I love wine, but I don't really know that much about it. I say this a lot, mostly at restaurants when I'm talking to the sommelier about choosing a glass of wine to go with dinner. There are two reasons I do this: 1) to cover my bases in case I say anything wrong (you can't blame me, I'm just a novice!); 2) to not-so-subtly invite the real expert to share their knowledge with me.
So now that you know this about me, it should come as no surprise that I did this at a dinner where I was seated next to a wine pro: Diane Flamand, a very chic French woman who is also an oenologist (aka an expert on the production of wine) and the winemaker for Légende Bordeaux wines.
I learned a lot that night, but the most surprising thing was actually very simple (and very doable): Decant your wine.
Sure, I had heard of decanting wine before, but I had never actually thought to do it when serving wine at home. It turns out that it's one of the easiest (and yes, hello, free!) ways to make just about any bottle of wine taste significantly better.
To find out more, I asked Diane and two other wine experts—Darryl Brooker, the president of Mission Hill Family Estate winery in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, and Michelle Erland, a Certified Sommelier—all of my questions about decanting.
But First, What Is Decanting?
The process of decanting simply means to slowly pour a wine from its bottle into another vessel. "There are two main objectives for decanting wine," says Darryl. "The first is to separate the wine from any sediment that may have formed in the bottle, and the second is to aerate the wine (introducing the wine to oxygen)."
Why does it make such a big difference?
It all has to do with taste, says Michelle. "Sediment is the solid material that settles to the bottom of the bottle of wine," she explains. "As wine ages, these particles of sediment naturally separate from the liquid. Sediment won’t hurt you, but it can taste extremely bitter and harsh." Which is why, when you're pouring the wine into the decanter, you should do it slowly and steadily, while keeping the bottle below an angle of 45 degrees.
It's not just about removing sediment, though—that aeration Darryl mentioned makes a big difference, too.
"Aeration allows volatile aromas to escape and it allows the wine to 'breathe,' enhancing the wine’s aromatic characteristics and allowing the underlying fruit flavors to come forward," he explains. It also helps to soften those big tannins (which he describes as "that drying sensation") you'll find in some red wines.
How long should I decant my wine?
According to Diane, a good general rule of thumb is to decant most red wines for 15 minutes. "Very often," she says, "it is enough." It's also a safe guideline to follow because, "For older wines, or very old vintages, a longer decantation (oxygenation) can be worse than nothing. It can end up spoiling the aromas."
That being said, "It is no problem to decant a big red wine up to four hours before serving," says Darryl. "Typically, older wines can be decanted 30 minutes before serving and younger, more full-bodied red and white wines can be decanted an hour or more before serving." Most of all, though, he says: "When in doubt, decant."
Can I decant white wine?
Speaking of white wines, the answer is yes, you can decant them. "Although decanting red wine is more common, you can absolutely decant some white wines," says Michelle. "Like red wines, white wines can be a bit tight when the bottle is first opened. Decanting the white wine can help to release some aromatics, particularly in higher-end white wines (think: white Burgundy) that can age."
That's not all you can decant, though! Add rosé to the list of wines you can decant, says Darryl. Even some sparkling wines, can benefit from decanting, Michelle adds. "Decanting certain sparkling wines has become increasingly popular among sommeliers, especially older vintage Champagnes," she explains. "Decanting older vintage Champagnes really helps to release all the delicate layers of aromatics and flavors that make older wine so special." It will also soften the bubbles. So if you're someone who is sensitive to the bubbly sensation in sparkling wine, then this might be a good option for you.
What is double decanting?
If you've invested in an expensive bottle and want to show it off (invite me over for dinner, please?), you may want to "double decant" the wine, says Darryl. "This is the process of decanting into a vessel and then [using a funnel] pouring the wine back into the bottle, which allows you to introduce the wine to oxygen and still serve it in the original bottle," he explains. For more pro tips on double decanting, check this out.
What if I don't own a decanter?
"If you don’t have a decanter, there are a few other options you can use," says Michelle. "A glass vase or any type of glass carafe will do." If you're throwing a party and find yourself in a bind, she adds, "you can decant the wine into either a Tupperware jar or even a blender." Feel free to get creative here, because it's not really the vessel that matters, just the fact that your introducing the wine to air.