Much like wisdom, most fine wines improve with age. As such, when you’re ready to open that prized bottle of Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon, doesn’t it seem a bit, well, anticlimactic to simply unscrew the cork and pour the contents into waiting glasses? What if you want a bit more ceremony than that? That’s where the antique decanter comes in.
In addition to being gorgeous to look at, antique decanters provide two practical purposes. First, they ensure that any impurities in the wine – such as sediment that accumulates when a wine has aged in its bottle for ten years or more – remain in the bottle. Although harmless, sediment can prove to be a very unappealing part of drinking aged wines.
Second, antique decanters allow the wine time to ‘breathe’. To this end, have you ever noticed how most wines taste better after you’ve had a glass or two? That’s not because the alcohol is going to your head but, rather, because the wine in the bottle has been exposed to air – which is the same thing that happens during the decanting process.
Essentially, by pouring wine into a decanter, you achieve the same effect as if you were to swirl it in a wine glass: both actions prompt the release of aroma compounds. This is especially useful for wines that are tannin-heavy – such as Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon and Rhône wines – but could be potentially harmful for the more delicate wines such as Chianti and Pinot Noir.
Indeed, decanters not only hold an important place in the world of wine but have played an integral role in the serving of wine for centuries. The Ancient Romans introduced the use of glass as a material but following the fall of the Roman Empire, glass production nearly ground to a halt which resulted in most decanters being made of bronze, silver, gold or earthenware. Venetians reintroduced glass decanters during the Renaissance period and established the signature shape of the decanter – a long, slender neck that rounds into a wide body. This style has remained largely unchanged save for British glass makers introducing in the 1730s a stopper for the decanter designed to minimize exposure to air.
Antique decanters – which can hold at least one standard bottle of wine (0.75 liter) – are made from a range of materials, including crystal, ceramic and china, and are priced according to their make, material, shape, availability and age. They are often ornate and as antiques, by definition, appreciate in value over time. Of course, as with anything of value, it’s important to have the worth of an antique verified by a professional appraiser.
Believe it or not, up until about the 1950s, it was looked down upon in many social circles – in both the U.S. and Europe – to pour wine directly from the bottle rather than a decanter. For centuries, decanters were the vessel of choice. Indeed, these colorful and exquisite wine holders are reminders of a time gone by. In addition, there’s that intangible aesthetic value that comes with using a decanter, especially one with an elegant design and made with the finest of materials.
Of course, many would argue that it’s unnecessary to decant most of the wines you might buy in stores today because modern wine-making techniques ensure wine is filtered and, thus, will contain minimal sediment. In fact, today’s wine bottles have an indentation on the bottom – called the punt – so that any sediment that may exist in the wine will settle around this indentation. Regardless, today’s wines will still benefit from a breath of fresh air, so to speak, before serving. This is especially the case for inexpensive wines, as decanting will soften the sharp bite they tend to carry.