Decanting old wines


I recently lost my nerve on a social media following a post regarding decanting and old wines, and I sure should not have. The post was published by a sommelier who considered that 1990 was an old vintage, proving that he did not even know what he was talking about !

I only got upset because I feel in pain for all those wines, all those producers who work hard, all those merchants who select and keep the wines with care, to find them slaughtered by an ignorant consumer after 30 years of cellaring! Yes, an old wine needs decanting, even more so than a young wine.

The reason may be difficult to explain, but the experience is easy to have: open two bottles, decant one two hours in advance, the other just when dinner begins. I mean any Bordeaux, except 1978 (please do not ask why: 100% of 78s that I drank were worn out after 15 minutes, not even decanted). Any wine ! 1928, 1945, 1990… Any area: Médoc, Saint-Emilion, Pessac and of course Sauternes… Sometimes, even poor vintages like 1973 can better in a decanter (they cannot get worse anyway).

I unfortunately cannot count anymore the number of old wines that I opened, but it is well over 3,000… The number of wines that I regretted to have opened too early is exactly four, all of them 1978, and I can recall each one : Duhart-Milon, Haut-Batailley, La Lagune, Pichon-Comtesse. Very good wines, but not over 15 minutes after opening.

I am not here to solve the 78 mystery but I want to try and prevent the old wines’ massacre with this message: do not listen to Cassandras and try for yourselves. The rule is to put a bottle standing at least four hours before decanting (best the day before), and to open it two hours before dinner time. Decant immediately, which you can do with a candle or an electric light, it is not as traditional but virtually the same.

If the cork is hard to extract, and you could not do it without a lot of crumbs in the wine, ideally filter with silk. Unfortunately, silk filters are not produced any longer, I guess I have two of the few remaining in the world. A paper coffee filter will do, but it is so unfortunate to let so much wine be absorbed! Then you can either but a glass stopper to the decanter or not, it is not essential, as long as the wine surface in contact with air is wide enough. Serve after two hours: the wine is clean, the nose is fresh, the mouth is well balanced… Nothing you can get from a freshly open bottled.

We always recommend decanting any wine, in particular old wines, to get the most of them. You might be surprised at how the taste and flavour could marvellously change if properly decanted.

Lastly here comes a short video showing how to decant old wines. You might be surprised at how simply it can be done. What you need is just a decanter, a flat candle, and… a bottle of wine! To watch the video, please click here. Hope you enjoy!



2 thoughts on “Decanting old wines

  1. Alexandre

    It’s very interesting, because I did study wine in Burgundy and at the end of the day here what i heard from many people : roughly speaking decanting a young wine is imperative. But after 10 years (minimum average) you should be caution by decanting a wine.
    The main reason brought was the oxygen could “kill” the wine more quickly.
    And especially the very old one (over 30 years old).
    And then , you can not apply that for all regions. Burgundy will not handle very much a long decanting. At the opposite of the Bordeaux or Rhone Valley, and more specifically Amarone, Vin de Paille who will need more than 24 hours.

    But I guess, I will share your point of view and I can’t deny your experience.
    In the meantime, I will continue to follow some of those advices I did get from some of the great producers from Burgundy, and some professionals.
    I guess it’s a question of knowledge and experience.


    1. fairwines Post author

      Thank you for giving me the opportunity to make things clear.
      It is true that my article is more focused on Bordeaux than Burgundy. But my last experiment on Chhristmas day was to have Château Margaux 1985 and Clos Vougeot 1959 from Jean Grivot. Both decanted, two hours before lunch. Margaux was good but not excellent, Clos-Vougeot was fantastic. At dinner, when I finished both decanters, the Margaux was fantastic but Clos-Vougeot was only average.
      What is the conclusion ? two hours is just fine. Only a few wines will last more than 24 hours. Sauternes will remain good in the fridge for several weeks, as sugar is a very good anti-oxydant. Champagne does not last long, white wine can last 24 hours. Young reds is another story : I cannot accept the idea that decanting young wines makes them closer to the intented peak of quality, or more evolved. Young wines are what they are : not ready. Some grape varieties like Pinot Noir have a great advantage : they taste good young and they age well. Some like Cabernet Sauvignon need ten or fifteen years, end of the story, and no decanter will change that.
      The purpose of decanting is twofold : 1. Getting rid of the depot that comes with ageing 2. Transforming the ester aromas that come with ageing into the amazing complexity that only old wines bring. I do not consider necessary to decant young wines, as I have never seen a better wine after. But then, I only try 400 or 500 wines every year (not counting primeurs). I only taste wine while eating. I am filled with respect for people who taste 30 or 80 wines per day… but I do not see the point. My conclusions may be out of the common thinking, but they are based on actual tastings, in real drinking conditions. Thank you for reading.


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