Wine: Exploring decanting

  • Photo by Meghan Ralston
From the March 7, 2013 edition

I’m getting married in April. When it came time to register for gifts, wine contraptions of all kinds were on the “suggested” list — many of which I’ve never owned. Decanters, specifically, have always seemed so fancy, with their wide bases and tall necks. What do they do, really?

Turns out decanters used to serve more of a purpose historically, when wine wasn’t filtered like mass-market bottles are today. Wine poured straight from the bottle might carry a bit of sediment; but, after sitting for 20-60 minutes or so in a decanter, the sediment re-settled and the deep base would catch it.

But then as now, decanting helps the wine “breathe.” It’s especially helpful for younger wines, with their abbreviated aging process. An alternative to decanting is aerating — instead of having a big, open surface area exposed to the air, wine is poured through a funnel-type device and is exposed to more air along the way.

So if you’re like us and don’t have the budget for big-ticket bottles, decanting or aerating might be a smooth move. But if you’re also like us and don’t have the most advanced palette, you might be wondering what difference it makes.

Well, I gave it a shot. The first experiment was with a 2011 Pennywise Petite Sirah ($12 at Wine on High) from California. A first sip registered dry and tannic, with some dark fruit tastes — maybe blueberry and plum? — and a bit of a bite. After decanting for 30 minutes, it seemed just as dry, but with a slightly more fruit-forward profile. Not bad.

Round 2 was with a 2011 Shannon Ridge Chardonnay ($10). Experts aren’t as quick to urge you to decant white wines, but it has been known to help fuller-bodied ones. Plus, as with beer, white wine isn’t always best right out of the refrigerator, and this gives it the chance to get to an optimal level.

The sip beforehand was buttery and grapefruit-citrusy. After a wait, the fruits seemed noticeably muted, with much more of that buttery taste up front, along with a fuller mouthfeel. Pretty delicious.

Turns out a little bit of self-control isn’t such a bad thing.