Sometimes the biggest problem is not the answer, but asking the right question. The real question is not whether it is better to decant wine or to aerate wine. The real question is does all wine need to breathe?
And the answer is a resounding yes.
Wine needs to breathe.
And that means all wine.
Not just red wine. White wine and Rosé wine need to breathe before you drink them, too.
Traditionally the way to allow wine to breathe means to decant the wine. But there are other methods today that can speed up the process of getting air into the wine other than the tried and true decanting process.
But the methodology needs to be matched to the wine because the amount of air a particular wine needs varies — just not in the ways most Americans think.
Decanting works to allow any wine to breathe because a good decanter gives wine a wider surface to touch air than the wine bottle does. So more of the wine is able to come into contact with air — and thus “breathe.” And decanting has the other advantage of allowing any sediment in the wine to settle to the bottom of the decanter before you pour it into a glass to drink it.
Unfortunately, there are drawbacks to decanters.
The most glaring for me has always been that you have to allow the wine to breathe over a period of anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour, depending on the type and age of the wine. On top of that, many antique decanters are made of lead. We know today that lead is highly toxic. So no matter how beautiful that crystal or cut glass decanter is that you inherited from Great Aunt Rose, be careful because it probably has a very high lead content. And, of course, many of the really beautiful decanters are extremely heavy, particularly when filled with a bottle of wine. And in addition to being heavy, they are big so you have to find a safe hunk of real estate to store them between uses.
And then finally, a modern high-quality non-leaded crystal or glass wine decanter is far from an inexpensive item to purchase. You can easily shell out several hundred dollars.
But your wine needs to be decanted to breathe, right?
The key is that WINE NEEDS AIR to “breathe” before we drink it to allow the oils to surface, the aromas to fully rise, and the flavors to sufficiently bloom. Once wine has enough oxygen, it blossoms to its full taste.
Traditional decanting can do that. But we have modern methods of getting air into wine today that work a lot faster than a decanter, are typically cheaper, and that do an equally good good job of aerating wine as the traditional decanting method.
At least for most wines. Not for all.
So which wines require decanting? And why?
Fine aged wines — those that are 10 years or older — simply must be decanted. No other method will work as well.
There are two reasons for this.
One is that the wine has aged long enough that it needs little added air. Only slight breathing of five to ten minutes is usually needed for these premium wines. Fast aeration will over air them, which is exactly what you don’t want because wine begins to lose flavor when it is over oxygenated. So a gentle, fairly short airing in a decanter is exactly what a well-aged wine needs.
The other reason is that you decant a well-aged premium wine mostly to give sediment a chance to settle to the bottom of the decanter. Typically, the older the wine, the more the sediment. And aerators simply do not do as good a job on filtering out sediment as decanters do. Nature’s gravity works best.
Remember a well-cared for premium wine has been stored horizontally (on its side) for a decade or more to make sure the cork did not fully dry out so that the wine could continue to breathe at least ever so slightly over the years. So when you tilt a bottle of fine aged wine straight up to uncork it, all of the sediment in the wine is stirred up by the movement and it begins floating around inside the bottle. Still decanting allows the natural pull of gravity to settle sediment on the floor of the decanter. That’s the main reason a decanter is so important in fine older wines.
So if you have your own long-term wine storage or wine cellar and are able to purchase and hold wine for decades to let it fully mature, or if you routinely spend $100 to $300 or more on a bottle of wine, you need to invest in a good decanter.
And, of course, for all of us, a lovely decanter is a beautiful piece to have and a lovely way to serve wine at the dinner table.
For younger wines like the vast majority of us drink at home, decanting may not be the end all and be all. And in fact, it’s not.
Do I need to let a young wine, like a 3-year-old wine, breathe before I drink it?
The answer is absolutely yes.
This is particularly true if it is a big red or an acidic white.
But there are two important things wine lovers need to understand about the differences in the need for air between young wines and old wines.
First, despite popular belief, you absolutely must let a young wine breathe.
The taste of a young wine that has had a chance to gain air and the same young wine that has not had sufficient infusion of air is huge. It’s a much bigger difference for young wines than for older more well-aged wines.
The longer a wine ages, the more the tannins in it naturally mellow and the flavors in it round. Younger wines don’t have the luxury of time, so the only way to take the edge off and max out the mellow is air.
Younger wines and particularly big red and sharper white youngsters, need to be decanted for at least 20-45 minutes before the taste is at its best. (More on the best way to get air into a young wine later in this post.)
Most Americans get this concept backwards by thinking the older the wine, the longer it needs to breathe and that younger wines don’t need air before drinking — which is totally backwards.
But the second important thing to understand is that the even bigger difference between older and younger wines is the amount of sediment.
Older wine have sediment and sometimes a lot of it. Younger wines either have no sediment or they have very little.
Traditionally a large part of the “breathing” of wine in a decanter is as much to allow the sediment to settle to the bottom of the decanter as it is to infuse air into the wine. So since younger wines have such a minimal amount of sediment, the sole need for a young wine to breathe is for the air.
And no decanter on earth can get air into wine as totally or as quickly as an aerator.
What are the advantages of aerating instead of decanting? And when is appropriate? And more, when is it inappropriate?
An aerator gets a lot of air into wine quickly.
The breathing process that would take 30 minutes in a decanter is equaled with a good aerator in a matter of four to seven seconds.
Yep. You read that right. Seconds.
The aerator is designed to get air into the wine, and it does so extremely well and very quickly.
For sediment a decanter is preferable. But for infusion of oxygen, an aerator is the hands down winner.
For us the speed of an aerator is a huge plus. We can uncork, pour, drink. No long wait.
Most aerators are only about six to eight inches long and an inch or two in diameter. They easily fit in a small drawer.
We find an aerator far superior to a decanter for 95 percent of the wines we drink. Aerators are perfect for young wines — basically for any wine that has an age in single digits.
For whites and Rosés, an aerator is always superior to a decanter because you don’t have to risk the wine warming up while you are letting it breathe.
And — unless the wine is premium aged — even for reds that we decant over the course of an evening on the dining table, the aerator gives the wine a healthy start and brings it to near optimum taste before the wine even hits the decanter. Because most young reds can easily breath three or four hours without losing taste, we aerate the wine even if we use a decanter. And we certainly always aerate the first glass or the first round.
The only time an aerator should be avoided is with aged wines.
Always, always, always use a decanter, not an aerator, on a premium wine that has aged 10 years or more.
An aerator will inject too much oxygen into these wines and will actually lessen the taste rather than enhance it. And since the aerator won’t be able to do as good a job as a decanter in filtering out sediment, just don’t do it.
For a well-aged fine wine, decant it.
If you have waited a decade or more to drink it, what’s another five or ten minutes more in the decanter?
Be on the lookout for our upcoming review on the Four Best Wine Aerators on the Market.