A: A common (and often disputed) question, indeed! The short answer is: It depends.
Let’s start with the basics about what a decanter is and its history.
What is a decanter? A modern decanter is usually a 1 liter or larger glass serving vessel, sometimes with a stopper, in which wine is poured directly from the bottle.
The decanter’s origins: The first wine-holding serving vessels are attributed to the tables of ancient Rome*. These were often more square than round, and were sometimes made of glass or silver. Their purposes were entirely functional (=appropriately sized for servants to serve wine) and decorative (=looking pretty). They have evolved a lot in terms of shapes and materials throughout the centuries due to changes in fashions, technology, material availability, and uses. More on that below.
*Ancient Romans are possibly considered the first decanter-makers due to modern decanters being largely defined as inert glass wine vessels – much like those found in ancient Rome. However wine-serving vessels made from non-glass materials are likely to have begun in other parts of the world much earlier because winemaking and drinking were a large part of ancient civilizations that predated ancient Rome – Greek and Georgian, to name a few.
Decanter materials historically versus today: While ancient Romans didn’t invent glass-making, they may have been the first to combine large-scale glass production (including glass-blowing) with decorative glass vessels specifically for serving libations. Other materials such as silver were also used, especially in the period between the Western Roman Empire’s collapse and the rise of Venetian glass-making during the Renaissance. Other materials historically used around Europe for decanters included earthenware jugs, imported Chinese porcelain, carved crystal, silver, bronze, and even gold.
In the 17th century England developed better glass making technology with the use of lead oxide and flint, and became the production center for bottles, jugs, and decanters for nearly a century. Glass further lent itself to trends and innovations in glass-cutting and etching techniques throughout the centuries that followed. Preferences towards glass decanters were also related to its transparency – unlike silver or earthenware – which helped to further improve the aesthetic of the container by showing the wine’s color.
Decanter shapes & styles: Much like the materials, the shapes and styles of decanters have changed quite a lot over history. Nowadays they tend to have a narrow neck and wider area where the wine rests. Removable stoppers (to limit air exposure) were a late 17th century addendum and became a regular fixture by the 1730s.
What is a decanter for? Originally decanters were expressly for decorative and manageable wine-serving. Modern decanters, while still decorative, are also used for any number of the following reasons:
Removing wine from any sediment that has formed in its bottle. Prior to modern stabilization techniques (clarification, filtration, chilling, etc), wines of the past were more likely to throw a deposit while in their closed bottle. While this sediment is/was harmless, it can have bitter or astringent flavors. Even today some wines, such as vintage Port or older reds, develop a natural layer of sediment as they age. By slowly pouring a wine into a decanter it’s easier to separate the liquid (wine) from the solids (natural sediment).
- Aerating a wine before drinking. This is the controversial and a more modern usage of decanting. Proponents of decanting believe that the aeration it provides helps soften a wine while promoting its bouquet.
The dispute: Is extreme aeration beneficial or detrimental to a wine? And more importantly, is it (ever) necessary? There’s no simple answer here because the help or harm offered by a decanter almost entirely depends on the wine in question and its condition (e.g. age, faults, style, etc).
While most everyone can agree that some amounts of aeration (i.e. the oft-seen swirling of your glass) aid a wine in opening up, there is serious disagreement that decanting – a rather rough method of air-exposure – is ever appropriate. When professionals such as Chateau Latour design decanters specifically to maximize aeration yet at the same time celebrated oenologists like Professor Émile Peyaud argue it is scientifically and “oenologically indefensible” to aerate a wine in this manner, who does the wine enthusiast side with?
No need to side with anyone! There are appropriate uses for a decanter and conversely less appropriate uses. You might be surprised how rarely you actually need a decanter, thought hey are handy to have around sometimes.
Here are some common wine scenarios and my professional advice on if you should decant or not:
DECANT or DON’T DECANT –
- If a wine has a lot of sediment in the bottle. It’s a toss-up between decanting or not because although decanting is one excellent means of removing wine from sediment, you might be just as successful with careful and slow pouring. Wines that typically will have sediment are vintage ports, very old wines, or unfiltered wines. On the other hand, wines that are very old don’t entirely benefit from decanting due to their fragility.
Pro-tip: Pouring a bottle over a lit candle is an easy and stylish way to see the sediment in a wine bottle before it ends up in your glass or the decanter!
DON’T DECANT –
- If a wine is very old (i.e. 15+ years). Old wines are very delicate and lose their aromas and flavors much faster once exposed to oxygen. If you have an old wine that you’d like to decant to remove it from its sediment, aim to serve and drink it immediately afterwards.
- A young, inexpensive, table wine. The best, most gentle means of aerating any wine is simply pouring into wine glasses and swirling it. That said, table/inexpensive wines rarely need any help opening up.
- White wines, sparkling wines, dessert wines, or rose’. Extreme oxygen exposure in these cases is almost always inappropriate and will result in the loss of flavor, aromas, and bubbles.
- If you’ve opened a very youthful wine that is very “closed”, e.g. a very young Barolo. A “closed” wine might be unpleasantly astringent or lack aromas/flavours. In cases with more premium wines that needed more time to mature, the extreme aeration a decanter provides can expedite the loss of unpleasant astringency and help open it up. It’s of course more preferable to not open a wine up before it’s ready!
- If you’ve just got a beautiful decanter that you need an excuse to use!
Other helpful tips regarding wine, aeration, and serving:
- Simply uncorking a bottle and letting it stand open for a bit is not a very effective aeration method. The reasons for this is simply a mathematical equation of the size of the wine’s surface area exposed to oxygen and time exposed. A full bottle of wine left in the bottle with only the cork removed has such a small amount of wine surface exposed to air that the effects of letting it “breathe” are so slow they are described as “negligible” (Oxford Companion to Wine, p.103). This is why decanters (and red wine glasses) are shaped so widely: to allow a larger surface to air ratio and thereby speed up aeration.
- Some quick and easy methods of gently aerating a wine are simply pouring into glasses and swirling or allowing to sit for up to 20 minutes in the glass. Transferring wine from glass to glass is a less gentle but effective way to introduce some air into a wine that has just been opened and poured as well. This is also a good way to deal with some minor wine faults such as reductive aromas (e.g. rotten eggs, stopped up drains) and minor cork taint.
- Glassware is important. While you don’t need expensive crystal glasses to enjoy wine, the shape and size of your glass greatly affects how the wine tastes (and lasts). Click the link to read more.
- Wine gadgets, like special pourers that advertise their abilities in softening your wines, are definitely fun to have around but rarely needed – especially if you tend to use large glassware or decanters. Never use these with older wines or whites, sparkling, or rose’.
- Throwing wine in a blender is not advisable.