other that I felt spent too long stewing in a decanter. Most of the time, I’d rather just let the wine open up over the course of an evening as I enjoy it glass by glass. However, in a group setting where you’re serving each person a single glass of each wine you don’t have this luxury and this is where decanters really come in handy.
The purpose of decanting red and fortified wines is generally either to loosen them up if they’re young or clean them up (i.e. separate the liquid from the solid sediment) if they’re old. In the former case, oxygen exposure is key and so you want a decanter that creates a large wine surface. In the latter case, you want a sufficiently long neck to allow you to easily detect some of the sediment when you’re starting to pour.
The purpose of decanting white, rosé and sparkling wines is generally to help drive away overly aggressive “reductive” notes. These can express themselves attractively as a hint of struck match or truffle, or much less attractively as boiled cabbage, onions, rotten eggs or burnt rubber. Because reduction takes place in the absence of oxygen, exposure to oxygen in a decanter can help eliminate some reductive compounds but others are more stable and so no matter how violently you swirl, the offensive odour of sweet corn just won’t dissipate.
Below, you’ll find a list of five basic decanter shapes you may want in your arsenal to help extract the best out of each bottle. For most people, the first two are probably sufficient.
A description that covers shapes as disparate as jugs, flower vases and water flasks, the unifying factor in all these incarnations is a vaguely bottle-like form with a low ratio of wine surface area to volume.
A good all-around, practical decanter that is easy to clean, the carafe is also a good choice for fragile older wines, which can’t necessarily handle much sloshing around, provided it has a sufficiently long neck. Another bonus of the carafe is it tends to be easy on the wrists, particularly with the addition of thoughtful details like a punt in the bottom.