Decanting is probably the most misunderstood science of wine.
I'm often approached by people who ask how old a wine needs to be to decant, which is a little bit of a paradox; like asking how long a piece of string is. The biggest mistake I hear is that old wine needs time to breathe, the truth is just the opposite!
Here are three points to check before you consider decanting a wine:
1. How old is it?
An important question, but not the only consideration. A very young wine will almost always benefit from decanting, as the increase of oxygen exposure will mimic (to a certain degree) the effects of bottle ageing. Not all varieties are made for the decanter, but don't be scared to put that young (2-7 year) Shiraz or Cabernet into glassware for a few hours.
2. What does the label say?
The cellaring potential of a wine will often be printed on the back label. If you have a wine that is younger than the best opening date, you can safely reach for that decanter. If in doubt, a quick Google search will often tell you the best opening date according to the winemaker, or a leading journalist.
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3. What does it taste like?
Time and time again, the most effective method in deciding whether to decant or not. A wine that holds a 'tight' line of flavour and retains some of those gum-smacking tannins is likely to benefit greatly from breathing. If your wine is already soft, stewy or leathery it is probably best to skip a decanter and go straight to glass! It is likely that any more oxygen will only diminish the power of the wine's fruit character. In time, this will leave the wine tasting like tar, cola and/or leather. Not what you want after all the patience of careful cellaring.
Hopefully these hints will help you on your way to enjoying your next bottle of red without fear; the decanter is an absolutely essential tool for wine lovers when used properly. It's a staple on our dinner table at home, but occasionally when we time a wine's cellaring just right, we can have the luxury of a perfect wine straight from the bottle; that has it's own kind of magic.