Decanting is a hot topic. Opinions buzz about when, what and how to decant. But nearly all that chatter centers around red wines. Is it ever appropriate to decant white, or even sparkling, wines?
“Most consumers shy away from decanting white wines,” says Cameron Cronin, service and beverage director at Homewood Restaurant in Dallas. “But in my experience, it can greatly enhance your drinking experience.”
Like red wines, few white wines need to be decanted. However, if a young, complex white wine is a bit too tight, or the temperature isn’t quite right, a decanter can coax the best out of a bottling.
Sommeliers shared their advice on when it might be appropriate to decant a white or sparkling wine, how to do so without harming the wine and which regions and styles are worth consideration.
Why decant white wines?
There are no definitive rules about when to decant white wines. Everyone has a different preference, though there are a few common situations in which someone might want to decant.
“Generally, I decant a white wine for the same reasons you’d decant a red,” says Andrea Morris, beverage director for Intersect by Lexus–NYC and Wine Enthusiast 40 Under 40 honoree. “Primarily, to help a tightly wound wine open up and to try to get any ‘off’ aromas to blow off.”
Many sommeliers decant wines that are overly reductive, meaning made with limited exposure to oxygen. When a wine is produced or stored in the absence of oxygen, it can have a sulfurous aroma, like a struck matchstick. Though some may enjoy these notes, letting the sulfur evaporate will often allow fruit and floral tones to emerge.
When white wines are vinified as skin-contact wines, decanting may improve them for the same reason as many red wines. “Skin-contact wines benefit by softening their tannins,” says Cronin. “Yes, white wines can have tannin.”
Young wines that don’t reveal their true character straight out of the bottle can also benefit from being decanted.
“With younger wines which have not had time to develop, especially wines that seem a little linear and backward, decanting can give them a little rounder profile,” says Gregory Stokes, manager/sommelier at Veritas Restaurant in Columbus, Ohio. However, wines meant to be enjoyed when fresh and fruity won’t benefit from increased oxygen, he says.
Although white wines don’t have the kind of sediment typical of reds, another form of sediment may be present in bottles of unfiltered white wines aged on the lees. Also, wines that are not cold-stabilized will often contain tartrates, tiny crystals that coat the bottom of the cork or float in the bottle.
“They are completely harmless, but not particularly pleasant to drink, so I always decant them off of the wine,” says Stokes.
But there’s a practical reason to decant a white wine: temperature. “By decanting a white wine, you can more easily manipulate the temperature,” says Morris. To warm up a frigid wine, pour it into a room-temperature decanter. The air exposure will speed the warming process.
Similarly, most decanters will chill wines more quickly, as their glass is thinner usually than a wine bottle.
How to decant white wines
The good news about decanting white wines is that it’s simpler to do than red wines. Since most white wines don’t contain sediment, it’s tough to ruin a white wine by decanting.
“When I’m decanting a white, it’s usually to open it up quickly, so I’ll do a pretty quick, vigorous decant,” says Morris. And while it’s fine to decant into a vessel of any size, smaller decanters are generally better for white wines.
“I find that smaller-format decanters work best for white wines, as you don’t need a higher surface area-to-volume ratio since the simple act of decanting usually lets the wine ‘breathe’ sufficiently,” says Cronin, who likes to use a one-liter Pyrex Erlenmeyer flask. Stokes says that smaller decanters can fit nicely into an ice bucket for chilling, but their thinner glass can crack more easily.
While it’s fine to decant into a vessel of any size, smaller decanters are generally better for white wines.
Cronin recommends decanting white wine 5–15 minutes prior to serving, as they might lose their freshness and vibrancy if left for hours. While it’s rare to “kill” a wine by leaving it in a decanter too long, take extra care with older vintages.
“Older wines can often benefit the most from decanting, but they can also be the most fragile,” says Stokes. “There is a point at which an older white wine is at its peak in the glass, and it can drop off pretty quickly afterwards.”
Decanting oxidative white wines isn’t recommended, either.
“If the wine is already showing some signs of oxidation with little freshness, decanting would cause that white to go the wrong way and become even more oxidized,” says Jack Mason, Master Sommelier at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse in Houston.
Should you decant sparkling wine?
To decant sparkling wines may be even more controversial than white wines, even among professionals.
“I love bubbles, so decanting a sparkling wine feels counterintuitive,” says Morris. Exposure to oxygen dissipates the effervescence of a sparkling wine. However, decanting will have a large effect on older vintages.
“The process accelerates the evaporation of [carbon dioxide],” says Cronin. “The older sparkling wine gets, the more likely that it will have already lost a perceivable amount of gas in the solution as well.”
But the idea isn’t as crazy as it might seem.
“Traditionally, Champagne was always decanted,” says Stokes. “Prior to the invention of remuage by the house of Veuve Clicquot in 1816, all Champagnes were cloudy with the yeast from the second fermentation in bottle. So traditionally, you would decant the wine to leave as much of the yeast in the bottle as possible.”
Some sommeliers and winemakers embrace the idea to decant Champagne. The famed grower-producer Anselme Selosse recommends decanting his sought-after Champagnes.
Champagnes built for long-term aging are often vinified with slightly higher bottle pressure to maintain those bubbles over time, says Mason. “Decanting not only helps give the wine some oxygen, but also can help break up the bubbles, creating a more pleasurable drinking experience.”
Decanting is also an efficient way to serve very large-format Champagne bottles, like a nine-liter Salmanazar. To decant Champagne, pour the wine down the side of the decanter gently to avoid having the bubbles overflow.
Commonly decanted white wine styles and regions
Since decanting can help white wines blow off undesirable aromas, it can be advantageous to keep an eye out for wines that tend to be reductive. Screw caps can be good indicators, as they can create an oxygen-deficient environment for aging. Dry Furmints from Hungary and Austrian Grüner Veltliner and Riesling may be worth decanting.
There are many white Burgundies vinified in reductive environments, and increasingly, producers from around the world make reductive styles of Chardonnay as well.
“They can be so tightly wound and sometimes reductive, depending on producer, so I find a quick decant can help the fruit and minerality come forward,” says Morris. Northern Rhône white wines and some Trebbianos from Abruzzo may also have qualities that could benefit from decanting.
Older wines from certain regions are also likely candidates. Scott Turnbull, a sommelier at the The Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa Valley, has decanted white Rioja and found that it improved the wine. Morris says a decant may help old German Riesling, which can be a little funky.
Stokes attributes this to vinification practices for these wines. “German winemakers tend to use heavy doses of sulfur to prevent their sweet wines from refermenting in the bottle,” he says.
“I often decant older vintages of white Bordeaux, but not the recent years,” she says. Berglund says that older white Bordeaux wines are more expressive at warmer temperatures. She recommends decanting the wine and let it warm up at room temperature for a half-hour before enjoying.