To Decant or Not to Decant, that is the Question:
Whether ’tis a noble old world red
or the tannins and fruit of domestic Cab

It can seem like a Shakespearean drama when in a restaurant and ordering a bottle of wine, and whether or not to ask it be decanted. On one side, you know this wine needs to be decanted, either it’s age and you know the chances of sediment are high, or it needs aeration, a bit of time to breathe and open up. On the other side, you may see asking to have it decanted looking pretentious, or attention seeking. Making it appear that your superior wine choice deserves a vessel all its own, and the admiration of the tables that surround, therefore you decline to ask.

We have to start at the beginning, and why decanting a wine is sometimes necessary. There are truly only two reasons to why a wine needs to be decanted. One is to get out the grit (sediment) that can build up in a bottle that has been lying down for a while. As time goes by, tannins and color pigments align together, and separate. Although I’ve cracked open some young Argentine’s that have been chuck full of sediment. Inspect your bottle before you open it, that build-up can pose a threat to enjoying the wine true essence upon drinking. It can add a gritty, bitter flavor to the wine, and also leave a residue in the glass. Making the whole experience a little less than grand.

Another reason, you have decided to open up a big, bad, bold wine. Perhaps a fairly young Napa Cabernet, or Bordeaux. This wine might need to breathe. Don’t feel bad about drinking young wine, we are not all blessed with an abundance of proper temperature controlled storage in our lives, or in my case…patience. That bottle can only look at me for so long before I am going to break into it. Either way, if this is the case, it’s time to bring oxygen into the mix for a little bit, help that wine “open up,” so that you may enjoy it’s best features the way the winemaker intended.

Here are a few tips to help when making the decision.

  1. Stand Up!
    • It’s best to “stand up” an older bottle of wine either at home or in restaurants. Many restaurants these days have their wine list available to view online, this can help you make a decision on wine ahead of arrival.
    • In some cases, you make find a wine that needs to stand up for a bit, let the sediment rest to the bottom so it can be decanted properly and separated. If you call me, and say, “Hey Joshua, I just have to have that 1978 Selvapiana I see on your list. Could you stand that up for me?”
    • Do this at least 24 hours ahead of your reservation, that way the wine will be ready to go right when you arrive, and a decanter will be ready on the table for your wine.
    • Pour slow and steady, you don’t want to mix the sediment up at all. Use a candle or flashlight to watch the bottle neck and watch for sediment. You’re going to inevitably leave a few ounces of wine in the bottom of the bottle, think of this as a sacrifice to the wine gods.
  2. Gimme Some Air
    • Open the bottle and taste the wine, if the wine tastes “tight” it needs some air.
    • In most cases, just pouring the wine into the glass and swirling will impart the air it needs to open up.
    • In other cases decanting, an aerating device or even just time can assist. Let the wine sit for a little while, order a glass pour from your server, then revisit the vino, 9 times out of 10, it’s ready to roll.
    • Sometimes a “hard” decant can work, there is nothing gentle about this process, just turn the bottle upside down in the decanter and dump it in. This will ensure the wine got it’s air and has moved around. Do NOT do this if sediment is in play, otherwise, it’s just a mess.
  3. Experiment
    • Try things at home, open a bottle, taste it, leave it open, taste it in an hour, 2 hours, or even 3 hours. You will start experiencing different nuances every time, and in some case may even get a lesson in over-oxidizing the wine, which is a good thing to know too.
    • Different varietals, different vintages, different regions all have different reactions to air. It’s a great way to hone your skills and a novice wine lover.

In any case, when you’re in a restaurant, and you don’t know, always rely on the wine-guru’s advice. A lot of work goes into cultivating a wine list for a restaurant, these people generally have tasted every wine on that list and know what will help make the wine experience the best. These people love wine, that last thing they want is someone else to not enjoy. That’s like a chef putting out bad food on purpose, it’s not going to happen.

I truly hope these tips can help when making a decision to decant or not to decant.