Photo Alamy Stock Photo

How to decant fine wine — an expert guide

From which wines to decant to candles, ‘ah-sos’ and those troublesome crumbling corks — wine specialist Charles Foley offers his top tips and tricks for decanting fine wine (with a little help from a Fabergé silver pheasant)

‘Decanting wine adds drama to even the simplest of dinners,’ says Christie’s wine specialist Charles Foley. The large silver pheasant with which he is pictured below illustrates this perfectly — a closer look reveals it to be a Fabergé wine decanter, modelled in around 1890 by Julius Rappoport, the creator of many exquisite animal figures for the Russian jeweller.  

‘An entire culture of equipment, techniques and tricks has grown up around the spectacle of decanting,’ Foley elaborates.

Why you should decant wine

The purpose of decanting is threefold: to aerate a wine, to remove sediment, and to add a bit showmanship to a dinner party.

‘Aerating the wine is similar to shaking a crumpled blanket or a throw on a bed: the air smooths the creases and crinkles so that the tannin — the fine mesh in a red wine that gives it structure — appears plump and rounded,’ explains the specialist.

Christie’s specialist Charles Foley with a large and rare silver pheasant decanter by Fabergé, offered in the Russian Art sale on 1 June at Christie’s in London
Christie’s specialist Charles Foley with a large and rare silver pheasant decanter by Fabergé, offered in the Russian Art sale on 1 June at Christie’s in London

The wines that benefit from being decanted

Young, heavier reds with vibrant fruit and fine-grained tannins benefit from a period of aeration so that they can open up and show at their very best. Varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Zinfandel, Malbec, Nebbiolo and Tempranillo should be opened two hours before being decanted and served.

Lighter styles of red such as Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Grenache and Gamay can have their corks drawn an hour or so before serving.

Why decanting older wines is different

Older red wines may not benefit from prolonged periods of aeration: the major aim with such wines is to separate the liquid from the sediment.

‘It is best to open them around 30 minutes before dinner, in the moment of calm before the storm,’ says Foley. ‘This will also allow you time to check the quality of the wine, and to replace it with another bottle if the wine has perished.’

White wines that are also worth decanting

White wines are less frequently decanted. The British wine critic Hugh Johnson, however, famously decants old Riesling, while the celebrated wine writer Steven Spurrier decants white Rhône. In Bordeaux, white wines are often decanted before they are served. 

Sparkling wine is rarely decanted — unless it be an old vintage of oxidative champagne such as Selosse or Henri Giraud — because the bubbles dissipate quickly. In the Côte de Beaune region in France, wine connoisseurs generally eschew decanting Chardonnay. 

A pair of English engraved-glass magnum decanters and stoppers, circa 1770. 14½ in (36.8 cm) high (2). Sold for £10,000 on 31 October 2012 at Christie’s in London
A pair of English engraved-glass magnum decanters and stoppers, circa 1770. 14½ in (36.8 cm) high (2). Sold for £10,000 on 31 October 2012 at Christie’s in London

Preparatory steps for decanting wine

Standing a wine up the day before serving is an excellent way to let the sediment settle to the bottom of the bottle. Keeping it in the cellar before moving it to the dining room for decanting will ensure that the wine does not gently cook itself, and you are not decanting a faulty wine from the offset.

How to remove the cork 

Choose your weapon — a waiter’s friend is one of the most useful kitchen tools, and will work perfectly with most young wines with strong corks. 

Placing the tip in the centre of the cork and using your index finger to guide down the shaft is the best method. Place the T-bar in the palm of your hand to force the screw in. 

‘Drawing the cork out results in the best sound in the world of wine,’ says Foley with a smile. ‘A satisfying pop.’

Technical corkscrews for older, more crumbly corks 

Older vintages will require more technical corkscrews, because the corks are less durable and tend to crumble. Opt for an ‘ah-so’, a beautiful two-pronged instrument that is inserted down the sides of the cork and the neck of the bottle. 

Lead with the longer prong and wiggle it in into the space between the cork and bottle until the shorter prong follows on the opposite side. Once the peg is level with the top of the bottle, twist and pull to remove a full cork — thus avoiding the horror of fragments of cork floating in your bottle.

The Durand — the ideal choice for the oldest vintages. Photo Courtesy of thedurand.com

The Durand — the ideal choice for the oldest vintages. Photo: Courtesy of thedurand.com

There is also the Durand — the connoisseur’s corkscrew. This combination of the corkscrew and the ‘ah-so’ should be used for the oldest vintages. When used with care, it is the most failsafe way of removing a full, if slightly saturated cork. Durands can also be used on large-format bottles such as jeroboams. 

‘A large-format wine cradle is the best option for drawing corks on huge bottles,’ adds Foley.

How to choose your decanter

Your choice of decanter involves both practical and aesthetic considerations. The key factor is that you need to be able to swirl the wine, and therefore a wide bowl is important. A narrow neck is also essential to funnel the liquid into the glass and avoid spraying a tablecloth.

A large and rare silver pheasant decanter by Fabergé, with the workmaster’s mark of Julius Rappoport, St Petersburg, circa 1890. 26 in (66 cm) long. Estimate £100,000-150,000. Offered in Russian Art on 1 June at Christie’s in London

A large and rare silver pheasant decanter by Fabergé, with the workmaster’s mark of Julius Rappoport, St Petersburg, circa 1890. 26 in (66 cm) long. Estimate: £100,000-150,000. Offered in Russian Art on 1 June at Christie’s in London

‘I was recently honoured to decant a wonderful old vintage bottle of La Tâche from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti into the belly of this pheasant,’ says Foley, referring to the Fabergé silver pheasant decanter above, which is offered in the Russian Art auction on 1 June at Christie’s in London. ‘Since theatre is an integral part of decanting, it’s hard to think of a better vessel for a fine vintage French wine.’

The pheasant was acquired in Russia in 1900, and has remained in the same family for 120 years.

Don't forget the muslin and a candle

During the decanting process, the mouth of the decanter should be covered by something that will act as a filter to catch sediment: muslin, cheesecloth or a fine sieve are perfect. 

Light a candle, hold the bottle neck above it and begin to pour the wine at a 180-degree angle into a decanter. Stop pouring the wine when the sediment (seen as a dark deposit) appears in the bottle neck. Inevitably, some wine will remain with the sediment in the bottle.

Sign up today

The Online Magazine delivers the best features, videos, and auction
news to your inbox every week

Subscribe

Perfectly poured Port

Port traditionally throws a large sediment and historically corks could be quite saturated. ‘Some clever, if dramatic soul, thus invented port tongs,’ notes Foley. The tongs are heated over a flame and applied to the bottle neck before a cold cloth is compressed over the same area.

Port tongs ease the problem of dealing with saturated corks. Photo Courtesy of PortTongs.com.

Port tongs ease the problem of dealing with saturated corks. Photo: Courtesy of PortTongs.com.

The temperature change induces a snap and the top of the bottle with the cork inside comes clean away. ‘This can then be dipped in wax and kept as a memento,’ adds the specialist. 

The bottle is then decanted through muslin in the same manner as red wine. Eleven Madison Park in New York is one of many celebrated restaurants employing this special act of vinous theatre when port is ordered.

Doubling-decanting

Double-decanting is a common feature of banquets and large dinners when not enough decanters are available. The bottle is decanted in the usual way, washed out with cold water, drip-dried and then refilled with a funnel.

The benefit of this method is that the guests can still see the label, says Foley. ‘Christie’s Instagram followers love us to serve wine this way, because a decanter — unless it’s a silver Fabergé pheasant — is not usually as pretty as the bottle.’

For more from our wine specialists, follow @christieswine on Instragram