To decant or not to decant? 5 things you should know before popping the cork

We’ve all seen intricate, handblown glass contraptions being trotted past us in a fancy restaurant when a patron orders an expensive bottle of wine.

But does wine really need decanting?

First, before we answer that, let’s understand why you would decant. Sometimes, it’s just to soften the taste of a big red wine by letting it “breathe.” Other times, it’s to remove sediment that has built up in aged wine.

And determining whether either scenario exists can be tricky. Here are five things you should know when deciding whether to decant:

1. Decant to tame youthful, tannic red wines

If you’re hankering for a big red wine and don’t want to wait a few years while it softens, decanting is a great way to aerate it. Wines made from thick-skinned grapes such as cabernet sauvignon, nebbiolo, syrah, and petite sirah have a more full-bodied taste from the bolder tannins in the grapes and in the oak barrels they’re aged in. Lighter-bodied reds made from thin-skinned grapes, such as pinot noir, have less tannin and don’t usually require aeration. Contrary to popular belief, though, decanting it is not a substitute for aging and does not replicate this nuanced process.

2. Do it with aged red wines … sometimes

As wines age, organic materials sometimes create sediment at the bottom of the bottle, and decanting is the best way to separate it from the wine. There’s no need to strain it; just avoid pouring the goopy-stuff into your decanter. A word of caution, though: Aerating older red wines, generally those 15 years and older, can sometimes “kill” them – meaning that oxygen can cause delicate aromas and flavors to disappear prematurely. So how do you know how much aeration an older wine can take? Unfortunately, you don’t. So it’s best to skip the decanting and pour delicately prior to serving.

3. Just about any decanter works

While the latest imported, handblown, impossible-to-clean decanter will aerate your wine, the truth is that even a quality glass pitcher or vase will do it, too. Believe me, I’ve done the legwork! The vessel should be large enough to accommodate the wine, with some additional space to allow air to circulate. The only other thing you have to decide is how it fits in with your occasion and how much time you’d like to spend cleaning it. If you’re looking to invest in a nice decanter, the “duck” style – with a narrow neck that opens up at the top – is very easy to use and clean, and it does a great job aerating the wine.

4. There are alternatives

There are other things that work the same as decanting. The Vinturi aerator, which claims to speed up the decanting process by accelerating the natural blending of air and wine, is a great choice if you don’t plan on consuming the entire bottle because it can simply be held over a wine glass while you pour wine through it. This quickly aerates the wine. Also, repeatedly swirling the wine in a large wine glass will accomplish the same thing as decanting, though it might take a while. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can “hyperdecant” your wine, as advocated by Modernist Cuisine author Nathan Myhrvold. To do this, simply pour the wine into a kitchen blender, blitz it for 30-60 seconds, allow the froth to subside and enjoy.

5. Taste the wine first

Before deciding whether to decant, always try the wine first, even at a restaurant. If you like the taste, forego decanting altogether. Why complicate things? Plus, it can be interesting to see how a wine evolves in the glass.