Taking a cork out early does little for wine

A lot of effort goes into making a great bottle of wine but the final stage of its journey before we drink it is often overlooked: the serving.

1 January 2016
Decanting improves nearly all wines – opening the bottle early does not
By Jonathan Hesford

 There are several important points to consider that will affect the enjoyment of a glass of wine.

Temperature is perhaps the most important. Too cold and the aromas and flavours will remain trapped and the senses numbed, too warm and the alcohol will dominate the nose and it will not be refreshing.

In general, sweet white wines should be served at 4-6°C, 7-10°C for dry whites, 11-15°C for light reds and 16-18°C for full-bodied reds. Serving red wines at today’s idea of room temperature, 20-22°C, is simply too hot.

Glasses are important too. They should be the typical wine glass shape, with a wide bowl and narrow rim and of a decent size, at least 250ml and 10cm high. You should not fill them more than 1/3 full. The idea is that the wine can aerate and the aromas remain trapped in the glass for us to smell. Personally I think it is unnecessary to have different glasses for each wine style, but different glasses do make wines smell and taste differently.

Decanting is done for two reasons: first, to avoid stirring up the sediment or pouring it into the glass. Only older red wines are going to have a sediment, made up of tannins that have fallen out of solution – but do not decant very old wines as they will oxidise and become dull.

Some traditionally made red and white wines may also have tartrate crystals. It is important to let the bottle stand upright or in a cradle for a few hours to allow the sediment to settle before pouring carefully into a decanter.

The second reason for decanting is to aerate the wine. Some wines have stinky aromas like burnt rubber, cabbages and sweaty armpits.

They are caused by thiols, organic molecules naturally present in wine.

We refer to these wines as “reduced” or “reductive”. Thiols are volatile and quickly transformed by oxygen. So the action of decanting or swirling in the glass removes them. At the same time, more pleasant aromas will be released.

Oxygen also has the effect of transforming tannins, making the wine seem smoother and softer.

However, this takes much longer. At least an hour is required and sometimes several hours for wines with a lot of hard, young tannins.

Nearly all wines can be improved by decanting. It has the most dramatic effect on high-quality young red wines but even everyday wines should improve and harsh, cheap red wines will become more drinkable. But, remember, not very old wines.

Even white wines will seem more aromatic and less acidic.

Screw-capped wines benefit especially because they have been more starved of oxygen.

Some people double-decant. They pour the wine into a decanter, rinse the bottle and refill it. The general view is that this is only useful if you need to present the wine in its original bottle or if you are travelling with a wine and do not want to risk stirring up the sediment en route.

It is the action of decanting that aerates the wine. Simply opening the bottle does almost nothing. More wine is oxidised in 15 seconds in the glass than eight hours in an open bottle. Once the wine has been aerated, nothing will speed up the softening of the tannins.

Gadgets like the Venturi aerator or the magnetic BevWizard do not do anything more than pouring the wine into a decanter in a way that it gets exposed to oxygen. Whenever I use the Venturi, it makes a mess.

Another gadget that claims to age wine is the Clef du Vin. This contains a piece of copper which will transform the thiols in a badly reduced wine but it does not really age the wine or alter the tannins.

So if you want to enjoy your wine more, invest in a decanter and use it regularly. It does not need to be a fancy cut-glass one, a simple carafe will do the trick - just make sure it is kept clean.


Jonathan Hesford studied oenology and viticulture in New Zealand and is the winemaker and owner of Domaine Treloar in the Roussillon.


A year in the vineyard with Jonathan Hesford of Domaine Treloar

The Terroirist

Get news, views and information from France