When your wine needs to breathe, and when it needs to settle
You’ve got some questions. At a recent dinner party, you watched your hostess dump a whole bottle of wine into a fancy pitcher, swirl it around, then let it sit before pouring a glass.
“We’re just going to aerate this a little – let it breathe,” she said.
You play along because you don’t want to look like a neanderthal, but now it feels like you’re missing something. You googled what she did, and Google brought you here, so let’s start tackling your questions.
What’s the difference between aerating and decanting? Do you need to buy a fancy glass decanter to do them the right way? Should all wines make the same journey into the decanter before they end up in your glass?
In short, you can do both between the time you open the bottle and your first sip. No, you don’t need a fancy decanter, but having an extra container helps. Just about any pitcher will do.
Aeration and decanting are related, but slightly different. Let’s start by breaking down each process.
What is aeration?
Aeration happens when wine, almost entirely cut off from outside air while in the bottle, interacts with oxygen. This process activates aromas and the full flavor profile, letting you experience the wine as it was intended.
Simply popping a bottle won’t deliver the desired results. The neck is too small to allow proper aeration. That’s why many decanters (more on those later) have wide mouths and basins, to increase the surface area.
The aeration reaction happens naturally when you pour a glass and the surface area comes into contact with the air. A little swirling enhances the process, though using a decanter is arguably the most effective way to aerate.
Be careful not to aerate for too long, for wine of any age. It spoils the wine. If it starts to smell like vinegar, you have waited too long.
What is decanting?
When you pour wine from one container to another, that’s decanting. Simple, right? Decanting performs two functions: it aerates the wine, and it also allows the wine to settle – something aeration alone does not do.
Settling is really only important for aged wines and port wines which may have developed sediment over the years.
Sediment is harmless, but it can ruin the experience. It’s generally gritty and unpleasant in the mouth.
PRO TIP: To most effectively remove sediment from an older bottle, use cheesecloth or a coffee filter at the top of your decanter. Or you can simply pour slowly and leave a little wine – and the sediment – in the bottom of the bottle. Watch the neck. You’ll start to see sludgy sediment creeping toward the mouth of the bottle when you’ve poured enough.
To decant or not to decant
White wines typically don’t need decanting, unless you’re getting an earthy smell that doesn’t quite seem right. Otherwise, too much aeration can spoil white wines, which are generally bursting with aromatics and flavors upon opening.
For decantable reds, once you’ve popped the cork, the clock starts. Aged wines generally need less time to decant, while younger wines may decant for three hours or more. Have a taste. Your wine is ready when you notice aromas and a flavor profile emerge. If that’s after a few minutes, no need to drag it out. Enjoy!
If the flavors seem muted or hidden, give it more time.