What Is a Wine Decanter and What Does It Do?

What Is a Wine Decanter and What Does It Do?

four different styles of wine decanters against a grey background
Serious Eats / Will Dickey

You’re probably familiar with the idea that 90% of taste is smell. When it comes to wine, things like acidity and residual sugar are perceived by the tongue, but all of the subtle flavors—like hints of clove or ripe fruit—are recognized by the nose. That’s why these notes are often referred to as aromatics.

However, right after a bottle is opened, these aromatic compounds are stagnant. Chevonne Ball, Certified Sommelier and founder of the Dirty Radish, refers to a wine in this state as “closed” or “tight.” When the wine is poured, either into a glass or into a decanter, oxygen moves through the wine and releases them; they’re now able to be inhaled and appreciated when you take a sip. Wine pros often refer to this process as “letting a wine open up.”

According to Ball, “Oxygen is both a friend and foe to wine. Once you’ve opened the bottle, all the amazing beautiful oxygen is going in, but now you’ve got a ticking clock. The wine is starting to change the moment that oxygen comes into [contact with] the wine.” However, in a narrow bottle of wine, the exposed surface area is small; oxygen can only contact the small amount of the wine on the surface. Pouring the wine into a larger vessel, or decanting it, helps it open up more quickly.

What Is a Wine Decanter? 

A closeup of a hand pouring red wine from a standard decanter into a wine glass
Serious Eats / Fred Hardy

The goal of decanting is to oxygenate the wine. You can decant wine into any vessel that allows airflow. Pouring wine into a punch bowl, or even pouring a glass and giving it time to rest, would allow the wine to open up. Using a specialized decanter is simply a more elegant, convenient way to accomplish the task of oxygenating wine, since they also double as beautiful serving vessels.

There are many styles of wine decanters (we’ll go into this more below) and most feature a wide base and a narrow neck. When the wine is poured into a decanter, the wide base allows it to form a shallow pool with a large surface area. This is the key to decanting. The more surface of the wine that’s exposed to oxygen, the quicker it’ll decant.

How to Decant Wine

Red wine being decanted into a standard wine decanter held at an angle
Serious Eats / Fred Hardy

According to Ball, there are two main reasons to decant wine. “One is to open up an older wine and to separate the wine and the sediment. That is typically a slow pour and something you’re hoping to open up slowly,” she says. “And then there’s something like a young wine that you want to get open quickly to get it fresh and going.” There’s a third reason, too: oxidizing reduces the acids and tannins in wine, which makes it taste smoother.

To decant a wine, first remove the cork and inspect it for damage. When a wine ages, the cork ages as well. Older wines often have delicate corks, and it’s normal for them to crumble slightly when removed with a wine opener.

Look at the bottom of your bottle, evaluating if there’s any sediment collected there. Wine sediment forms naturally during the fermentation and aging process and is composed of organic materials, like dead yeast cells and crystallized tartaric acid. This sediment isn’t harmful, but no one wants a surprise mouthful of crunchy crystals or squishy yeast cells while enjoying a beautiful Bordeaux. Decanting can help remove this sediment. In traditional restaurant service, old wines are decanted by placing a candle behind the neck (i.e. the thin part of the bottle). When the sediment reaches the neck, it’s illuminated by the candle, and the server stops pouring, leaving the solid compounds and a small amount of wine behind.

If the wine has sediment, or if you notice that the cork has crumbled, you can decant using a metal filter; this will help remove any solids from wine. To do this, place the filter in the neck of  the decanter and gently pour the wine through. To decant without a filter, slowly and steadily pour the wine from the bottle into the neck of the decanter, holding the wine bottle at about 45-degree angle. If the bottle has sediment, stop pouring when about 1/2-inch of wine remains in the bottle.

When Not to Decant Wines

Older wines or young complex wines may benefit especially from decanting, but not all wines do. In general, almost all red wines will benefit from being decanted.

However, you should generally avoid decanting sparkling wines. The oxygen exposure that helps red wines open up will work against you in this case. Decanting a sparkling wine will create more space for carbon dioxide to escape, and the wine will lose its carbonation much more quickly. As Ball notes, “you want to keep those bubbles in place.” However, decanting champagne is very much a thing.

Wines that aren’t meant to be aged, like rosés or many white wines, also won’t benefit much from decanting. These highly aromatic wines are juicy and fresh right out of the bottle, and there isn’t much to unwind. White and rosé wines are also served cooler than red wines. Decanting them from the thick, narrow necked bottle into a thin decanter will bring them to room temperature more quickly. An exception is white wine that’s full-bodied or shows some off flavors—like a sulfurous notes or a touch of nail polish remover. If your bottle has some spicy, sharp notes or has some less-pleasant aromas, decanting can help.

How Long to Decant Wines

There are plenty of guidelines for decanting wine, but you also have to listen to your bottle. Light red wines like Pinot Noir or light-bodied whites may decant for as little as 30 minutes, while more robust, full-bodied varieties, like Nebbiolo or Syrah, may require an hour or more. The time needed depends on the grape variety, the age of the bottle, and the shape of your decanting vessel. To judge how long to decant your wine, taste the bottle when you first open it, pour it into the decanter, and taste again in 30 minutes. If the wine hasn’t changed significantly, continue decanting until it tastes fruity and supple. Just be aware that older wines can be over-decanted.

What to Look for in a Decanter

Two standard wine decanters in a kitchen with a wine glass beside them
Serious Eats / Fred Hardy

Functionally, decanters allow your wine to breathe, but they also serve an aesthetic purpose. Once a wine is decanted, it is generally served out of the decanter, so it’s important to choose a design that you’ll be happy to see on your table. But, here are some other factors to consider:

  • To decant quickly, look for a vessel with a large base (the more narrow the decanter, the less oxidation happens).
  • Durability and design are also important. Many decanters are tall and delicate. While these can be beautiful, they’re also difficult to clean and may break easily.
  • Wine decanters with an angled spout are easier to pour. The wine will naturally flow out of the tip of the spout, and the flow will stop without dripping when the decanter is tilted upright.
  • Most wine decanters are made from glass or crystal. Crystal glass contains minerals, which add strength, but these decanters are often thicker and heavier. Many modern decanters are made from borosilicate glass, which is heat- and breakage-resistant.
  • Aluminum or other metal decanters should be avoided, as they could react with the wine and alter its flavor.

What Are the Different Styles of Wine Decanters?

There are dozens of styles of decanters available. As long as the decanter creates enough surface area to expose the wine to oxygen, it will work to enhance the flavors over time. Which makes choosing a decanter a matter of personal preference. The decanters below are some of the most popular styles available.

Standard/Bell Decanters

A hand pouring red wine from a standard decanter into a wine glass
Serious Eats / Fred Hardy

A standard wine decanter features a circular base and narrow neck. The wide base is designed to let the wine pool out for greater surface area and oxygen contact. The narrow neck creates an easy place to hold the decanter while pouring. This standard design is a functional choice for many wine drinkers.

Some standard decanters include a stopper or other closure device. This should not be used while the wine is decanting, as it will prevent oxygen from contacting the wine. The stopper can be useful, though, once the wine is fully decanted to prevent over-decanting, which can diminish flavors.

Cornett Decanters

These wine decanters are long and have a thin neck and narrower base, which means that less wine is exposed to oxygen. Because of this, Riedel says the shape’s ideal for “fragile older wines.”

Swan Decanters

Pouring red wine into a swan wine carafe
Serious Eats / Fred Hardy

A swan decanter is a J-shaped decanter with an exaggerated narrow glass neck resembling the neck of a swan. This style of decanter has two openings: decant the wine into the larger opening and it will settle into a pool in the belly of the swan. To serve, hold the shorter end firmly and pour the wine out of the thin, narrow neck.

The small opening at the top has a crisp edge, as you tilt the decanter back upright, this will swiftly cut off the flow of the wine and prevent any drips. Swan decanters have a dramatic design and a bold table presence. They are large, thought, and require adequate storage space to prevent breakage.

Duck Decanters

Duck decanters resemble the shape of a duck, some abstractly and some quite literally. In this design, the wine rests in the belly of the duck and is poured out of the mouth. These decanters feature a top handle. The handle is beneficial because you can use it to pour without touching the portion of the decanter that holds the wine. This means no risk of getting fingerprints on your decanter during dinner, and no warming up the vessel with the heat of your hands while pouring.

Snail Decanters

While these aren’t as common, snail wine decanters feature a narrow neck and a doughnut-shaped base. These decanters are intended to be held though the hole in the base and while poured. This provides extra stability for easy pouring. A snail decanter may be oriented vertically, like a vase, or horizontally so that the base forms the body of a snail and the spout stretches out to resemble the neck.

Gadgety Decanters: Aerators, Wine Towers, and Electric Wine Decanters

A closeup of wine traveling from the wine decanter tower into the carafe below
A look at a wine decanter tower in action.Serious Eats / Fred Hardy

There are many decanters that fall outside of the classic designs. Some use technology to offer faster aeration, and some forsake function in favor of design.

Wine aerators offer the ability to decant one glass of wine at a time. These are attached to the neck of a bottle of wine, and are designed to agitate the wine as it’s poured and instantaneously aerate it. For a lot of folks, this will be enough. For old wine, it may be too aggressive. And for a tight wine, it might not offer sufficient oxygen exposure. If you use an aerator, taste the wine after it’s been poured. If it hasn’t opened up sufficiently, allow it to rest in your glass, where it will continue to breathe.

Wine decanter towers—with various designs and parts—pose a large (no pun intended) cleanup and storage issue. They feature a glass portion that filters wine down into the standard decanter or sometimes just a wine glass.

An electric wine decanter spinning red wine around in its carafe
Serious Eats / Fred Hardy

And, finally, electric wine decanters are comprised of an electronic base that creates a vortex within the decanter, churning wine around to accelerate oxidation. And while they might be fun for the at-home drinker, sommeliers are skeptical.

A Note on Hyperdecanting

Hyperdecanting is a term coined by Nathan Myhrvold, author of Modernist Cuisine. To hyperdecant a wine, it’s poured into a blender and whipped at a high-speed for one to two minutes. This method will quickly introduce plenty of oxygen into your wine, but it will not remove sediment or cork fragments. And while it may be an efficient way to remove unwanted flavors from inexpensive wines, it’s not recommended for aged bottles. Keep in mind that this method will also warm up the wine, so it’s best start with a slightly chilled bottle.

How to Clean a Decanter

A wine decanter brush cleaning a wine decanter in a sink
Serious Eats / Fred Hardy

Cleaning a wine decanter can be a challenge. Most feature narrow necks that are too small to reach inside and are also too delicate for the dishwasher. The best method depends on the shape of the decanter that you own.

A few tools exist to make cleaning decanters easier. Cleaning beads are small metal beads that you pour directly into your decanter along with hot water. As you swirl the decanter, the beads provide agitation and dislodge any wine residue. After the decanter is cleaned, the beads can be rinsed and reused indefinitely. Specialty cleaning brushes are also available. These are long, flexible tube-shaped brushes covered in foam or cloth. They are designed to snake inside narrow decanter necks and polish away any wine residue.

If you prefer not to invest in specialty tools, there are several homespun methods that work well. For gentle cleaning, simply pour a mixture of hot water and vinegar into your decanter, swirl, and then rinse again with very hot water. Be careful not to alternate between hot and cold water, as this can crack the glass. And avoid using dish soap in a decanter; it can leave a slight residue that may impart unwanted flavors. If stubborn wine sediment persists after rinsing, try wrapping a small, flexible silicone spatula in paper towels or cheesecloth and carefully reaching into the decanter to wipe it away.

FAQs

Can you use a decanter for hard alcohol?

Hard liquors are sometimes served and stored in decanters, but this is mainly for appearance. These vessels are typically thick glass or cut crystal, and should always include a stopper. Hard alcohol does not need to be aerated before serving and should be sealed during storage.

How long can you keep wine in a decanter?

After a wine has been decanted, it should be served immediately. Leftover wine can be kept in the decanter overnight. A sealed decanter can hold wine for two to three days, but after that it will quickly become over-aerated and lose flavor.