Decoding the Wine Decanter: Everything You Need to Know

Decoding the Wine Decanter: Everything You Need to Know

McKenzie Hagan |

To breathe or not to breathe. That is the question — when it comes to wine decanters. While it's always a good idea to let your wine breathe, sometimes you need a little help. That's where a wine decanter comes in. 

We realize you might think wine decanters are the domain of wine snobs and sommeliers, but these tried-and-true instruments for serving wine could take your vino-sipping to next-level status. In this guide, you'll get the details on what a wine decanter is, why you might need one, the best way to use it, and how to choose one.

What Is a Wine Decanter? 

A wine decanter, sometimes called a wine pourer, is a container used to hold wine before drinking it. You might be wondering why someone would pour a bottle of wine into a decanter instead of just drinking it right from the bottle. Well, you certainly could. (And we certainly encourage the practice, especially when you can have a fantastic glass of wine straight from the single-serve bottle, as with Usual Wines. But we digress.) 

There are two main purposes for decanting wine:

  • Aeration: Decanting wine allows it to come into contact with oxygen after being bottled up for so long. Doing so releases the aromas, softens the tannins, and enhances the flavor of the wine.
  • Sediment removal: Some wine, particularly older wine, may contain a bit of sediment. Decanted wine separates these deposits before pouring, so you can have a delightful, debris-free wine-drinking experience. 

While decanters are most often used for red wines, it's not uncommon to use them for white wines and rosé wine as well. They're also often used for other alcoholic beverages that benefit from having a little breathing room, such as bourbon, scotch, and cognac.

Decanters vs. Carafes

You may have noticed that wine decanters are often referred to as carafes. While these wine terms are used interchangeably, there are some notable differences between them. For one, decanters are typically made from crystal or glass and come in a variety of shapes and designs that can instantly glam up your home barware situation. Second, they tend to have a wide base and narrow mouth to allow optimum oxygenation. Lastly, decanters usually hold one standard bottle of wine. 

Meanwhile, carafes tend to have a more uniform shape with a smaller base and wide mouth. Carafes are mostly used to serve a host of beverages such as water, juice, and other drinks. (Hello, brunch time mimosa carafes!) Also, unlike many wine decanters, carafes don't come with stoppers.

Do You Need a Wine Decanter? 

While you don't need a wine decanter, it's not a bad idea to have one. As mentioned, decanting wine is an effective way to let your bottle of wine breathe — to use a floral metaphor, decanted wine allows the bouquet to fully blossom, creating an overall lovelier wine-drinking experience. 

It's also worth noting that a lot of wine enthusiasts swear by decanters as a way to compensate for cheap wine or run-of-the-mill table wine that might be a little too brash if consumed straight from the bottle. Giving these types of wine a little breather could make all the difference.

How To Decant Wine

wine decanter: Three wine bottles on top of table

To decant wine, it's true that all you have to do is pour your bottle of wine into the decanter. But there's a bit more nuance to it than that if you want to make the most of your next bottle.

To start, make sure that you slowly pour the wine into the decanter, allowing it to contact as much surface area as possible. You can also give it a gentle swirl for further aeration.

The amount of time for decanting typically takes anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours, depending on the type of wine you're pouring. 

For instance, full-bodied, tannic wines — say a Petite Syrah, Malbec, or Cabernet Sauvignon — take longer to decant than others. These will likely need an hour or so to fully aerate. Older red wines will also take longer, about two hours. On average though, expect to let your wine decant for about 30-40 minutes.

As a wine lover, if you care enough to get a decanter, you probably care about the glassware you're using too. (And if you don't, it's time to pay attention. Seriously, even science says the shape of your wine glass makes a difference.) Check out our guide to the types of wine glasses to pick out the perfect style.

Different Types of Wine Decanters

When it comes to the types of decanters available, it really comes down to preference. While some come in eye-catching, contortionist-like shapes, others are more straightforward. For example, a popular shape is "the swan," which has a narrow, elongated neck that resembles well, a swan. (And a giant sailor's hook.)

Keep in mind that along with shape, size also matters when choosing your decanter. A good rule of thumb: the "size" of the wine's body will correspond with the size of the decanter. 

Here's a quick rundown of different decanter sizes:

  • Small: These decanters are great for lighter-bodied (aka small-bodied) red wines such as Pinot Noir. You could also use a small decanter for rosé wine and white wines like oaky Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc.
  • Medium: A medium-sized decanter is ideal for medium-bodied reds like Merlot, Grenache, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese.
  • Large: Perfect for large-bodied (aka full-bodied) red wines, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, and Tempranillo. 

If you're wondering about decanting sparkling wine, don't even bother. Exposing those precious bubbles to too much oxygen will render them flat — the aeration in your glass is plenty for these fizzy libations.

How To Choose the Best Wine Decanter

Woman holding a bottle of wine

There are a few key qualities to look for when shopping for a decanter. Here are a few top tips to consider when browsing for a decanter:

  • Opt for lead-free glass decanters — they're durable, won't leach lead, and are often dishwasher safe. You can also consider crystal glass decanters, but just know that they're more fragile and thus easier to break.
  • Pay attention to shape — while you might love a twisty swan shape or other creative configuration, it might not be the most practical when trying to clean it thanks to hard-to-reach areas or a narrow spout.
  • Consider getting reusable cleaning beads, which are typically made of stainless steel and can make cleaning your decanter a cinch. Simply add warm water and gently swirl the beads to attract wine stains and deposits. (You don't even need soap!)

When it comes to choosing a decanter, there's no reason to break the bank. While you could spend a small fortune on high-end Waterford crystal decanters or Riedel decanters, there are other more affordable and popular options that are just as effective and impressive-looking on your tabletop.

Online retailers like Amazon or brick-and-mortar stores like Target or Bed Bath & Beyond have plenty of high-quality decanters — including aerating decanters made from hand-blown glass — for well under $50. 

It's Time for the Perfect Pour

While a wine decanter isn't essential to enjoy a glass of wine, using one can help you maximize the experience by letting your wine breathe, particularly if it’s a red. Best of all, you don't have to be a sommelier or seasoned oenophile to use a decanter. 

Once you have a few handy tips in your back pocket (like the ones in this guide), you'll be decanting and drinking wine like a pro in no time. For more ideas on how to broaden your wine knowledge and enhance your wine-drinking adventures, don't miss our Usual Wines blog.