Aerating and decanting are foreign concepts to even the most avid of wine drinkers. What exactly do the two words mean? When is each one appropriate? And HOW do you decant or aerate?
What and why?
We choose to pour red wine into another container for two reasons: either the wine needs to “open up” or breathe (meaning that it needs to be exposed to air) or it needs to be separated from the sediment at the bottom of the bottle. The former is called aerating and the latter is decanting.
When to aerate
Wines are suffocating. They are bottled, corked and left without any exposure to air for quite some time before we come along with a corkscrew and open them up, finally exposing them to the air that they need to express their aromas and flavors. For those of you who work better with similes, wine is like a very, very shy student with a lot of potential and air is like the inspiring teacher who brings them out of their shell. (Sorry… we may have been watching too much Glee lately.)
We aerate a wine that needs to open; in wine talk, the wine needs to “breathe”. Which wines need this? Typically, young (1-2 year old) wines: over time, corks let in the slightest amount of oxygen, so older wines will be more oxidized than younger ones and will have an easier time expressing their flavors and aromas without the addition of extra air.
Want to know exactly which wines to aerate? The next time you purchase a bottle from your local wine store, ask the staff. They will let you know whether or not the wine needs to aerated. Or, better yet, determine it on your own: we will tell you how in the following section.
How to aerate
Because aerating is simply exposing wine to air, there are many ways which you ca aerate a wine: pour the wine into a decanter, use the Vinturi aerator (everyone’s favorite wine gadget), or simply pour it into large glass and swirl it around. (I once used a lemonade pitcher… anything works!) For those of you who are a little more fun, try the “Mollydooker shake”, a term coined by Sparky and Sarah Marquis of Mollydooker wines. Quite simply, the “Mollydooker Shake” consists of pouring a little wine into a glass, putting the cork back into the bottle, and then shaking, shaking, shaking to incorporate the air into the wine… like we said, aerating truly consists of any action working to get the air incorporated into the wine! (You can watch Sparky and Sarah do their “shake” here.)
Going back to deciding when to aerate: we say, trust your instincts! If you try a wine and it seems to be “lacking” something, yet you can’t quite put your finger on it, try aerating a bit of the wine with a pitcher or large wine glass. Taste the non-aerated wine next to the aerated one and decide for yourself if the wine needs aeration or not: if so, aerate the entire bottle using any of our creative aerating suggestions.
When to decant
As we said above, decanting is the act of pouring wine from a bottle into a decanter.
Why decant? Wines have small particles in them. Over time, the molecules of these particles join together to become larger, visible particles that we call “sediment”. Sediment is completely safe, but it is not incredibly palatable (it has a gritty texture) and it is a bit of an eyesore for some (obviously not for us, considering we named our entire website after the concept!) 🙂
There is not a magic number of years that a wine needs to be in order to decant, but as a safe rule, a wine that is ten years old or more should be decanted.
Some winemakers choose not to filter their wines: these wines, even in their youth, will typically have sediment as well and will need to be decanted. Once again, there is nothing harmful about these particles, but most choose to remove them.
Do you HAVE to decant?
No. The sediment will not hurt you in the least. But it is kind of fun to break out the decanter you got for Christmas five years ago and have only used a few times, right? Besides… any time you are drinking a wine that is ten years or older, we say, “The bigger the “production” you can make out of drinking it, the better!”
Unlike the rather creative and fun ways we can aerate wines, decanting it a bit stuffier of a procedure and a tad more complicated. In a restaurant, a waiter will hold a light against the bottle as the wine is poured into a decanter: the light shines through the bottle and allows the waiter to see the sediment, thus knowing when to stop pouring. As a throwback to the past, many fine dining restaurants still use a candle to decant wines.
Cheers and happy drinking!
Cover photo from Better Homes and Gardens, 1905.