How to Decant

Decanting is quite easy and is not some antiquated ritual designed to frustrate newcomers to wine!

Decanting wine from the bottle serves two practical purposes. As a wine gets older it will often produce a sediment as some of the chemical components clump together and solidify, producing natural particles which sink to the bottom of the wine. Carefully and slowly pouring off the wine leaves you with a clean, bright and non-gritty glass to enjoy. Pouring the wine though a gauze or muslin catches even the smallest particles and this is essential for a clean glass of wine when it is an ‘unfiltered’ red or a vintage Port, and desirable for many older reds. If you want your guests to be in no doubt about what they are drinking, you will have to ‘double-decant’ back into the bottles (remember to rinse the bottle out!) or decant from one bottle into the next.

The other (and more debateable) benefit is to expose the wine to oxygen. This quickly accelerates the maturation, softening the palate - those tannins in particular - and enhancing the aromas. Such oxygenation will often enhance a wine, in the same way that a half-finished bottle is sometimes better the next day. This process is often known as ‘opening out’, however it’s also the first of a chain of chemical reactions driving the alcohol component to vinegar, so wine in a decanter won’t last that long. Finally it’s fun to use those old decanters sitting on the sideboard for the purpose they were made for!

Younger Reds

An old trick of the trade used to soften and aerate a young red wine, known as the ‘double-decant’, is to pour the wine, quite roughly, into a jug, before rinsing the bottle of any sediment and pouring the wine back in. This is also useful if you don’t have a decanter, the traditional receptacle of a decanted wine. The wine takes enough oxygen to kick-start the opening out. A youthful red from the most recent two vintages will often soften from the ‘double-decant’ described above. Southern French reds, young Italians, Cabernet and Syrah (from the Old World) will take some robust airing; young Pinot Noir and Merlot often improve but don’t need so much. It is worth noting that the surface area you expose is the key here; simply pulling the cork an hour before drinking will help, but it exposes only a tiny part of the neck and is really done to check the quality of the bottle, to see whether it is corked or tainted.

Older Reds

A Claret or Burgundy five years old or more appreciates being decanted, although you may prefer to pour from the bottle to see how it evolves at the table, glass by glass. Ten year old Barolo, similar Brunello and northern Rhônes, as well as top reds from the New World, are all worth decanting to show the depth, breadth and complexity that we hope and expect them to develop! An old wine that is considered mature, or even starting to go ‘downhill’, needs to be poured carefully. You want to experience all the aromas and nuances, and these start to diminish as the oxygen gets to work. The general guide for decanting is to pour with a steady hand above a source of light (a candle, or the torch on a smart phone is even better!) so that you can see the sediment coming. It’s important to stand the bottle upright for a few hours before decanting to let the sediment settle at the bottom of the bottle. If you don’t trust yourself, use a small funnel and a swatch of muslin. Ideally you should decant immediately before serving but with a dinner party under way and no sommelier (!) it’s acceptable to decant an hour in advance, but with very old wines less so.

White Wines

White wines are usually better kept in the bottle: they stay cooler and you can see any sediment that an old white Bordeaux or Burgundy might have thrown. Similarly sweet Sauternes, which are often unfiltered and throw a crystalline deposit, are best carefully poured from their original bottle unless the deposit is very fine when a gauze strainer might be useful. A brighter wine is somehow more pleasing to drink than a cloudy one. The delicate fruit in an older white can disappear surprisingly quickly so that a decanted wine can taste a bit flat, a bit faded.


Ports come in two broad ‘types’. Vintage Ports will throw a thick granular sediment with age – their original manner of being made from a very short fermentation means a lot of the grape juice components stay in the wine contributing to the ‘thick’ feel of the young Port. Vintage, Single Quinta and Crusted Ports all need decanting to strain off the sediment. You need to use muslin and a funnel but no candle because the bottles are normally opaque black. However Tawny Ports, White Ports, Colheitas and most marked ‘LBV’ have spent much longer in barrel so that those sediments have had time to fall out of suspension and to the bottom, allowing brighter (and often filtered) Port to be bottled, so no decanting is needed.

How long can wine be left in a decanter

Once in the decanter the surface area allows the wine to evolve, but of course this continues after the meal and for as long as the wine stays in it. While a bottle in the fridge may last a week, the same in the decanter on the side may only do two days before a slight vinegary edge develops. Port will last a couple of weeks but the aromas dull with time.

Cleaning Decanters

A glass decanter or claret jug can look magnificent on the table, although you should be aware that a silver jug can dramatically change the flavour of wine, often due to a residue from a previous bottle not cleaned out. Cleaning decanters is important to avoid ‘off’ flavours: avoid soap and swirl round small metal pellets, probably less harmful than lead shot, or a twistable brush. Allow to air dry thoroughly.