We’ve all been told to “take a deep breath and relax” at some point in our lives.  Sometimes it helps.  Sometimes it doesn’t.  It’s pretty much the same way with the process of decanting wine – sometimes you need it, sometimes you don’t.

Decanting a bottle of wine involves pouring the wine into a glass or crystal container. It’s a very pretty process – watching the wine flow into a clear carafe gives you a chance to see and enjoy the color before you pour it into your glass – but it can also be very practical.  There are really two reasons for a wine to be decanted – aeration and removal of sediment.

Letting your wine “breath” is a somewhat controversial subject among wine experts.  Some people believe wines get better with aeration, others think it does pretty much nothing.  Aeration is mainly used for full-bodied red wines whose aroma, flavor and complexity can improve with some breathing room.  Most experts agree that just opening the bottle and letting it sit on your table does nothing because the opening in the bottle isn’t large enough to let in enough oxygen.  So, you can decant the wine into a carafe or pitcher… or just pour it into your glass and let it open up a bit before drinking.  While the optimum time of aeration varies depending on who you’re talking to, you generally don’t want your wine to sit open more than 90 minutes.  30 to 90 minutes seems to be the optimum time for aeration, according to most experts.  Try it and see if you think a little breathing room helps that young, full-bodied red relax a bit.

Removing sediment in full-bodied reds is the most compelling reason for decanting.  As wines age, they develop a deposit that settles to the bottom of the bottle.  This mainly happens in older wines like 10-year-old Bordeaux’s, Cabernets or vintage Ports.  Pouring the wine slowly and steadily into a decanter separates the clear wine from the sediment (which isn’t much fun to drink).

Decanting is practical, but it’s also a theatrical process that can make the experience of drinking a bottle of wine even more enjoyable.  Here are some tips on decanting with flair:

1. Completely remove the capsule from the neck of the bottle so you can see the wine clearly as it passes through the neck.
2. Light a candle.  Most red wines are in very dark bottles and it’s difficult to see the wine pass through the neck of the bottle.  A candle will give you some extra illumination and add a theatrical touch.  A flashlight will work too, but it lacks some of the romance.
3. Hold the decanter (or carafe or glass pitcher) in one hand.
4. Hold the bottle in the other hand and gently pour the wine into the decanter while holding both over the candle at an angle that allows you to see the wine pass through the neck of the bottle.
5. Pour in an uninterrupted motion until you begin to see the first signs of sediment.
6. Stop decanting once you see sediment.  If there is still wine in the bottle, let the sediment settle again then repeat the decanting process until you have all the clear wine out of the bottle.
7. Enjoy!

Tidbits to Amaze and Delight Your Friends
Sediment building up in a bottle of red wine is generally a sign that the bottle is fully mature (and has been stored properly).  However, some winemakers bottle without filtration.  These wines may leave a deposit on the bottle in the first few years after purchase.  Sediment may be the tartaric acid, the predominant acid in the grape, mixed with the coloring matter.  Or it could be that tannin and coloring matter, or anthocyanins, have bonded together and gathered on the bottom of the bottle.  As this process occurs, the wine becomes softer and less tannic, as well as lighter in color.  Darkly colored wines have more anthocyanins to shed and, thus, more sediment at maturity.  Light colored wines, such as Pinot Noir, rarely have much sediment.

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