No matter what wine you drink, you’re going to want it to taste and smell as good as possible. To do this, all you need is an aerator or a decanter, two powerful tools in the wine-drinker’s toolbelt that are fun and easy to use. 

The first common purpose of an aerator and a decanter is to expand your wine’s surface area and give it enough room to interact with the air. In the end, both give you a better tasting wine with softer tannins and delicate aromas. 

Aerator vs Decanter: A Quick Summary

Aerators and decanters are useful tools for any wine drinker to have. They both help even the tightest and most tannic wines open up and taste amazing after opening. There are several differences to watch out for. Below is a quick summary of when to use your aerator or decanter. 

  • Aerate young, big, powerful red wines with plenty of tannins. Never aerate old wines with delicate aromas and sediment. 
  • For these wines and more delicate wines, a decanter is your best friend. It will not only help you remove sediment but aerate your wine gently, giving you time to enjoy it and its subtle flavors and aromas. 

What is the Difference Between an Aerator and a Decanter?

Both an aerator and a decanter help many wines to open up and taste better. If the end result is the same, you may be wondering what is the difference between them and which one is better? 

An aerator is a small device that forces air through your wine. This exposes it to the air which quickly changes its flavor and lets the less appealing aromas evaporate before reaching your glass. 

A decanter is a large glass or sometimes crystal container that you pour your wine into. By letting it sit in the decanter, you’re giving it the time and air exposure it needs to open up and breathe. 

Other than the shape of the device, there are a few key differences to consider. The main difference is the amount of time each one takes. 

What is an Aerator?

An aerator is a device that gets air into your wine to help it open up. When you immediately open your wine, especially if it’s young, full-bodied, and high in tannins, it will taste and smell tight and less aromatic. 

male sommelier pouring red wine through aerator into glass.

By using an aerator, you’re letting air and the oxygen in the air to enter the wine and react with the wine’s compounds and gasses. When this happens, the hard aromas of the wine’s alcohol, tannins, and acidity soften, letting the softer and more delicious characteristics come alive. 

There are many types of aerators on the market, from gargling funnels to devices attached to the mouth of the bottle that draw in air during every pour. There are even electric aerators such as Coravins which use fans to circulate air into your wine and control your pour.  

What is a Decanter?

A decanter is a large glass or crystal bowl with a narrow neck that makes it easy to pour from. The wide base is what gives your wine more surface area to breathe in, allowing the air to interact with the wine. 

decanter with a wine glass and a corkscrew.

Decanters are also made for pouring your wine in to remove sediments. The sediments collect at the neck of the wine bottle where you can easily discard them. 

Decanters come in a variety of shapes and sizes. A standard decanter with a narrow neck and wide base is ideal for most full-bodied red wines, like cabernet sauvignon, syrah, and bold red blends. 

Young wines with tons of tannin will need some extra breathing room. For them, use a decanter that has plenty of surface area so your wine gets the most aeration possible. 

Lighter-bodied reds and white wines prefer a decanter with a smaller base. Aged wines‌ need even less aeration as their younger counterparts. For them, the simplest decanter is often the best.  

When to Use an Aerator?

If you are pressed for time and really want to get your wine tasting the best it can, try using an aerator. This tool will turn your boldest red wines into softer and more delicious versions of themselves in minutes. 

Just like a decanter, using an aerator is best with fuller-bodied red wines with tight tannins and higher alcohol. You can use it for some white wines, but most of the time it’s for the reds. 

An aerator doesn’t remove sediment. For this, you’ll want to use a trusty decanter. 

pouring wine through an aerator
Aerating is when you expose your wine to air purposefully by moving it or pouring it into a glass.

Also, old wines over 10 to 15 years old won’t benefit from an aerator. This is because wines at this age are likely already at their peak in terms of flavor and aroma. Aeration won’t do much for its flavor. 

Use an aerator when you have an impromptu party, at home preparing dinner, or are somewhere casual and want to show off to your guests. You should only use your aerator with young and fuller-bodied reds and some white wines with a fuller body. 

Great wines to aerate include young cabernet Sauvignon, nebbiolo and chianti, and younger shiraz/syrah. Wines that may not need aeration include delicate pinot noirs, old library wines over 10 years old, and light-bodied reds such as gamay. 

When to Use a Decanter? 

Decanters also aerate your wine by increasing its surface area and giving it the space to open up and breathe. However, because wine is just sitting inside without air being pumped in, you need extra time for the decanter to do its magic. 

Decanters allow you to aerate your wine gently. This makes it easy to taste your wine and see if it’s reached its peak or needs more time in the decanter. 

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Another major benefit to a decanter is the removal of sediment. A decanter’s major role in wine drinking other than aeration is to naturally remove crystalized bits of grape material and yeast known as sediment. 

Old library wines and tannic red wines need sediment removal or else they can taste bitter and look cloudy in your glass. 

Use a decanter when you have very special wine, a lot of guests, and a lot of time on your hands. Also, decanting is the best option if you have a wine with sediment buildup. 

Can I Use Both? 

Some people choose to use an aerator and a decanter at the same time. There are many aerators on the market that fit comfortably inside the neck of your decanter. Other times, people will pour their wine through an aerator into the decanter. 

For many red wines with sediment, this can be bad. Sediment can end up clogging your aerator, making it useless and hard to clean. 

However, if you have a young wine that really needs some air to breathe, aerating your wine into your decanter can really save the day. Just watch out for any pesky sediment.  

To get this out, stop pouring if you see the sediment build up in the bottle’s neck. Remove the aerator, and pour the sediment in the trash. 

The Difference Between Aerating and Decanting

At wine tastings or dinner parties, you may hear the words ‘aerating’ and ‘decanting’ thrown around. Sometimes, they may be used interchangeably. 

However, they are different processes that sometimes overlap. Although learning the difference between the two may sound like a lot of work, it helps to understand their differences when you’re choosing to decant your wine or reaching for an aerator. 

Aerating

Aerating is when you expose your wine to air purposefully by moving it or pouring it into a glass. This changes the wine’s aroma and flavor profile by exposing it to oxygen and other gasses in the air. 

When you swish the wine in your glass, you’re aerating it and changing its profile. That’s why wine drinkers and sommeliers encourage you to really give it a good swirl before drinking it. 

Aerators make this process even more precise by introducing a little air into every pour. This speeds up the aeration of your wine and makes it ready to drink even faster. 

Decanting 

Decanting technically means separating the sediment from the bottle of wine. Although you’ll still be aerating your wine, the process is a lot less hands-off, depending more on time in the decanter than time moving the wine. 

After you decant your wine, you can keep it in there until you’re ready to drink it or pour it into its original bottle, called double decanting. You can keep your wine in the decanter for up to several hours, especially for fuller-bodied reds. 

Why Decanting Helps with Some Wine’s Flavor

Wine is a complex drink that has an almost endless array of aromas and flavors. Bottling wine often restricts these flavors and aromas. 

When you decant a wine, you’re letting it breathe and open up. This makes a wine taste and smell less tight, more expressive, and more delicious. 

opening a bottle of burgundy
opening a bottle of burgundy

Decanting works by exposing the wine to air, a process called aeration. When your wine goes into the decanter, it transforms over a short period. If you leave it in for too long, the alcohol will slowly convert to Acetic acid, also called vinegar. 

When you decant your wine properly and for the correct amount of time, two things happen. First, some of the wine’s harsher volatile compounds evaporate, leaving the better smelling compounds behind. 

Next, your wine oxidizes. This is when oxygen in the air interacts with all the gasses and compounds in the wine, leading to slight chemical changes in the wine. A little can be good but over time, oxidation will ruin the flavor of the wine. 

To maximize wine’s flavor when decanting, decant until your wine’s less desirable volatile compounds have evaporated and before it starts oxidation. 

Best Decanting Times and Wines to Aerate

The best way to judge how long to decant your wine is by doing an experiment yourself. Take two or three bottles of the same wine and decant them at separate times. This way, you’ll be able to taste the difference and know exactly how long to decant your wine based on your preference. 

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You can also ask the winemaker or winery. Many wineries have suggested decanting times or will let you know if you ask. This is an easy way to tell how long you should decant or if you should decant at all. 

If you just want a ball-park estimate, follow the guidelines below. Each wine is different, but based on the below qualities, you should be able to find your wine’s sweet spot. 

White Wines, Some Sparkling Wines, and Lighter Bodied Reds (15 minutes or less)

Medium bodied whites and white blends fall into this category. It also includes lighter bodied reds such as cold-climate pinot noir and gamay. 

Wines over 15 to 20 years old fit into this category as well. Their compounds are so developed that they will benefit from a brief time in the decanter, but lose a lot of their qualities if left in for too long. 

You won’t need to aerate these wines as many of them are too delicate. 

Medium Bodied Reds (30 Minutes)

Medium bodied reds need to open up a little longer because they have more tannins and ‌more alcohol. Wines such as merlot, malbec, Californian pinot noir, and cabernet franc, fall into this category. 

If you don’t have the time to decant them, consider aerating these wines. 

Bold and Full Bodied Reds (1 to 3 Hours)

These heavy hitters include tannat, syrah, petit verdot, Bordeaux Blends, Rioja, Chianti, and cabernet sauvignon. Think bold tannins, high alcohol, and complex flavors that need to breathe and come alive. 

Many young wines, even more medium bodied wines, also fit into this category. If you have a young malbec or merlot, they will probably do well decanted for an hour. 

These wines will benefit from aerating but be careful of their sediment. Younger versions of these wines will benefit from both decanting and aerating. 

Fortified Wines (3 hours or longer)

Wine with added alcohol is called a fortified wine. These include sherry, port, vermouth, and Madeira. They have strong aromas, complex flavors, and high alcohol, making them shine after several hours in your decanter. 

For fortified wines, it’s best to stick to decanting to let their complex flavors develop over time.