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Dear Dr. Vinny,
I have always been confused by decanting. How is it different than just opening a cork and letting a wine breathe? If I do decant, should I put a stopper on it?
—Neil M., New York
Both popping a cork and decanting a wine do the same thing: give the wine exposure to oxygen. Especially when a wine is young and robust, this can help make it more expressive and aromatic. It’s the same reason that we swirl a wine in our glass, releasing aromatic elements and giving the wine a chance to “breathe.”
If you just pull the cork, the only wine that’s getting direct exposure to oxygen is the bit that’s on the surface. If you then pour some wine into a glass, the wine that’s released from the bottle will get some air while it’s being poured, and then the wine that’s in your glass will have a larger surface area than it did in the bottle (and the wine left in the bottle will likely have a larger surface area, too). Decanting furthers this. As you pour an entire bottle of wine into a decanter, it’s getting a blast of air, and once inside the decanter, the wine has a huge surface area to mingle with oxygen. Then it gets more air as it’s poured into the glass, swirled and so on.
As far as decanter stoppers go, they’re rarely necessary for wine. If there’s any wine left over after you’re done opening, decanting and enjoying your bottle, it’s not a great idea to leave it in the decanter, where all that air exposure can start to have a negative effect on the wine. Some wines may still be going strong after a day or two in a decanter, but they are the exception, not the rule. I believe decanter stoppers are more appropriate for something like Cognac or Scotch, which you can leave in the decanter for a while without any harm.
Besides air exposure, there’s another reason to decant. When you have an older wine with sediment inside, you may want to pour the wine into a decanter and leave the dregs with the bits of sediment back in the bottle. Sometimes decanting can take care of both things. But if a wine is older and more fragile, you’ll want to limit its exposure to oxygen so it won’t fade quickly.
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