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What Does It Mean to Decant Wine and When Should You Do It?

Decanting is more than just pouring wine into a fancy vessel

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Closeup on a man in formalwear pouring a bottle of red wine into a large glass decanter AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Ask a Somm, a column in which experts from across the country answer questions about wine. Today’s installment: How do I know when to decant a bottle of wine?

Back before the days of Roy Choi and Michael Voltaggio, Los Angeles was home to chefs like Wolfgang Puck, Nancy Silverton, and Josiah Citrin — the city’s old guard. Perhaps retaining some of L.A.’s original DNA, those latter chefs have mostly stayed true to proper white tablecloth dining, a nearly extinct species among the city’s influx of fermentation and bowls of raw fish. Patriarch of fine westside cuisine, Citrin commands Santa Monica’s Mélisse, a French tasting menu abode rife with truffles, caviar, and foie. Naturally, haute wine service matches haute cuisine, and the restaurant’s French bottle-heavy list is supervised by sommelier Matthew Luczy. Below, Luczy explains when to decant wine:

“Firstly, it’s important to understand what decanting actually does, and that there are a couple different ways to go about it. Decanting forces the wine to pass through oxygen, kickstarting the release and development of chemical compounds that give you aromas and flavors. You know when you swirl wine in your glass to help it ‘open up’? By decanting a wine, you’re basically giving an initial swirl to the entire bottle at once. This can help wake the wine up, it can shock the wine into closing down, and what I find to be the most common outcome, can cause a wine to go through phases of both.

As for deciding to decant a wine or not, one of the first things I look at is age versus age-ability. If it’s a wine that’s built to last but being opened very young, I will almost always decant it. A great way to prepare such wines is what’s called splash-decanting, where you literally dump the entire bottle into a decanter, encouraging the wine splashing off the sides and bottom. This rigorous method is useful for young, dense reds such as 2012 Domaine Tempier Bandol and 2010 Vietti Barolo ‘Castiglione.’

This differs greatly from the slow, gentle method used to remove sediment from an older wine. To facilitate this, it is crucial that the bottle be stood upright for a few days before opening to allow the solids to fall to the bottom. Holding a light source (traditionally a candle, but I use my iPhone flashlight!) underneath the shoulder of the tilted bottle, you can see the flow of wine through it, allowing you to leave the sediment behind. With this motion, unnecessary glugging or bubbling in the bottle is to be avoided.

With older wines, provenance of a particular bottle is of extreme importance. Does the fill level look adequate relative to the age of the wine? Is the color clear? Is it a high-quality, age-able wine that was purchased on release and has been stashed away at cellar temperature for decades? That particular bottle is going to stand up to more oxygen, and blossom in a decanter more reliably than a wine with an uncertain history of storage. It goes without saying that older wines tend to have an elevated cost of entry, sometimes bordering on the ridiculous. It’s rare to purchase wine at retail with significant bottle age (without worry of storage issues), but this 1981 Lopez de Heredia Rioja Gran Reserva ‘Viña Tondonia,’ straight from the producer’s cellar, is a relative bargain factoring in age, quality, and provenance.

Certain varietals tend to react more favorably to decanting than others, most notably the cabernet family, grenache, syrah, and nebbiolo. These are typically used to produce wines intended for mid-to-long term aging, and the more stuffing a wine has for the long haul, the more likely it’s going to drink tight and closed down upon opening. It’s worth mentioning that white wines often need decanting just as much as reds. Young, high-acid, mineral-driven whites react wonderfully to the splash-decanting method listed above. Particular examples are white Burgundy such as 2012 Domaine Fourrier Bourgogne Blanc and Loire Valley Chenin Blanc like 2013 Domaine Huet Vouvray Sec ‘Clos de Bourg.’

Decanting pinot noir is a topic that could almost use an entire article by itself. Many collectors and sommeliers alike categorically will not decant pinot, citing that intrinsic delicate flavors and aromas will be blown off in the process. I tend to disagree with this —with some patience, after an hour or so in a decanter, you will get a depth, complexity, and density from beautiful pinot noir that otherwise wouldn’t have unwound solely from the cork being pulled. Young, high-quality red Burgundy, such as 2012 Domaine Bruno Clair Marsannay ‘Les Longeroies’ and domestic pinot noir like 2012 Hirsch Vineyards ‘San Andreas Fault’ are wines built to last and evolve over time, and give you a snapshot of that after time in a decanter.

At the end of the day, decanting is an option. It can be just as enjoyable to watch a wine go through its phases naturally and unfold over the course of dinner, a date, a day off, or all of the above. However, I do think it behoves a vast amount of wines to give them a little wake up, to help them on their way. As a final note, I use only one type of decanter at Mélisse, and one type at home: the Riedel cabernet decanter. It’s the perfect size, reasonably priced, and versatile for all types of wine.”