On Wine: Decanters Pour on the Style


June is the month I get asked most often about decanters. (Think gifts for dads, grads and bridal couples.) Here’s what I tell my friends.
     When buying a decanter, your foremost consideration should be how well it pours. Some decanters are long on style but surprisingly difficult to use without dribbling. Remember: People pouring wine from a decanter are often those who have been drinking and are thus impaired in the motor cortex. Inevitably, wine spills out in unexpected directions.
     Suggestion: When in the market for a serviceable decanter, take a water bottle with you to the store. Pour the water into the decanter and back again. Don’t be intimidated; clerks are looking to make a sale these days. If you feel shy, visualize mountains of ruined tablecloths.
     Decanters are generally made of crystal. The quality of the crystal matters less than it does in a wineglass, since your lips won’t touch it. But you still will appreciate the feel and sound of a good crystal decanter. Hand-blown pieces set the standard. However, for the price-conscious, machine-made glass these days is better than ever. Contemporary glass companies offer lead-free crystal options. Be wary of using crystal decanters that contain lead, which has been proven to leach into acidic beverages such as wine.
     Recently, a friend wanted to buy a decanter for her hubby, a history buff. I dissuaded her from buying an antique. In addition to the lead danger, I told her, a used decanter is harder to clean and sparkles less than a new one because wine contains acid that etches glass over time. Her best alternative was to buy a new decanter in an old-school design. She chose one of the duck-shaped decanters still in use today and widely available.
     As for brands, Riedel is the best-known name, and it’s sold many places, from wine boutiques to Target. Because Riedel has so many product lines at different quality levels, be careful when comparing prices. Spiegelau and Schott Zwiesel brands are high-performance, lower-priced makers that offer both hand-blown and machine-made styles. 
     Department stores such as Macy’s carry many brands offering designs that lean toward the decorative rather than the wine geeky. Waterford is the classic choice for the traditionalist. Kosta Boda and Nambé offer modern, whimsical decanters. Fashion designers have even gotten into the act: Vera Wang, Calvin Klein, Marc Jacobs and Kate Spade want to pimp your pour.
     At my house, we use the elegant Riedel Cornetto, which a sommelier friend gave us for a gift. Up close, it looks like a giant marital aid, but it performs great at the table.

What’s a decanter for, anyway?
A decanter has three uses:
• To aerate a young wine so it tastes better
• To separate an old wine from its sediment
• To make the user look cool

And now for some science
Conventional wisdom once held that exposure to air softened the rough tannins in a young wine. Current research says tannin levels don’t change, but the air exposure affects the wine enough to improve your perception of it. Makes sense to me. If you blow off some sulfur and volatile acidity, plus give those yummy aromas their own airy elevators to the nose, the wine will taste better. OK, aromas riding on elevators isn’t very scientific. Let’s just say esters are volatilized. Happy?

Local fave—At William Glen in Sacramento, the most popular decanter is Schott Zwiesel’s Castor. Handmade of lead-free crystal, it has a traditional shape, updated with a ridged base and slanted mouth. ($100 at William Glen)

Best basic—Nathan Carlson, director of winemaking for Eos Estate Winery in Paso Robles, relies on Riedel’s Vinum Merlot decanter. It’s “simple, easy to store, small but still fits a whole bottle easily,” says Carlson. “It pours without an extra surprise spurt at the end.” It cleans easily, he notes, and “can be inverted to drain really well.” ($25.50 at amazon.com)

National best-seller—According to Barr Ross, sales manager for Riedel Crystal of America, the Amadeo is Riedel’s “hands-down” best-seller in the United States. ($399 at Williams-Sonoma)