Wine decanters are beautiful crystal or glass bottles used to hold wine prior to serving. Presenting red wine in a decanter allows the rich, beautiful color to shine through, enhancing enjoyment of the wine. This is not, however, the main purpose of a decanter.
Beautiful presentation aside, wines are decanted for one of two reasons: to let the wine breathe or to prevent the sediment that forms in older wines from finding its way into the wine glass. The decanting process is different for each of these scenarios.
> Remove Sediment < As wine ages, tannins (acidic compounds in grape skins) combine with the pigments in the wine to form insoluble compounds that then settle out of the wine. Although harmless, this sediment tastes bitter and should always be removed prior to serving. Red wines older than about 10 years will almost always contain some sediment, while younger reds and whites rarely do. While it is true that merely leaving a bottle standing upright will allow sediment to settle to the bottom, repeated pourings will disturb the sediment and increase the possibility of pouring some into a glass. Eliminate this possibility by decanting the wine and leaving the sediment behind. The actual procedure for decanting is quite simple. Choose your bottle in advance and allow it to stand upright for a few hours before opening. About 15-30 minutes prior to serving, remove the cork and then pour carefully into a decanter, watching the neck closely. As soon as sediment enters the neck, stop the pour. This ensures you do not pour sediment into the decanter. If you order a bottle of fine wine in a restaurant, you will often see the sommelier shining a light through the neck of the bottle while decanting to ensure not a single particle of sediment escapes. You may also filter the wine through several layers of cheesecloth to remove any sediment that escapes the bottle. As long as you do this out of view of your guests, filtering is an acceptable alternative for those without a steady hand. > Let Wine Breathe < Young wines often taste smoother if allowed to breathe for up to an hour after opening. Older wines benefit by losing the mustiness that often develops in bottles that have been sealed for years. However, because they are already mature, older wines will spoil quicker than younger wines and should breathe only 15-30 minutes. This is plenty of time for any off scents to dissipate, and if a wine still smells bad after 30 minutes, it has gone bad. For a young wine, pouring it vigorously into the decanter will speed up the aeration process. Some people like to upend the bottle and swirl it, which has the double effect of emptying the bottle faster and increasing aeration. Do not use this technique on old wines. In general, only reds need to breathe, although some people believe that certain whites, like high end Rieslings and chardonnays can also benefit from breathing. Most experts agree that European wines benefit more from breathing than US made wines. Enjoyment of various wines is personal experience, so experiment to decide your yourself which wines taste better after breathing. > A Few Tips to Remember < * Young red wines may benefit from vigorous decanting followed by up to an hour of breathing time. * White wines taste best chilled and don't typically require decanting. Some experts believe high end whites do benefit from breathing, so you may want to experiment for yourself. * Regardless of the reason for decanting a wine, never store it in a decanter. The increased oxygen will spoil even a young wine quickly. Stopper the decanter between pours, and then either finish it (preferable) or store the wine properly. Drink leftover wine within a day or two at most. Knowing when and how to decant a bottle of wine can enhance your, and your guests', experience and turn a pleasant evening into a wonderful evening.