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Decanting made easy

Penfolds Grange Line Up (Photo: Toni Paterson)

Can you remember the last time you decanted a bottle of wine?

I am an avid fan of decanting. It wakes a sleeping wine, allowing one to experience hidden layers and complexities, as well as tempering certain elements, such as oak and tannin, by allowing the fruit to rise and shine.

Through exposure to air, some initially unpleasant aromas can blow off. The process also facilitates the separation of a wine from its sediment.

Many people shy away from decanting out of fear, but it is essentially a simple process.

That said, I do shudder when I recall one of my first decanting experiences. It was in a tiny, dimly lit, room in London. I was provided with a candle, a vintage corkscrew, a weighty decanter and an audience of intimidating sommeliers. They way my hands were shaking, it was a miracle that I managed to decant the bottle of old Grange successfully.

I have refined my technique over the years and now know that decanting need not be onerous. In fact, it is a ceremony I have grown to love.

All you need is a bottle of wine that has been standing upright for a couple of hours (though I like to wait a day for aged wine). And a container in which to pour it in. Now, this could be a very fancy Riedel decanter. Or it could be a simple glass jug. To be honest, I never use a candle. But I do make sure to find a bright light so I can see when I am close to the sediment.

Here is my step-by-step method for decanting. Very young wines benefit from being decanted an hour or more before serving. However, very old wines need decanting just before pouring, as their delicate characters can be fleeting.

  1. Wash, rinse and dry your decanter’ to ensure that it is perfectly clean. Never use it directly from the cupboard or box.
  2. Rinse the decanter with a tiny amount of the wine you are going to decant. Distribute this wine around as much of the decanter as possible, including up the sides. Discard this wine (or pour it into a glass if you can’t bear the wastage).
  3. Hold the decanter at an angle and slowly pour the wine onto the sloping neck so that the wine fans out as it travels down the inside of the decanter.
  4. Keep your eye just below the neck of the wine bottle so you can stop pouring before you hit the sediment.
  5. Give the decanted wine a swirl and serve directly from the decanter.

If you wish to serve the wine in its original bottle, you will need to follow these additional steps, resulting in the wine being ‘double decanted’. Though for very old wines this double handling is not recommended.

  1. Rinse the empty wine bottle thoroughly with filtered water to ensure complete removal of the sediment.
  2. Use another tiny amount of the decanted wine to rinse the bottle. Distribute this wine around as much of the bottle as possible. Discard (or pour into a glass and drink!).
  3. Slowly pour the wine that is in the decanter, back into the clean bottle. A clean funnel can be of use.

Decanting Tips

  • Decanting is not limited to red wines. I sometimes decant white wines, from young austere rieslings to complex chardonnays.
  • I also occasionally decant sparkling wines, especially those that are very delicate and reserved on opening, though this must be done very slowly and patiently. There will be less foam if the decanter is chilled. I don’t recommend returning the wine to its original bottle.
  • If cork debris is a problem, try using a pickle picker or a straw to remove the cork bits from the top of the bottle. Though you may need to decant the wine through a fine metal strainer, or a piece of clean coarsely woven fabric like muslin or cheesecloth (first soak in a little wine), though this is the last resort.
  • If I plan to enjoy a bottle over a series of evenings, I often don’t decant it as I like watching it evolve with time.
  • When buying a decanter, make sure you hold it in your hands and go through the motions of using it. Some decanters, although stunning, are ridiculously heavy and hard to use. The worst are those that need turning upside down to yield the last glass. Also, consider the practicality of cleaning it.
  • While some adore the ceremony, I typically prefer to decant wine out of the sight of my guests. I find I get a better result without an audience.

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