Updated: November 11, 2012 6:03AM
Even the word “decanter” is a little haughty and off-putting. It calls to mind a room of leaded glass, gothic arches and leather chairs — but in the worst way. What would be wrong with calling the thing a pitcher, or a jug?
Either way, a decanter — a glass container with a long neck and wide base, a holding pen for wine on its way from bottle to wine glass — is useful gear, good for three things. A decanter aerates young red wine, sifts sediment from old red wine and makes any wine look cool.
Most decanters vaguely resemble a genie’s bottle. I have one that looks a little like an upside down mushroom cloud, and another that sort of looks like a turkey leg at a Renaissance faire. All decanters, which can call to mind anything from a ram’s horn or a Nike swoosh to a reclining duck or a doughnut, have one thing in common — they allow more oxygen to touch the surface of the wine.
Picture the narrow neck of a wine bottle. Oxygen swoops into that hole and works on that quarter-size surface of wine at the top. When wine is poured into a decanter, that quarter-size surface becomes saucer-size or even bread plate-size.
Use a decanter to aerate young, tannic, high-alcohol red wines made from grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Nebbiolo (especially Barolo from Italy) and Syrah. Pour the wine vigorously from the bottle into a decanter — let it splash — and then let it sit for an hour. The grippy tannins will mellow and the wine will unwind a little.
Lighter young reds like Gamay (Beaujolais), Pinot Noir (Burgundy), Sangiovese (Chianti), and Tempranillo (Rioja and Ribera del Duero) probably get enough oxygen just sitting in a wine glass — no need to decant.
Older red wines often develop sediment in the bottle, and gently pouring them into a decanter is a good way of keeping that nasty grit out of your mouth. This is where that leaded-wooded-arched-leather room springs to mind. “Old boy, pop down to the cellar and find us a bottle of ’47, will you?”
When a bottle of red is stored on its side (as it should be) for a long time, a layer of sediment collects at the lowest point, like silt on a lake bed. Wine sediment is natural and safe to consume, but when it hits your lips, like that crusty white business around the opening of a milk jug, it makes you go “pthh, pthh.”
Stand your old red bottle upright, overnight if you can, to get the sediment to the bottom of the bottle. The visual here is a snow globe. Peel off the bottle’s neck foil completely, so you can see into the neck, and pour that old wine slowly into the decanter. Shine a light on the neck so you can see the sediment coming. Stop pouring and sacrifice an inch of wine, or whatever it takes to keep the solids in the bottle.
Besides a decanter’s two practical uses, it is also an elegant serving vessel. If I had a collection of spirits (which I do not), I would display the original bottles, not a bunch of crystal vases filled with clear and amber liquids. With wine I also prefer seeing the bottles and labels, but I have to admit, ruby or garnet wine resting in a stylish glass container has a certain mystique.
Generally whites, bubbly and dessert wines do not need decanting, except for vintage port, which, like older reds, can throw a fair amount of sediment. A decanter also comes in handy when you have popped a large-format bottle, such as a Balthazar (12 liters) or Nebuchadnezzar (15 liters), and would rather not dislocate a shoulder or hip trying to pour into dozens of wine glasses.
Washing a decanter can be tricky, relatively easy or a non-issue. It is tricky when you insist on using a tiny bit of soap with your warm-to-hot water. Removing all soap residue requires a lot a lot of swooshing and rinsing. A less dicey method involves warm water and a bottle brush.
But the most hands-off method comes from a Barolo winemaker who gave me the mushroom cloud decanter years ago. I asked how I would possibly clean such a fragile and unique vessel, since the neck is narrow and long, and the base is as wide and UFO-like as an Olympic discus.
“You never need to wash it,” he said, almost puzzled by my question. “Just drink wine every day and keep refilling it.”
There is a man who knows his decanters.
Michael Austin is a Chicago free-lance writer. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.