Decanting wine is a topic that tends to confuse people. It’s almost like a battle of the opinions. Thankfully, though, there are some facts involved as well.
Contrary to popular belief, decanting is best done on young wines. It gives them a chance to breathe and stretch their legs after being cooped up in the bottle. This is not to say that a ten-year-old wine should not be decanted. Odds are it’s a good idea, as well.
That 40-year-old bottle your father gave you for your birthday, on the other hand, should not be decanted. I will repeat that: Do not decant old wine. If you do so, you risk killing it.
This may go against everything you’ve been told. I can’t tell you how often I cringe because I hear a “so-called” wine professional tell a consumer to decant old wine. Now I’ll explain why.
Wine ages in three ways: in the barrel, in the bottle, in the glass. The barrel part (if any) is handled at the winery. With a region like Rioja or Barolo, they may do some of the bottle aging for you as well. Generally, though, that one’s on you.
“In the glass” is the fastest way to impart “age” to your wine. Oxygen is predominantly responsible for aging wine, your skin, avocados, etc. While wine may get a little oxygen in the barrel and possibly none in the bottle, it gets a whole lot in your glass or your decanter.
This helps your young wine open up. If it would really be better a couple of years hence, decanting can help you with that. There are no cut and dried rules of which and how much. That’s more trial and error to find what makes sense for your palate.
An older wine may have another fifty years on it; it may have just peaked. Decanting a wine that while old is still young would be a smart thing to do. Unfortunately, it’s really hard to know if this is the case.
Some years ago I had dinner with some friends, one of whom brought a 1950 Château Lafite. He opened it up and poured it directly into glasses. It was glorious for about 15 minutes. By 20 minutes it was dead. If he had decanted this wine, we only would have seen the dead part.
Sediment is often given as a reason to decant older wine, and there is some validity to that. You can get around the problem of sediment getting into your glass by sitting the bottle upright overnight. By then the sediment should have sunk to the bottom. If you’re careful when you pour or use a mesh screen, you shouldn’t have a problem.
My mother taught me to aerate wine by pouring it back and forth between two glasses. In a piece I read by Eric Asimov recently that advice is attributed to Martin Gersh, a writer for Vogue in the 1980s. According to Asimov “he advocated a technique of pouring young cabernets vigorously back and forth between two decanters to soften the wines and bring out the flavors.”