Decanting wine can be a nice part of the wine serving ritual and is something many think about when they think about serving fine wine. Not all wines need to be decanted, though. Wine only needs to be decanted if it is a red wine that has formed a sediment in the bottle while aging for several years. The sediment in red wine helps give it character and complexity, but you don't want to that sediment in your wine glass when you drink. Decant your wine in advance to eliminate the sediment
Why and When You Should Decant Wine
When people think about sediment in wine, they probably think about the formation of sediment in wine bottles that you have to take care to remove before serving. Most people probably don't ever have to deal with this, however, because this kind of sediment only forms in red wines that have been aging for at least eight years, but probably ten years or more. The bottle of wine you bought a couple of months ago, even if it's a red wine, won't have those sort of sediments. At the other extreme are vintage ports which, after several decades of aging, can develop a huge amount of sediment at the bottom of the bottle.
The sediment which forms in red wine bottles and which you need to carefully remove is formed from tannins and other solid matter that gradually precipitates to the bottom (or side, if you are storing the wine properly) over time. The presence of this material helps give the wine character and complexity, but you don't want to leave it in the wine when you serve it. First, this kind of sediment can give a nasty, bitter flavor to the wine — even if the sediment is very mild, it will at the very least interfere with any of the subtle nuances that have developed during the aging process. Second, it's simply not pleasant to look down at red or dark bits in your wine glass.
What Should I Use to Decant Wine?
You can decant your wine into any container, not just the special bottles and flasks sold specifically for decanting purposes. One very important consideration is that your decanting bottle have some sort of stopper. If you don't intend to serve your wine immediately after decanting, place the stopper in the bottle so that no delicate flavors and aromas are lost.
If you also want to aerate your wine a bit, use a decanter with a wide body that creates a large surface area for the wine and remove the stopper about an hour before serving. Aerating wine can help draw out flavor and aromas which is usually good, but some aged wines have a very short lifespan once opened — so drawing out the flavors and aromas ahead of time will leave you with a flat, uninteresting wine when its served.
You should also be sure that you only use a clean container for decanting — nothing that will transmit any bad aromas or flavors. Remember that if you're decanting a wine it's because it's been aging in the bottle for several years, so it will have delicate flavors and aromas which may easily be overwhelmed even by the presence of cleaning residue. This means that whatever you use for decanting, you're best with something made from glass.
How to Decant Wine
If you're serving a red wine that's been aging for several years, you'll want to hold it up to the light to see if a sediment has formed. If so, set the wine bottle upright for a few days before serving so all the sediment collects in small area at the bottom of the bottle. No matter how careful you are, you won't be able to properly separate your wine from the sediment if it is still lying all along the side of the wine bottle.
When you are read to serve your wine, have a strong light behind the bottle so you can monitor where the sediment is and how much wine is left. It's traditional to place a candle behind the wine bottle, but while this might seem romantic it's not the best light to use. A flashlight is both stronger and flicker-free, so use that unless you're specifically creating a traditionalist, romantic atmosphere.
With the light behind your bottle, you should slowly and carefully pour your wine from it's original bottle into the decanting container. Keep a close eye on the sediment to make sure that none of it flows too far forward. Once you have tipped the wine bottle up enough that the sediment reaches the shoulder, it's time to stop. If you wish, you can let the bottle sit for a while and try to decant out a little more, but chances are that whatever is left in the bottle won't be separated from the sediment.
Some people try to get out every last bit of wine by filtering it through something into the decanting container. Coffee filters are popular for this purpose, but you want to be careful when trying this. Filtering can actually remove too much from the wine, upsetting the balance of flavors. If you want to do it, only filter the last bits of wine that you can't separate from sediment through the above decanting method.
It's a good idea to bring the wine bottle to the table even though you'll be pouring and serving the wine from a decanting container. Guests will naturally like to see more about the wine the drinking and since this is a wine that's been aging for a while, why not show off the vintage a little as well?