The History of Decanters

Throughout history, the decanter has played an essential role in the serving of wine. The vessels would be filled with wine from amphoras and brought to the table, where a single servant could handle them more easily.

The use of glass as a material was pioneered by the Ancient Romans. Because glass became uncommon after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the majority of decanters were constructed of bronze, silver, gold, or clay. During the Renaissance era, the Venetians reintroduced glass decanters, pioneering the design of a long, thin neck that opens to a broad body, increasing the exposed surface area of the wine and enabling it to react with air.

To reduce exposure to air, British glass manufacturers invented the stopper in the 1730s. The decanter’s fundamental design has remained mostly unchanged since then.

Other alcoholic drinks, such as cognac or single malt Scotch whiskey, are often kept and served in stoppered decanters, despite the fact that they were designed for wine. Certain cognacs and malt whiskies, such as the Dalmore 50-year-old single malt and the Bowmore Distillery 22-year-old, are marketed in decanters.

Process of decanting

A tiny amount of liquid from another vessel is put into the decanter to separate a little amount of sediment-containing liquid from a larger amount of “clear” liquid that is free of it. The sediment is left in the original vessel, and the clear liquid is transported to the decanter throughout the process. This is similar to racking, except it’s done just before serving.

Decanters have traditionally been used to serve wines that have accumulated sediment in the bottle. These sediments might indicate an older wine or one that was not filtered or clarified throughout the winemaking process. Because many wines no longer produce a significant amount of sediment as they age, decanting for this purpose is no longer necessary in most modern winemaking.

cradles for decanting

A machine for decanting

Decanting cradles are baskets made of wicker or metal that are used to decant bottles that have been kept on their sides without having to turn them upright, preventing sediment from settling. These are very handy in restaurants for serving wine ordered during dinner, but they are less effective at home, where a bottle may be set upright the day before.

There are even more advanced decanting devices that allow for smooth pouring without disturbing the particles.


Another reason to decant wine is to enable it to aerate, or “breathe.” The decanter is designed to simulate the effects of whirling a wine glass to encourage oxidation processes, which results in more aromatic chemicals being released. It is also supposed to help the wine by softening some of the wine’s harsher qualities (like tannins or potential wine faults like mercaptans).

Many wine writers, like Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible, encourage decanting for aeration, particularly with tannic wines like Barolo, Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon, Port, and Rhône wines, while cautioning that decanting might hurt more delicate wines like Chianti and Pinot noir.

However, other wine experts, such as oenologist Émile Peynaud, argue that decanting actually diffuses and dissipates more scent components than it stimulates, in contrast to the benefits of the smaller scale exposure and quick release that swirling the wine in a drinker’s glass has.

Furthermore, it has been claimed that decanting for a few hours has little impact on tannin softening. Tannins soften during winemaking and oak aging when they go through a polymerization process that can last days or weeks; decanting merely changes the perception of sulfites and other chemical compounds in the wine through oxidation, giving some drinkers the impression of softer tannins in the wine.

According to wine expert Kerin O’Keefe, who believes that decanting can dilute aromas, she prefers to let the wine develop slowly and naturally in the bottle by uncorking it a few hours ahead of time, a practice advocated by winemakers such as Bartolo Mascarello and Franco Biondi Santi.

Other wine experts, such as writer Jancis Robinson, praise the aesthetic benefit of using a decanter, particularly one with an exquisite design and made of transparent glass, and think that decanting any but the most delicate wines do not do substantial harm. A decanter may also be used to offer wine anonymously.