When to Aerate vs Decant Your Wine
Decanting vs aerating. What is it & why do we do it? Why I decant my older wines and aerate my younger ones...
If you've no patience for reading, the tl;dr is "I like to aerate young red wines to soften them, but gently decant older red wines to leave sediment behind. I neither decant nor aerate any other kind of wine (white, sparkling, sweet). "
Decanting a wine involves opening the bottle & pouring it into a vessel that will allow some surface area contact with ambient air, & thus oxidation. It serves two purposes depending on whether you’re decanting a young wine or an old wine.
Decanting allows that oxidation to soften the tannins & acids in a young wine. Decanters have wide bottoms to allow that oxidation across a wide surface area. Other vessels can be used to serve the same purpose. Once in a decanting vessel, the time needed to decant depends on the wine.
For older wines (10, 20+ years) that may have some sediment, decanting provides a method for separating the sediment from the liquids in a gentle way. By pouring from one vessel (the bottle) into another (the decanter) & then into a third (your glass) you have the opportunity to leave some sediment behind with each pour. No need to leave an older wine in the decanter for hours - it's already had years to soften.
An alternative to decanting, this is the process of introducing oxygen to a wine by movement through an aerating device or by swirling the wine in the glass aggressively or by pouring the wine from one vessel to another several times to allow oxygenation ("double decant"). This is meant to introduce some oxygen & mimic the aging process quickly. This helps soften a young wine's tannic & acidic nature. This process is also used when people don’t want to wait for their young red wine to decant.
Aerating should only be used on younger wines.
Older reds are more delicate & have already aged in the bottle for a number of years. How old is too old to aerate? This will vary by wine but I’d say anything older than 10 or 20 years likely does not need aeration but may benefit from a decant. Some modern decanters have aerating built in, be careful using those with older wines.
Generalization: I like to aerate young red wines to soften them, but gently decant older red wines to leave sediment behind.
Now for the specific suggestions on what to decant, for how long and what to aerate. These are my personal recommendations based on some generalities. Note there are some exceptions to these general rules. I've highlighted a few exceptions at the bottom.
Sparkling, Sweet, White Wines
- Decant? Nope
- Aerate? Nope
Aged Red Wine w/ Sediment
- Decant? Yes, to remove sediment, but no need to let it sit too long
- Aerate? Nope
Young Full Bodied Tannic Reds*
- Decant? Yes, 60+ mins
- Aerate? Yes
Young Medium Bodied Not-so-tannic Reds**
- Decant? Yes, ~30 mins
- Aerate? Yes
*Full Bodied Tannic Reds: Sagrantino, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petite Syrah, Petite Verdot
** Medium Bodied Low Tannin Reds: Zinfandel, Malbec, Grenache, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese
- Vintage Port is a sweet wine that is made to have tremendous aging potential. It should be treated as an older red wine and not a sweet wine.
- Orange wine is a white wine made with skin contact in the same way as a red wine. It might benefit from both aeration to soften the flavors and decanting to remove the sediment.
Oh, and have you heard of aerating glasses? I've not tried these but they are a thing!
Cheers! Happy decanting!