There are a few things you should think about when choosing a decanter. A good decanter will meet the necessary standards of function and form – it should work as advertised and look good while doing it. We will approach both points from a rational perspective.
Most people may not feel the need for a decanter. Why would you empty a bottle into something that looks like fancy vase? The main function of a decanter is exposure to oxygen, which makes subdued aromas more evident and increases flavor perception during the wine experience.
There are two things to consider when decanting a wine in regards to oxygen exposure – the Area of Effect and Agitation.
Area of Effect (AoE)
If you recall your high school mathematics:
Say the opening of a bottle is 2cm in diameter (1cm radius). Now we have a round decanter that is 20cm at its widest. One wine is uncorked and left in the bottle. Another is decanted. The difference is a hundred times greater surface area of wine in the decanter compared to the bottle, which means a hundred times greater exposure to oxygen.
Whereas the AoE takes into consideration the surface exposure, agitation refers to the mixing of air within the wine. This can be accomplished by extra tools like an aerator, but clever decanter design can also increase the effects of agitation, and also gives you the chance to shop for a unique-looking table piece. This brings us to our second consideration – form.
Form and Aesthetics
How to approach aesthetics from a rational perspective? One can argue that it’s just a matter of personal taste, and to some extent I agree. However I still believe there is a range where some forms are generally admired and others are ignored, even avoided, and this cannot appropriately be expressed on the mere verbal level. Instead, I have provided the following visual examples below.
The Milk Bottle
Starting right at the bottom of the pile, to me this just looks like an empty milk bottle with holes on the side. Functional, with the shower head increasing the AoE and agitation in the glass, but definitely not sexy.
This decanter would certainly be an eye-catcher on your dinner table, but as you can see when it is filled with wine, the AoE is reduced to little more than the same width as the neck of the bottle. There would presumably be a greater element of agitation, but once the wine is finished can you imagine cleaning this thing? Poking a pipe-cleaner through each branch would not be my idea of a good night.
This one has a simple aesthetic. It may suffer from the same AoE problem as the decanter above, but at least the job of cleaning would be relatively simpler.
This decanter has a very exotic form. We can expect a large AoE and some agitation as the wine runs down the neck, but I feel this decanter may be taking up too much space. It also looks a little fragile, and I would be afraid of dropping or knocking it over in a wine-induced stupor.
This one is just insulting, unless it is your intention to impress upon a very bad friend how disappointed you are in them by serving up some wine from a glass penis.
Now we are getting somewhere. We can expect a good AoE, agitation as the wine runs off one curl down to another (like a waterfall, as pictured), and one continuous loop is easier for cleanup. The design is coiled up so it doesn’t take up space on the table.
A simple, understated and attractive design. The heart in the middle would provide a point for agitation as the wine enters the decanter, while the classic rounded bottom would provide a good AoE.
What to decant?
If you look around and do your research, it seems most people suggest you should decant pretty much everything, and to some point I agree.
With very young red wines sometimes you try it out of the bottle and something seems… not right. There’s a sense of tightness, the aromas and flavours are subdued, as though the wine isn’t expressing what is promised on the label. While you could leave the wine in the glass for a few minutes, this would be a good opportunity to break out the decanter.
Then we have very aged red wines, where decanting serves a secondary function, to separate wine from sediment in the bottle. In aged red wines the tannins tend to “drop out” by clumping together in larger pieces over time. This sediment is entirely harmless, but does tend to interfere with the wine experience.
While young red wines usually don’t mind some heavy handling, aged red wines should be treated with care, especially if you want to properly leave the sediment behind in the bottle. Pour gently, and have a good light source so you can see when to stop.
I typically do not decant white wines, as they are usually served chilled and will naturally become more expressive as it warms up in the glass. I do sometime use leftover white wines to clean out any stains left in decanters however.
So does bigger mean better? Again, that depends. A smaller decanter will develop more slowly, whereas a wider decanter will more quickly expose the wine to the air.
I would suggest using a smaller decanter if you plan on drinking by yourself or with a friend or two, and a larger decanter if you are planning a larger gathering like a dinner party.
Another suggestion would be to merely decant half the bottle – there’s nothing to say that you need to empty out the entire bottle. This method also allows you to taste the wine with two different expressions side by side, decanted and from the bottle.