Tools of the Trade: Decanters and Carafes

Decanters and carafes can add another element to your enjoyment of wine. They are nice items of tableware – you can use them to dress up your table or to add a comfy, rustic vibe to a picnic or casual dinner. But they can also be crucial to the chemistry, flavor, and appearance of the wine.

Definitions

Carafes and decanters are both made of clear glass or crystal, and they can be smooth or faceted. And they both look nice on the table. But the similarities end there.

Decanters are designed so that the neck is narrow but the base is very broad. After you’ve poured a standard 750 ml bottle of wine into a decanter, the exposed surface area of the liquid should be very large. They come in various symmetrical or asymmetrical shapes, with or without handles, but they all feature that broad surface area.

Carafes, on the other hand, have a more compact shape, with vertical sides and a smaller cross-section. They are most typically used in restaurants to transfer a few servings of wine to the table; the restaurant can’t just drop off a bottle or half-bottle to your table, since the wine comes to them in bulk.

Use

Young wines, especially those that are high in tannin, are often described as “dumb” or “closed off”. The process of aging involves microscopic amounts of oxygen penetrating the cork, and reacting with the various flavor and aroma elements to create additional notes and soften the wine.

If you haven’t had enough time to age the bottle in your cellar, you can simulate some of that change by pouring the wine into a decanter, giving it some big swirls, and allowing the newly-introduced oxygen to do its thing over the course of 15 minutes to 2 hours. This is the real definition of letting a wine ‘breathe’ – just popping the cork doesn’t expose enough surface area to really get any chemistry going.

Alternatively, old wines may have a lot of loose sediment as the result of aging. This can take the form of big chunks at the bottom of the bottle, or very fine particles suspended through the wine. Vintage ports and well-aged red table wines like Bordeaux and Barolo are the classic examples. In this case, you pour into the decanter very slowly and carefully, and stop when you notice the sediment approaching the neck of the bottle.

But be very careful not to do this decanting in advance! The older wines don’t need to breathe – if you let them sit for any length of time, all the wonderful aromas will tend to waft away and leave you with something that’s flat and tart. You can use a decanter or a carafe for this purpose, although a decanter is more traditional and generally easy to handle during the slow pouring process.

Carafes are also great for serving wine cocktails and punches, like Sangria or Mimosas. It’s faster and easier to mix an entire carafe, rather than trying to make multiple individual servings. And they look much nicer on the table than a pitcher. Check out my ebook on wine cocktails for some other great ideas.

Buying, Gifting, and Cleaning

You can spend anywhere from $10 to $200 on a carafe or decanter, so make some decisions in advance about who you’re buying for, how they are likely to use it, and what your budget is.

There’s no advantage to cut crystal over plain glass in terms of the flavor of the wine; let the taste and decor of the giftee guide your decision here. Make sure that the decanter can be swirled easily – pick it up and mime the action in the store. If it’s unwieldy or asymmetric, it may just sit on the shelf.

Also consider the durability of the glassware, and how active the giftee is likely to be. There’s no point in buying a nice $150 decanter if it’s going to get thrown into a picnic basket and chipped within the first year. Get a plain $10 carafe, dress it up with some ribbons and beads, and throw in a bottle or two of wine to create a complete gift.

It’s important to clean your decanter or carafe well. Don’t put it in the dishwasher, and make sure to at least rinse it out at the end of the evening, if you don’t have the time or energy to clean it fully. The best method for cleaning is just copious warm water; detergents will usually leave a film. If you notice any persistent staining from red wine, then use a little neutral white vinegar and baking soda, and then scrub with a soft wire-handle brush and more water. Be careful not to scratch the glass!

Store it someplace where it won’t collect dust or odd smells; and if you do any frying in the kitchen, make sure that airborne grease won’t settle on it! If it’s been sitting for a long time, do a quick clean before you use it again, just in case it’s accumulated any cruft during storage.

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