Technical Wine Stuff - “To decant, or not to decant! That is the question?!?!

Decanting Wine

Does wine really need to breathe? What to decant?

The truth is that wines soften and open-up after breathing and being exposed to air. To aerate a wine effectively, you pour it into a large carafe, pitcher, decanter, or some vessel so that is mingles with oxygen as it streams from the bottle. When this process occurs, the aromas and flavors of many wines, especially young, tannic reds will be unveiled, and fruit will come alive. If it has grippy tannins, tastes sharp and spicy, then decanting can help toning down the tannins. Some white wines will benefit from it as well, which include full-bodied whites, orange wines (skin contact), and yes, Champagne. Aerating wine is sometimes referred to as “decanting”, but the traditional reason for decanting is to remove sediment, which is a different process (see below). Decanting or aerating reduces the prevalence of certain acids and tannins, making wine taste smoother. It can also turn smelly sulfur compounds into less detectable smells.

Opening a bottle of wine and letting it sit opened for 15-30 mins, even with a portable aerator, like the “Soiree” brand (available on Amazon), doesn’t work the same way, even though this is what happens in restaurants. The air space is just too small relative to volume of the bottle. Aerators are fine to use for daily, inexpensive wines and. I use the “Soiree” to pour through for young reds to open up, especially if it’s a new release and has been bottled up for a while. Swirling the glass is the best true method of aeration and doesn’t cost anything.

If you want to aerate/decant, distribute the wine down the sides of decanting vessel for more aeration/surface area (about half the bottle and pour the rest into glasses to drink un-decanted to see if you can smell and taste the differences). Don’t just pour down the middle of vessel. When done pouring, swirl the decanter from the neck a few times. Don’t aerate it for more than an hour – what goes out of the decanter will never come back. Taste the wine before decanting – if it tastes closed or tight (fruits are quiet) or watery (high tannins), then do it.


How long to decant?

The bolder and more tannic the wine is, the longer it can be decanted. Keep in mind, some wines should never be aerated/decanted. For example, light-bodied whites and very old wines. Some of these reds can be too sensitive to air and when splashed into a decanter will lose flavor and structure. Some examples of wine NOT to decant are old Pinot Noirs, red Burgundies, aged Riojas and Tempranillo, and aged Chianti Classicos made from Sangiovese.

Traditional decanting of wine is a process that was intended to pour the wine off any sediment from the bottom of the bottle for older red wines that often were deeply colored and/or highly tannic. This isn’t usually necessary for wines less than ten years old or whites. So, if no sediment is present, why would you decant? Sediment is not harmful but can be annoying and chewy on the palate and alter appearance. Some sommeliers don’t mind ingesting it and think of it as a pure and natural thing. Sediment is essentially solid, long molecules of tannin and color developed out of solution over time and part of the structure of older reds.

Decanting a wine for sediment removal is a little more involved than aeration. The wine bottle must be upright for a few days to let the sediment settle to the bottom.  Without picking it up or turning it, remove the cork slowly and gently. Then pick it up by neck and pour it along the sides of the decanter without a lot of jerky movement along the same angle. A light source, such as candle or flashlight, behind the neck can help you see the sediment (usually appears in the neck with one to two inches of wine left or before). That is when you stop pouring and set down.

General rule of thumb is to decant older, tannic wines (older than 10 years generally, but sometimes a little younger), like vintage Port, Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux, Barolos, Brunellos, and Rhone wines. Decant for at least an hour, but no more than two hours before serving because waiting longer can make the wine tired and dull by the time you sip it. If you pick up the bottle and see sediment in the light regardless of age, decant it, smell it, and taste it to determine if it's faulty.

My decanter with large surface area

What kind of decanter should I use?

Larger surface area decanters are best for aeration purposes. If you’re decanting for sediment, use a narrower decanter, pitcher, or vessel.


Wines to aerate –

Young Barolos and Brunellos

Young Rhone-style blends

Young Riojas

Young California Cabernets

Young Bordeaux

Super Tuscans

Reductive Wines


Wines to decant (potential sediment) –

Bordeaux, Barolos, and Riojas older than 10 years old

Old California Reds

Decanter with Bordeaux Blend from Lamoreaux Landing Wine Cellars




Michael Nagy

Owner & Operator/Wine Educator/Blogger

Grape Expectations

(717) 877.2729