Aerating vs Decanting – what, when and why?!

I talk about decanting and aerating wine every other day at Cellar Door, so I thought I’d try to shed some light for any wine lovers out there pondering which wines might benefit from these (not-so-fancy) processes and why (or why not!).

But before I waffle on, I think it’s important to emphasise the subjectivity that’s inherent in the enjoyment of wine. We’re all individual and will choose to either decant or aerate, or do both or neither, each time we open a bottle. I say: experiment, try these techniques, have a go! The main thing is to get a feel for the results and add another string to your wine-stained bow!

Isn’t decanting and aerating the same thing? I don’t think so, and here’s the difference.

My definitions:

Aerating is purposefully invigorating wine with air to bring about changes in aroma and flavour.

Decanting is separating clear wine from sediment in the bottle. By default, decanting will do some aerating, but is much gentler in doing so.

Not every wine calls for aerating or decanting, but certain wines can really benefit from these processes.

Aerating wine

When first opened, many young wines can appear “tight” or “closed” (and perhaps not like you remembered the wine when you tasted it in a cellar door or enjoyed it on a previous occasion).

Aerating invigorates the wine with oxygen, which helps reveal aroma and flavour. Also expect to see the “hard” characters and “bitey” stuff (often tannin and acidity) soften, taking more of a back-seat to flavour and a softer mouthfeel.

So, which wines?

Expect great results with full-bodied, tannic reds (Cabernet Sauvignon, some Shiraz, Nebbiolo and especially Durif to name a few). By contrast, delicate reds (Pinot Noir, Gamay, etc) may be more easily affected by intense aeration so be a little wary with these wines.

Aerating is pretty much everyday practice for us at home with younger reds (and even the occasional white wine), whereas I avoid aerating old or particularly delicate wines as the process can be too aggressive and what little fruit character remains could be lost if these wines are worked too much. 

How to?

There are many tools for the job: strange-looking funnels that gargle, pouring devices that are wedged into the bottle mouth, long spears that are inserted into the bottle... all designed with the aim of getting air into your wine; some are better than others.

At Cellar Door, we aerate all of our red wines (Syrah, Durif Viognier & Durif) using our favourite Winebreather carafe before pouring for customers. We love this wine gadget because it aerates the wine while attached to the bottle with minimum spill and fuss. You can aerate over and over in one go, then set the wine aside until you’re ready to drink it either in the carafe or back in the bottle.

Decanting wine

Which wines?

In the case of older red wines and vintage port styles, many of these throw sediment as they age. This is common and all part of the journey of ageing! Decanting separates clear wine from sediment, which if allowed to remain makes the wine taste more astringent and appear cloudy, not to mention the unpleasant mouthfeel.

How to?

Let the wine stand on your bench for at least a good few hours. Ahead of your fancy dinner party or other occasion, carefully open the bottle without jiggling it up, and in one motion, pour into a vessel slowly while monitoring wine clarity using a torch/candle/mobile phone camera-light as it shines through the neck of the wine bottle from below. Pour slowly and carefully to ensure the sediment stays in the bottle and doesn’t end up in your glass – you only get one go at this! When you begin to see a trail of fine sediment, stop pouring! This generally leaves 30-60ml of wine in the bottle along with the sediment. Through decanting you are also beginning to aerate the wine, but very gently.

If you don’t have a decanter at home, a clean vase, stockpot or any other wide or shallow vessel will also do the job for a one-way decant. For a special wine / occasion, you may wish to decant a few hours before enjoying.

Phew! Hope this helps you wine lovers out there.

Cheers, Rowly