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What is the difference between Aerating and Decanting wine?

Why Aerate Wine? Why Decant Wine? And What’s the Difference?

Quick: I want you to imagine in your head the actions of a wine connoisseur as she is about to take her first taste of a just-opened bottle. What do you see? Is she swirling the wine around in her glass before sticking her nose in it to sniff out the aromas? Anyone who’s ever watched a movie where wine lovers drink wine knows this routine. As a wine connoisseur myself, I have to say: yeah, that’s pretty much how we are.

But why? Simply put: to aerate the wine. Inside the bottle, there isn’t any oxygen. The bottling process displaces the remaining oxygen and any negative space is filled with an inert gas like nitrogen. There’s a lot of science about what happens when air hits the wine, but I’ll just sum it up this way: air makes wine taste better, so let the bottle breathe and then give it a few more swirls in the glass before tasting.

So now you know why we do that, and there’s absolutely nothing else to say on the subject. But of course… there’s always something else to say about wine.

What Different Wine Varietals Best Benefit From Aeration?

Of course, there’s more to the story than just the “why” of aerating. Even though every wine drinker in every movie and TV show swirls and sniffs before every sip, it’s not an automatic requirement. Though it rarely hurts to do it, there are only a few specific situations where it’s a best practice.

  • Full-bodied red wines, like Cabernet Sauvignon or Malbec, typically have large amounts of tannins, and aeration helps to soften them. If you’ve ever tasted a high-noted metallic taste with your wine, you might be tasting the tannins. Give your glass a little more time to breathe and see if that flavor dissipates.
  • Full-bodied whites (like some heavier Chardonnays) also benefit from the swirl. A good way to know if your wine is full-bodied without tasting it is to look at the alcohol content. Anything with an ABV greater than 13.5% is considered full-bodied.
  • Young reds of any varietal should be aerated with abandon. The skin of the grape contains the highest concentration of tannins, so a young red that hasn’t had a chance to age may have an overpowering acidity right out of the bottle.

For most young wines, the simple acts of pouring and swirling are enough to open the flavors up while mellowing the tannins out. If you pour out a sip and find that you don’t love the flavor, you could try using a purpose-built aerator. Aerators come in a variety of forms: You can go basic with a $20 gadget that fits in the neck of a wine bottle, or get super advanced with a spendy wine preservation system that comes with an attachment to aerate your wine without removing the cork.

For older wines, aerating often isn’t enough to really open up all the flavors. And for red wines in particular, which are generally more sediment-heavy, aeration does nothing to mitigate the debris at the bottom of your bottle. For that, you’ll need to decant.

The Difference Between Aerating vs. Decanting

At its most basic, decanting is essentially aerating the entire bottle up front, before anyone even tastes it. To decant requires a specialized glass vessel—called a decanter, if you can believe it—to pour into. The wide bottom of the decanter exposes more of the wine’s surface area to the air, facilitating faster oxygenation. Decanting is also more time consuming, as you’ll need to pour slowly from the bottle to make sure the sediment stays inside it. Depending on the wine, you’ll also need to let it sit—anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours—after you’ve poured it. 

If you’ve ever heard anyone describe decanting as an art, you may be confused to have just found that a person’s entire contribution to the act is pouring liquid from one container to another. But just like a Jackson Pollock painting, it’s not quite as simple as it looks. Decanting requires a light touch and a slow pour, better to keep any sediment inside the bottle. You should always leave a little wine in the bottle, too, for the same reason: keep that sediment where it is. 

Decanting, like aeration, is a generally good idea for most wines—but there are some instances where it could do more harm than good. Rare is the occasion that sparkling wine benefits from decanting. The moment you open the bottle the bubbles start the aeration process on their own. If you decant on top of that, you’re just accelerating their flattening. With white wines, you can run the risk of over-decanting and losing some of the more tropical, white-specific aromas like grapefruit and guava. Also, red wines with many years of age can become too fragile to decant, and the shock of all that oxygen all at once can ruin a treasured bottle.

Of course, there are no absolutes in life, and there is a time when a white—or rosé—could benefit from decanting. If you open the bottle and get a whiff of rotten eggs or garlic, that means the wine has reduced. It happens when the yeast that drives the fermentation process are starved of oxygen and other nutrients; they begin to produce hydrogen sulfide, which is the source of the unpleasant smell. Decanting won’t always help this, but it is your best hope. You’re not going to revive the yeast to keep fermenting, but the aeration of the decanting process might be enough to air out the stinkier elements.

If this all sounds too complicated, don’t worry. It isn’t. The truth is you don’t have to do any of this if you like the taste of the wine right out of the bottle. Ultimately, you just need to enjoy your drink, whichever way it makes you happy to do. Myself, I’ll always swirl a glass—before a sip, after a sip. It never hurts, and can only help. So why not air on the side of caution?