What is a decanter?
Before glass bottles were mass produced, in the 19th century, wine would always be served from decanters, having been bought directly from the barrel in take-home containers. These days they’ve rather fallen out of fashion but, as well as being attractive centrepieces to a table, wine decanters serve two practical but different purposes.
Firstly, to separate wine from any sediments that may have formed in the bottle – this is common in older wines, particularly robust reds and vintage ports, and while the sediments are harmless, their bitterness and gritty texture can spoil the pleasure if they reach the glass.
Stand the bottle upright and leave it undisturbed for at least 24 hours. Pour the wine slowly and continuously into the decanter, using a funnel if your hand is not steady, with a light source behind it so you can see when the sediment appears at the neck of the bottle, at which point you stop pouring. You can use a candle or a lamp for this, or the torch on your phone. Slender decanters are best for these wines as they can spoil if exposed to too much air.
On the other hand, younger wines, especially full-bodied reds that are high in tannins, often benefit from decanting to aerate the wine and allow it to soften. Natural wines that smell a bit funky are also improved with decanting; the exposure to oxygen gets rid of the stink and lets the wine properly open up. Any container would do – I often just use a water jug and pour the wine in from a height to maximise aeration – but a wide-based decanter is a more aesthetically pleasing choice. Pour the wine into the decanter, then swirl it around for a few seconds to maximise contact with the air.
Whisky, brandy and other spirits can be kept in decanters almost indefinitely, because they’re totally stable when they’re bottled so won’t spoil with exposure to air. Stoppers prevent evaporation, and keep dust and flying insects out of the liquid. Vintage ports should be drunk within a week of decanting because they oxidise quite quickly, but tawny ports and madeiras, while they don’t need decanting because they don’t have sediment, look so attractive in a nice decanter and will keep for months after opening.
How to clean a decanter
Keep your decanters clean by rinsing them out thoroughly with warm water after use, using a bottle brush if you have one, then polish the outside with a soft cloth. Red wine and port can stain decanters after a while, so invest in cleaning balls (see below) to keep them at their sparkling best.
Best wine and whisky decanters
Riedel is one of the world’s finest glass producers, famous for the quality of its products. This extraordinary, blow-the-budget decanter is mouth-blown in Austria by master craftsmen; its spectacular snake-like contours make the very best of a spectacular bottle of wine.
Lead-free crystal glass hand cut in Italy, this stylish decanter is great for wine but comes with a solid glass stopper, so could be used for spirits or port as well.
A modern twist on a classic cut-glass decanter at a very affordable price, its dimpled texture refracts light very beautifully through whisky or any other spirit.
An elegant choice for mature wines decanted to get rid of sediment rather than to aerate. Its wide mouth makes it easy to fill, and a doddle to clean with a bottle brush.
Prettily tinged with pink at its base and with a 24-carat gold trim at its mouth, the rippled texture on this versatile decanter looks really beautiful in candlelight.
Traditional spirits decanters in a lockable case, so called because they tantalise those without the key. The best ones don’t come cheap, so look out for second-hand and antique examples from sites such as Etsy and Trouva.
A drop-dead gorgeous spirits decanter that calls to mind the decadent days of the Jazz Age. Mouth-blown and hand-cut in Slovenia, the quality of the craftsmanship really shines through.
Something of a novelty, this etched globe decanter can be spun gently on its stand so you can travel the world as you drink. A handsome and entertaining container for whisky or other spirits.
A hoggit is a round-bottomed decanter for port that traditionally was passed from diner to diner at the end of a meal until it returned to its wooden stand at the head of the table, preventing it being hogged by greedy guests. This stylish example can be engraved to order, so would make a fine personalised gift for a special occasion.
The stopper on this carafe makes it a great contemporary decanter for spirits, or for when you have some wine left over you want to keep. If so, store it in the fridge overnight to maintain its freshness; if it’s red, bring it out a couple of hours before you’re ready to drink to bring it to room temperature.
The glass funnel has two holes which send the flow of the wine directly down the sides and into the wide-bottomed base of this very fine decanter, aerating the wine with a very theatrical flourish. It’s quite heavy, but has a chunky indentation – called a punt – in its base for your thumb to grip as your pour for maximum dramatic effect.
These really work to remove stains from decanters and other glass vessels, and can be reused again and again.