Yes. And no. Let’s unscrew this:
What is decanting?
Decanting just means pouring wine from one container to another—Crystal wine decanter, old vase, blender… Doesn’t matter. I use all three in the picture above. And others. Just depends on the occasion.
Soften and enhance. You’ve probably heard people use the phrase “opening up”. They’re not being snobby. Unless they are snobs. It’s just chemistry. “Opening up” simply describes what happens when a wine’s sharper chemical edges begin to soften with oxygen exposure AND complex flavors and aromas become more pronounced. Decanting also allows more volatile and less appealing aroma compounds (like burnt sulfur or rubbing alcohol) to evaporate away. It takes 2-3hrs for the effects of decanting to really kick in, but you can experience subtle improvement with any amount of decanting.
Remove sediment. Older red wines (5-10 years +) often have natural sediment in the bottle. I think it’s funny when people freak out about it… but if you don’t want it ending up in anyone’s glass:
1. Set the bottle upright for 12+ hrs to settle the solids.
2. Slowly pour the wine into your decanter, leaving the last bit of wine (and sediment) in the bottle. If you can’t see the sediment, decant it above a candle or smartphone flashlight.
What you SHOULD decant
In particular, “big” reds like Napa cabs, Bordeaux, malbecs, syrahs and nebbiolos tend to benefit the most from decanting, especially if they are fairly young. So you should always feel comfortable decanting those wines. And, in general, most other red wines are marginally improved, or at least not harmed, by decanting (see: what not to decant below). So if you want to decant, just go for it. Won’t hurt. Might help. Looks nice on the table.
What you should NOT decant
This is trickier. In my opinion, some wines should NOT be decanted. The problem is that it’s sometimes hard to predict which ones… When in doubt, first taste a sip of the wine and conduct this test:
A. You sense little or no tannin. (What’s tannin? It causes that dry-tasting, astringent sensation on the sides of your tongue and cheeks. If you’re not sure, taste a young cabernet sauvignon or some green tea that’s been steeping at the bottom of a cup for a while. Tannin is what’s making your mouth feel like the moisture’s been sucked out. It’s not bad (some love it and it helps preserve wine), but it can overpower when a wine is young. Over time, the tannins soften and fade to the background while the wine beneath evolves complexity and character.) Not sensing much of that? Move on to the next:
B. It tastes delicate. (Judgement call, but does it taste, well… delicate? Like it’s flirting a tiny bit with vinegar flavors? Or it’s already really aromatic with subtle nuances? Definitely look for this in older wines.)
IF BOTH, THEN DON’T DECANT IT!
The wine could fall apart quickly. Don’t risk losing all the character that’s been building up in the bottle.
Which decanter to buy
Fancy decanters aren’t necessary. But wine psychology is weird and aesthetics have a sort of placebo affect on our simple human brains. So a good looking decanter COULD enhance your wine. Regardless, use whatever you want. I like milk jugs, carafes, jars, etc., depending on the occasion. But my go-to is the Riedel cabernet decanter. I actually don’t think there’s anything at all comparable that’s affordable. It’s simple, timeless and well-made. And somehow it’s often under $40 on Amazon Prime, which is ridiculous. If you see that deal, get it. Also makes a perfect gift.
Check Amazon prices.
Finally: You don’t need that big, wide decanter everyone has.
These heavy, awkward things are OBNOXIOUS to pour from and the extra exposed surface area is not doing anything. The vast majority of the oxygen gets introduced during the pouring anyway. Keep it simple. These are snobby. Sorry.
Ok, go decant something!