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Why decant wine, and how to do it

Many people ask me, “Why decant wine?” There are two primary reasons why it is good to decant a wine - aeration and sediment removal. Many red wines, some white wines, and Vintage Ports will benefit from aeration in order to soften the hard tannins that remain in the wine.

Tannins are simply the naturally occurring chemical compounds that exist in grape skins, seeds, and stems.  These compounds also exist in oak barrels and can release their tannins into the wines that are stored in them.  Red wines are more tannic than white wines because red grapes have higher levels of tannins and are fermented with the skins intact.  This process can leave a strong, bitter taste in some red wines.

Some white wines also have a perceptible tannic taste, such as a full-bodied white Burgundy or white Bordeaux, that came from the oak barrels they fermented in.  Vintage Ports, as well, have very high levels of tannin, so it is always recommended that you aerate them in order to release their harsh tannic taste.

When decanting a wine, all you need is a glass container that can hold an entire bottle of wine.  While there are certainly some very expensive decanters available, an inexpensive, wide-mouthed glass carafe will do.  Most decanters have a wider base or neck in order to allow more air to come in contact with the surface of the wine.  You can also aerate the wine by pouring it into several large wine glasses.  Simply leaving it in the bottle with the cork off doesn?t allow enough air to mix with the wine because the neck of the bottle is too small.  With more and more technology working itself into the wine industry, there are new alternative decanting products to make the process even easier.

When decanting wine for aeration, gently pour the wine into the decanter and let it breathe in order to reveal a better, softer taste.  The length of time needed to soften a wine?s tannic taste depends on what type of wine it is.  Younger tannic red wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux, or Italian Barolo, should aerate for about an hour.  Very old wines should only aerate for about 10-15 minutes because too much air circulation will begin to deteriorate the flavors of the wine.  White tannic wines only need about thirty minutes of aeration to improve their taste.

Some older red wines and Vintage Ports need to be decanted in order to remove sediment from the drinkable wine.  While there?s nothing wrong with drinking this sediment, it just looks bad sitting at the bottom of your glass and tastes chunky when on your tongue.  Sediment develops as wine ages, after eight to ten years, as tannins and other materials solidify over time. 

When decanting wine to remove sediment, set the bottle upright for one to two days so the sediment settles at the bottom.  Vintage Ports may require standing for several days before decanting due to the large amounts of sediment that exists.  Place a candle or lamp under the wine bottle in order to see the sediment inside.  Pour the wine slowly into the decanter until the cloudy sediment reaches the neck of the bottle and stop pouring just before it spills out.  In addition to decanting for sediment removal, Vintage Ports will also need to aerate for up to eight hours in order to soften its tannic taste.

Remember, most red wines don?t need decanting, such as Beaujolais, Burgundies, and Pinot Noirs.  In addition, very inexpensive wines and all other ports do not require decanting.  These contain lower levels of tannins and won?t really benefit from decanting.

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