Being in some way connected to the wine business for over 17 years, I started to realize that there are some questions that I find myself answering over and over again. The fact is that there is so much to know about wine that no one person can really know it all. So it goes with this hobby / passion / obsession, call it what you will, that we all love–the quest to fully understand it is never-ending.

However, if I had to pick one topic that’s asked about more than any other, it would be decanting.

Why do people decant wine?
What does decanting do?
Does the shape or size of the decanter matter?
Does the time in the decanter matter?
Should I decant my wine?

These are all legitimate questions, and I feel it’s about time that I throw my hat in the ring and take a shot at answering them. What’s more, I’ll even go into a little detail about a more advanced topic that I’m often asked about, the notorious Slow-O technique. That said, please understand that my answers are based on experience and opinion, with no scientific research to back them up–even though I might quote a few sources for good measure.

Why do people decant wine?

Decanting serves two general purposes. First and foremost, it is a way to decant pure wine from an aged bottle that contains sediment. So what wines contain sediment? The reality is that any wine that is only a few years old from its initial release has the potential to contain sediment. In fact, many artisanal producers will choose not to rack their wines prior to bottling, which can also add a small amount of sediment into the young wine (I swear I once found a twig in a bottle). However, in most cases, what you’re decanting out of your wine are tartrate crystals and resolved pigmented tannins. Remember that there’s nothing wrong with sediment, it’s just the natural result of aging wine in bottle.

What does decanting do?

The second reason to decant is air. Aerating wine has very positive effect on wines young and old. In their youth, wines exposed to air will have their tannins soften, and will unleash some of their complexities. You’ve probably heard people say that the last glass they poured from their bottle was the best. The reason for this is the agitation and mixing with air that the wine was subjected to while pouring multiple glasses. The more air, the faster a wine may open up. (But keep in mind that not all wines like a lot of air at once, which I will get into later in this article).

Then there are older wines, which also benefit from decanting and air, but prefer it with a more gentle and regulated approach. For an older wine that may have been in bottle for decades, the oxygen works very much like adding salt to a mirepoix, it simply allows the wine to open up and express its natural attributes better. Also, older wines can sometimes take on aromas from the cork, which blow off in a decanter. (not to be confused with corked wine which smells like Grandma’s basement),

Does the shape or size of the decanter matter?

This goes back to the last point I made about the amount of air that a wine is subjected to. The size of a decanter matters when the ratio of wine to oxygen contact is increased. The more contact with oxygen, the faster the wine is affected by it. Also, the shape of a decanter can sometimes include extra canals or ribbing that the wine is funneled through to allow more aeration as it is poured into the decanter. Sometimes you can’t even see it, as the construction is so fine, but there are decanters that force the wine to fan out across the glass before collecting at the bottom. Meanwhile, other decanters have extremely wide bowls, allowing a large ratio of wine to oxygen. Otherwise, the different shapes of decanters have more to do with variety and aesthetics than anything else.

Does the time in the decanter matter?

It does; while one wine might hit it’s peak at one or two hours in a decanter, it may also start to taste bland or even oxidized after three or four. In general, the bigger or more complex the wine is, the more time it needs.

Should I decant my wine?

In my experience, there are only a small number of wines that don’t benefit from decanting. Three possibilities that immediately come to mind are:

1. Wines that are intended to be fresh, such as newly released Rose, Beaujolais, and entry-level New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Basically, if it hits the market with the idea that it will be drank within a few months or at the side of a pool, then there’s really no reason to decant it.

2. Wines that are mass-produced. I know this may seem like a cop out, but the fact is that most mass produced wines are closer in composition to a soft drink than they are to wine. Would you decant a bottle of Gatorade?

3. One of the few types of wine that I would never decant, which spans both the entry-level and high end markets, is sparkling. Champagne, Sekt, Prosecco, Moscato and any sparkling wine will fizz out in a decanter–which may seem like common sense, but I’ve never put much faith in what we perceive common sense to dictate. I’ve heard of some people who decant much older bottles of Champagne to release their complexities, but I’ve yet to experience this myself.

Other than these three categories, I say to pull out the decanter and start experimenting. One of my favorites is Chianti, which I find always performs much better after an hour of air. Of course the obvious choice is any young wine or “BIG” wine that was aged in barrel, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cab Franc, and Syrah. Yet I can’t stress enough how well most wine reacts to decanting. Even white Burgundy benefits from a good decant.

Then there are wines that I wouldn’t even dream of touching without a proper decant. Bordeaux, Brunello, and anything from the Northern Rhone comes to mind. And then there’s Barolo, which I usually decant around lunch to enjoy with dinner.

What is a Slow-O
What is a Double-Decant – Slow-O

Which brings me to the Slow-O, one of most most asked questions about decanting among anyone who drinks Barolo, Barbaresco or just about any wine made from Nebbiolo (the grape).

This goes right back to just about every question that we’ve answered here today. The fact is that some wines like more air than others, like Nebbiolo. Some wines like larger decanters while others like smaller ones; like Nebbiolo, which also benefits from receiving oxygen slower than others.

Going back to my days of just starting out, as I was learning about Italian wine, I recall numerous stories of writers and critics tasting Barolo with Bartolo Mascarello. In almost all of these recollections, the wine was described as amazing, and in almost all of them, the wine was coming from a bottle that had been open for days, and sometimes weeks.

There is simply something completely different about Nebbiolo from just about any other grape on earth. It likes extended contact with oxygen over a long period of time, but slowly. It wasn’t long before collectors and enthusiasts figured out that the best place to do this was in the bottle. However, just pulling the cork and leaving the wine open isn’t really enough to jumpstart the process, and since most Nebbiolo based wines are best enjoyed 10, 15, 20 or more years after bottling, it’s best to decant the wine from its sediment anyway. This began the double decant to Slow-O process that many people use today.

Basically you decant the wine (into a decanter or another bottle) off of its sediment, rinse and dry the bottle, and then return the wine to it’s original bottle for a long decant. That long decant can last the entire day if you like. I personally go for anywhere between 6 – 8 hours, but some collectors insist on starting this process in the morning for an evening dinner.

I will state AS A DISCLAIMER, that not everyone enjoys doing this with their Barolo and Barbaresco. I know a number of people that I respect a great deal who believe this entire process is hogwash. However, I will also say that I’ve experienced the double decant Slow-O to work wonders on so many occasions that I refuse to open a Barolo or Barbaresco from my cellar without the proper amount of time to employ this technique.

PS: I’ve also had great experiences using this technique with Amarone.

I hope this helps to explain and demystify the art of decanting. For me it was all about trial and error, and I’m sure you’ll have a number of interesting experiences, both good and bad, as you jump in. I the end, I am 100% certain that with experience you will agree that when there’s time to decant, that you absolutely should.

on July 9, 2017

That was a great article I had often wondered about the same issue. But does the same hold true od well aged Port from Spain?

on July 9, 2017

Great summary.

on September 11, 2017

I’m also curious about decanting port?

on June 25, 2018

Robert Hood. There is no such thing as port from spain. Porto (vinho do Porto) only comes from Portugal. What you have is Spanish wine with the name Porto in the label for commercial reasons. Only for ignorants I must say.

on November 22, 2019

Cleared things up a bit for me. Thanks. What’s your opinion on the aeriater?

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