Even opening up a bottle of wine has a method. You cannot just crack it open and drink away. Read these tips on how to decant your wine. Unless of course you don’t care.
The word “decanting” often conjures images of esoteric and arcane rituals among wine drinkers. The reality is that decanting wine is the same practice as skimming chicken stock. Except in the case of decanting, we want to keep the good liquid on top and pour it off the sediment — the crunchy bits — and leave that in the bottle.
There are other reasons for decanting, says Melissa Monosoff, who helps set standards for sommeliers in her role as education director for the Court of Master Sommeliers.
“Aerating can help a wine to ‘open up,’ or change the temperature by moving the wine to a decanter if you leave the bottle in the fridge too long,” she says. Decanting for aeration and temperature control is sometime called “carafe-ing” as this can be accomplished by simply pouring the wine into a decanter.
Decanting wine off the sediment is a more involved process, but one easily mastered.
As red wines age, the color and tannin molecules, which cause the drying sensation in wines like cabernet sauvignon, start combining to form particles that are too large to stay in solution. Think of lemonade to which too much sugar has been added. This process is important because it causes wines that are harsh in their youth to mellow with age, becoming lighter in color and less tannic or drying. The particles fall out of the liquid to form sediment or sludge in the bottle. The sediment won’t hurt you — though it tastes bitter if you chew it — but is not aesthetically pleasing.
Decanting is easy and requires only a few additional items: a corkscrew, a light source (a candle or smartphone light), a decanter (a fancy crystal decanter or iced tea pitcher) and a white background such as a tablecloth that makes seeing through the bottle easier. If you use an iced tea pitcher or something else for a vessel, just make sure there is no residue left.
What to decant
The more difficult task is deciding which wines should be decanted. Barbara Werley, master sommelier and wine director at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, has decanted red wine vintages back to 1945.
“For fuller-bodied red wines such as Bordeaux or California cabernet sauvignon, 10 years is a good age to start decanting,” she says. “However, I almost never decant older red Burgundy [made from pinot noir] because the wine can be delicate and the sediment is so fine.”
Jennifer Uygur, sommelier and co-owner of Lucia and Macellaio restaurants in Dallas with husband David, agrees regarding big red wines. “At Lucia, I decant the tannic ones such as Super Tuscans and Barolo.”
After decanting, some wines will smell musty or otherwise unpleasant, but Allison Yoder, who owns Gemma and Sachet with her husband Stephen Rogers, says to “never dump the wine immediately. In my experience at Press [in Napa Valley], I decanted many older wines that smelled musty, but after waiting a few hours were gorgeous!”
So, don’t be afraid to decant wines. It’s a simple way to make your wine experience more enjoyable.
James Tidwell is a certified wine educator, master sommelier, and beverage manager at Four Seasons Resort and Club Dallas at Las Colinas.
How to decant wine
Step 1: Gather materials
Decanter: This can be a fancy and expensive decanter, a tea pitcher or any neutral vessel in between that will hold a liquid and from which you can pour.
Light source: The most famous is the candle, but a newer and better alternative is the light on your smartphone.
Corkscrew: There are many versions, so use the one that is most comfortable for you.
White cloth or a white surface: Using this as a background makes seeing the sediment much easier, but is not necessary.
Step 2: Cut the foil
Cut the foil at the lower, or second, lip. This prevents contamination of pours caused by wine dripping behind the foil.
Remove the foil, either partially or completely. In many formal environments, only the top portion of the foil above the cut is removed. However, removing the entire foil gives a better view of the decanting process. Either method is considered acceptable for wine service.
If there is some mold or dirt on the cork, wipe the top of the bottle and cork with a damp cloth. Wines stored in a humid environment might develop some mold on the outside of the cork. Matter on the outside of the cork does not affect the wine inside if removed before opening.
Step 3: Removing the cork
Insert the corkscrew into the cork. Gently begin to withdraw the cork from the bottle.
Old corks can be crumbly. If a cork crumbles into the wine, this usually does not mean the wine is ruined. You can strain the wine through a strainer or cheesecloth after decanting to remove the cork fragments.
Step 4: Positioning the items
Place the light source face-up on a flat surface.
Holding the bottle at about a 45-degree angle in your dominant hand, place the shoulder of the bottle over the light source.
Hold the decanter in your other hand. The decanter opening should be just below the opening of the bottle.
Step 5: Decanting
Begin to pour a slow and steady stream from the bottle into the decanter. As you pour, look at the shoulder of the bottle, through the wine, and into the light source.
When there is approximately a quarter of a bottle left, look for a stream of hazy particles, or “smoke,” in the wine. This is the fine sediment. Many people choose to keep pouring at this point since the fine sediment is not noticeable in the glass, plus there is still plenty of wine in the bottle.
After the hazy sediment, a stream of chunkier particles will appear. As these chunkier particles reach the shoulder of the bottle, stop pouring. This was the purpose of the exercise since most of us do not like to chew our wines. You have left the chewy bits in the bottle and have beautiful, clean wine in the decanter.
Congratulations, you have successfully decanted wine!