All You Need To Know About Wine Decanters, Plus 5 Shapes To Try
“What’s your view on decanting?” is one of the first questions wine world denizens ask each other upon meeting. Whether they will become lifelong friends, colleagues or mortal enemies depends heavily on the answer. My personal answer (“decant it if you like”) has doubtless won me some nemeses, but like virtually everything in wine I feel it comes down to personal choice as long as you treat the wine with sufficient respect (for instance if you’re thinking about chucking a young Opus One in the blender, that’s your choice but we’re probably not going to be friends).
For every wine I’ve drunk that felt a little reticent, I’ve had at least one other that I felt spent too long stewing in a decanter. Most of the time, I’d rather just let the wine open up over the course of an evening as I enjoy it glass by glass. However, in a group setting where you’re serving each person a single glass of each wine you don’t have this luxury and this is where decanters really come in handy.
The purpose of decanting red and fortified wines is generally either to loosen them up if they’re young or clean them up (i.e. separate the liquid from the solid sediment) if they’re old. In the former case, oxygen exposure is key and so you want a decanter that creates a large wine surface. In the latter case, you want a sufficiently long neck to allow you to easily detect when you’re starting to pour some of the sediment in with the wine.
The purpose of decanting white, rosé and sparkling wines is generally to help drive away overly aggressive “reductive” notes. These can express themselves attractively as a hint of struck match or truffle, or much less attractively as boiled cabbage, onions, rotten eggs or burnt rubber. Because reduction takes place in the absence of oxygen, exposure to oxygen in a decanter can help eliminate some reductive compounds but others are more stable and so no matter how violently you swirl, the offensive odour of sweet corn just won’t dissipate.
Below, you’ll find a list of five basic decanter shapes you may want in your arsenal to help extract the best out of each bottle. For most people, the first two are probably sufficient.
A description that covers shapes as disparate as jugs, flower vases and water flasks, the unifying factor in all these incarnations is a vaguely bottle-like form with a low ratio of wine surface area to volume.
A good all-around, practical decanter that is easy to clean, the carafe is also a good choice for fragile older wines, which can’t necessarily handle much sloshing around, provided it has a sufficiently long neck. Another bonus of the carafe is it tends to be easy on the wrists, particularly with the addition of thoughtful details like a punt in the bottom (see the Riedel O).
Like an exaggerated version of the conical flasks found in any high school chemistry lab, the basic idea of this shape is to expose a broad surface of wine to oxygen without allowing too many aroma molecules to escape out the top.
It’s also ideal for swirling the wine to give extra oxygen exposure, either for softening the tannin texture and releasing more aroma in young wines, or blowing off borderline faults like reduction or excessive volatile acidity (vinegar or nail polish scent).
Named after a trumpet-like brass instrument, this shape is defined by a long, slender neck and relatively narrow, modest sized bulb at the bottom. These features will not endear it to whoever has to clean it afterwards, but they do make it very easy to spot the sediment when you’re decanting an older wine.
It also won’t over-expose your wine to oxygen, making this a great older wine or sparkling wine option. Finally, these decanters are great for reaching across a large table to pour your guest a glass.
A U-shaped design that allows you to pour the wine in at one end and pour it out the other is a useful innovation because it permits the spout to be much narrower (and hence slower-pouring) than if it were also the point of ingress. The wine’s surface area to volume ratio within the decanter is comparatively low, making this an appropriate choice for older wines, but the wine gets a nice boost of aeration when it’s being poured.
However, this shape shares many practical challenges with the cornet (like cleaning) and it can be tricky at first to figure out the right angle at which to pour your bottle for spotting the sediment.
There is no shortage of eccentric decanter shapes. I’m sure you’ve seen the countless options from Riedel, along with even less pragmatic shapes that mimic everything from blood vessels, every conceivable animal and, for some reason, human skulls. Which are worth even considering (assuming you have ample home storage and great confidence in the person responsible for cleaning dishes)?
Having tried many over the years, I quite enjoyed the Riedel Eve once I figured out how to use it––yes, there’s an instructional video––for a controlled “double decant.” I was also rather tickled by Riedel’s Ayam, which has a handle that’s useful for pouring and can be used to hang it off a table (but only when it’s full).
However, droll as I find these things from time to time, I’ll mostly stick to a nice, simple carafe (if I’m going to decant at all!).
See also: Wine First: 3 Dishes To Pair With White Burgundy