When you get into wine, you might hear the term ‘decanting’ come up often. This term may seem intimidating at first, but it’s one of the most helpful tools for turning a good wine into a great one. 

Decanters come in all shapes and sizes. They are typically made of glass or crystal and have a wide base and narrow top, making them easy to pour from. 

The reason many wine experts and wine drinkers use a decanter to decant their wine is simple. A little exposure to air (aeration) before drinking helps a wine open up and improves its aromas and taste. Some wines are shy and need a decanter to help them open up before showing you their true qualities.

Below, we will tell you which wines benefit from decanting, how long you should decant, and how to decant properly. We’ll also cover the basics of wine decanters and the reasons we use them. 

Why Decanting Matters for Some Wine

Decanting wine has two main purposes. The first is to separate sediment from aged wine and the second is to expose young and tannic wines to air to get their flavors and aromas to come alive and express themselves. 

Older red wines and Vintage Ports develop sediment as pigments and tannins bond and settle at the bottom of a bottle. If you stir this sediment up, your wine will look cloudy and taste bitter and gritty. Decanting is an easy way to remove this sediment, taking away its bitter taste and making your older wine clearer. 

Decanter and two glasses of red wine on a table with cheese and pecans

Young and tannic red wines have a lot going on as far as compounds and need little help to open up. Decanting exposes your wine to the air, a process called aeration.

This lets the wine’s flavors, gasses, and tannins expand and soften in the decanter. By doing this for a short period, you’re letting your wine breathe and open up, making it much more enjoyable to drink.

Basics of a Wine Decanter

Wine decanters come in a variety of sizes and shapes, but most share common traits. A typical decanter has a circular base that has more volume than the narrow neck at the top. 

A large base exposes more of the wine’s surface area to air and oxygen. This speeds up the aeration process and lets the decanter do its magic. 

The narrow neck makes it easy to pour once it’s done decanting. It also makes it easier to hold when pouring. 

person pours red wine into a decanter

Some decanters come in unique shapes and sizes. You can find magnum sized decanters, which are twice the size of your average decanter. These are for larger bottles of wine like magnums which also benefit from decanting. 

The most common decanter shapes are: standard, swan, duck, and cornett shapes. A standard shape is a typical vessel with a narrow neck and a wide base. Swan-shaped decanters have a long neck and shorter body, making them look like a swan. Cornett and duck-shaped decanters are variations of the two. 

Other decanter shapes include multi-chamber decanters and vessels that look like animals and other objects. No matter how strange a decanter looks, it serves the same purposes: to remove sediments and aerate the wine.

When to Decant Your Wine

A person pours red wine into a decanter on a table with a candle in the middle

Many wine professionals argue about how long is too long for decanting. For everyone else, it depends on the wine. 

Most wine professionals agree that decanting, at the very least, helps a wine come alive. A young wine with plenty of tannins and a full body can be decanted for more than an hour before drinking. 

When a wine is over 10 years old, its structure is fragile and decanting it for more than a half hour can make it lose its flavors and aromas. 

Some white wines also benefit from decanting. If a white wine is young and its aromas seem a little tight, pouring them into a decanter will help them open up. 

The best way to see how a wine holds up to decanting is to try it yourself. If you have a bottle or two of the same wine, that’s young and full of tannins, try experimenting at home. Compare the differences in taste between one that’s been decanting and one that’s poured straight from the bottle.

Step-by-Step Guide on How to Decant Your Wine

A person pours white wine into a decanter with a red wall as the background.

Decanting your wine is a straightforward process but requires a few steps beforehand. If you do it right, you’ll enjoy a perfectly decanted bottle of wine every time. 

Consider practicing at home on less expensive bottles first, to get the hang of it. This way, you’ll feel like a professional when the time comes to enjoy that special bottle you’ve been saving.

Step 1 – Preparations

First, make sure your bottle is standing tall a day or more before you decide to enjoy it. This gives any sediment in the wine time to collect at the bottom of the bottle.

Next, select your decanter. Make sure you clean it with hot water and a little soap beforehand. Remove the wine cork, clean any dust, wax, or plastic from the neck of the bottle.

If your cork is broken or damaged, you can follow our guide on how to handle a broken wine cork.

Step 2 – Pour

In a well-lit space, slowly pour the wine into the decanter. Pour even slower once you get to the bottom. When you see the sediment that collected on the bottom move to the top of the bottle, stop pouring. When you’re done, you should have a tiny amount of wine remaining in the bottle with sediment. 

Step 3 – Patience is key

It’s time to let your decanted wine sit for a while. How long depends on the wine, but if you’re unsure, a general guideline is 45-60 minutes.

Man pours red wine into a decanter on a table.

What Happens if I Decant my Wine for Too Long?

Make sure not to expose your wine to air for too long. Most wines will only need an hour or less to decant properly. If you let your wine sit in the decanter for longer than three or four hours, it may start to oxidize. Over the course of a day or more, your decanted wine will change color, taste, and smell. 

This happens when oxygen in the air creates chemical reactions in the wine. Too much oxygen and your wine will start to taste flat. The once pleasant aromas will change into not-so-pleasant aromas of over-ripe fruit and, after a few days, vinegar.

Wines That Typically Improve With Decanting

four wine sample glasses

Many wines generally improve with decanting. However, some wines naturally have more tannins and body than others and will need to be decanted for longer. 

Older wines will have unwanted particles that build up over time. These wines will all benefit from decanting. 

Below are a few red wines that will typically get better after decanting. You’ll probably notice that these wines become smoother and more delicious after you decant them. 

Light Bodied Red Wines, White Wines, and Sparkling Wines

These wines have less tannin and body than others. You can decant older wines for sediments. Once this is done, consider leaving them in the decanter to aerate between 15 to 30 minutes. 

Some examples of red wines that benefit from this amount of time decanting are: grenache, pinot noir, gamay, and cabernet franc. 

Many white wines also fall into this category. Most white wines don’t need to be decanted for too long, but for some, decanting helps them come alive.

Some white wines suffer from reduction, which is caused by lack of oxygen during the fermentation process. Reduction causes a sulfur or eggshell smell in some white wines. With a quick decant, your reduced white wine will taste fresh and amazing.

Some sparkling wines can also be decanted. Certain champagnes and other sparklers can open up and loosen their harsh bubbles after a short time in your decanter.

Medium Bodied Red Wines

Medium bodied red wines usually need more time in the decanter to really open up. This is because they ‌contain more tannin and alcohol than their light-bodied counterparts. 

These wines get better if you decant them for 30 minutes to an hour. Examples of medium-bodied wines are: malbec, merlot, montepulciano, and lighter sangiovese.

Medium bodied red wines also include many of the world’s most famous aged blends, including aged Rhone-style blends (GSM) and aged Bordeaux. When they’re young, they are full-bodied and sometimes full of tannins. After spending over 10 years in the bottle, they become more approachable and smooth. 

Full Bodied Red Wines

Full-bodied wines are full of tannins, alcohol, and body, making them feel powerful and strong. These wines really benefit from decanting. 

Decanting full-bodied wines for over an hour helps soften their tannins. It also gives the complex aromas time to open up, creating a softer and more enjoyable wine. 

Some examples of bold, full-bodied wines include: syrah, zinfandel, petit verdot, cabernet sauvignon, and nebbiolo. 

Fortified Wines Including Port and Sherry

Fortified wines are wines that have added alcohol to preserve their flavors and sweetness. These wines include port, sherry, and madeira. 

With their complex aromas, age, alcohol, and tannins, fortified wines will benefit from over an hour in a decanter.

Best Accessories for Decanting

Most people enjoy using their decanters without the added bells and whistles. However, to make the decanting experience even better, you can use filters between the decanter and the bottle. 

These accessories use fine mesh to trap the sediment as you pour your wine into the decanter. Once the particles are trapped, you can stop pouring and throw them away. 

Filters make the process a little easier by giving you a little more room to make a mistake. For some people, having the extra tool for decanting helps make the process less stressful.

filter for wine decanter
A filter can simplify the decanting process.

The Science Behind it all

red wine bubbles, close up shot

When you pour your wine into a decanter, it transforms in two ways. Both ways help open your wine up and make its flavors and aromas pop. 

The first process that happens when you decant your wine is evaporation. Wine tends to form volatile compounds from the wine-making process, exposure to oak, and other ways. Although these volatile compounds are not dangerous, they can harm the taste and aroma of your wine. 

When you decant your wine, these compounds evaporate, leaving a better tasting and smoother wine. The more you swirl the wine, the more these compounds go away. 

Oxidation is the second process. It takes hours and days to truly start changing the color and structure of a wine. When we decant wine, we’re looking for the sweet spot between the evaporation of the volatile compounds and the start of oxidation.

Decanters are Worth the Investment

Wine decanters are the perfect addition to a home bar, kitchen, or wine closet. Although you don’t need a decanter to enjoy wine, your wine drinking experience will be even better if you use one. 

Decanters come in all shapes, sizes and price points. For just a small investment, you can make sure you’re drinking the best expression of a wine. 

Shop around to find the perfect design for you and consider adding a decanter to your home wine arsenal.