To decant, or not to decant? What is decanting, anyway? That’s the real question.
Technically speaking, decanting is the process of separating mixtures; this is usually a solid from a liquid (like the sediments that stay in a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon after you’ve poured the out the wine), but can also be separating liquids from one another (like separating the oil and water, which are both extracted out of olives, when making olive oil).
In the world of wine, though, decanting often goes beyond simply leaving sediment at the bottom of the bottle. To think of decanting in fine restaurants conjures up the image of the sommelier in a tuxedo, holding a bottle of Burgundy over a candle, as he carefully pours the wine into something shaped like a crystal flower vase. The process may seem silly to some, but it actually has a purpose – the candle, whose flame rests just below the neck of the bottle, allows whoever is pouring the wine to see any sediment approaching the shoulders, and thus stop pouring before any of the unpleasant solids reach the serving glass. The candle is traditional, tracing back to the times before modern filtration processes, but still has its use for certain wines – and so does a flashlight, which I’ve used before, when a decent flame couldn’t be found.
This candle-lit tradition is important, for its sense of ceremony and decorum, but in the home, it’s usually not necessary at all. Occasionally, you’ll want to decant to rid your bottle of a few bits and pieces, which can happen for a number of reasons. Older red wines (that is, those ten years of age, or more) will throw sediment, which is essentially broken-down tannins and pigments. White wines can have tartrate crystals, which form when wine is exposed to very cold temperatures; many white wines will go through a cold stabilization process at the winery, to avoid the formation of tartrate crystals at home. The occasional bottle will have crystals, but fear not — they are harmless. And though most wines today are filtered to some degree, there are wines that go unfiltered, and retain harmless debris in the bottle. For any of these reasons, you may want to break out a candle or a flashlight, and do a little fancy decanting at home.
The real importance of decanting, though, is what happens when you pour wine from its original bottle into another container – the wine is exposed to oxygen (“aerated”), and thus more quickly develops complex aromas and flavors. Decanting, or more accurately aerating, then, is important to all wines and is extremely helpful at home, the place where we most often open a young, inexpensive bottle. Youth and low price are often associated with simple aromatics and flavor structures, but with a good health dose of fresh air, you can change your wine into something more expressive and complex. That is to say, something more delicious.
You can use a number of vessels to aerate your wine. You could use that beautiful Waterford crystal decanter you and your husband got for your wedding, or that pitcher you use to mix margaritas. The L.A. Times even mentions using jelly jars. If you like serving wine from its bottle, I recommend this: pour your wine into a pitcher or a bowl, rinse out and dry the bottle, and then carefully funnel the wine back into its original vessel. The idea with decanting being, then, not the ceremonious show that a $400 bottle of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild might need, but simply one of the easiest ways to enjoy your wine the most.