What is a Decanter?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

As delicious as red wines can be, they all share one condition: sedimentation. As red wines age, crystals of potassium bitartrate form in the liquid and eventually settle to the bottom. This can cause vintage red wines to taste bitter and prevent younger red wines from reaching their fullest flavor potential. The solution to this problem lies in a vessel called a decanter.

Wine is poured into a decanter to allow the beverage to breathe.
Wine is poured into a decanter to allow the beverage to breathe.

A decanter does not address the sedimentation problem directly. Instead, it receives the clarified wine after the contents have been carefully and slowly poured from the original bottle. A wine enthusiast will start the decanting process by unsealing a red wine held in storage. Traditionally, a candle is lit for low-level illumination. The original bottle's neck is positioned in front of the flame in order for the pourer to see the darker sediments.

A quality decanter and a variety of wine glasses are great additions to a home bar.
A quality decanter and a variety of wine glasses are great additions to a home bar.

The container itself is placed under the lip of the bottle to receive the clarified wine. Once the majority of the red wine has been poured into the decanter, it is stoppered to prevent spillage. A small portion of the wine remains in the original bottle along with the insoluble crystals and sediments. Some may choose to leave the container unstoppered for a time, especially if the wine is relatively young.

The appeal of this container is not always in its function, but often in its form. They are quite often carved from lead crystal or other decorative glass. The neck is usually narrow and tall, which gives the vessel a certain elegance and fragility. A quality bar set with a wine service should always feature a decanter and red wine glasses.

Many wine enthusiasts will not use a decanter until the very day a vintage red wine is due to be opened. This container is not necessarily suited for long-term storage of wine, but rather as a receptacle for wine served during a dinner or other event. A newer red wine intended for table use may benefit from the aeration created during decanting, but experts say swirling the wine in a proper glass will provide more. The container allows other flavors to blossom within the wine, which some wine experts call allowing the wine to "breathe."

Decanters may also be used to hold and store different types of liquor, such as whiskey.
Decanters may also be used to hold and store different types of liquor, such as whiskey.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


@SunnySkys - I agree that serving wine from a decanter looks a lot classier than serving it from the bottle. I wonder why more restaurants don't do this? I buy bottles of wine at restaurants pretty frequently, and I've never, ever been served wine out of decanter.

Maybe I'm just not going to classy enough restaurants? I don't know.


I have a wine decanter just for decoration. I personally think that it looks really nice when you have a dinner party and you can serve the wine out of decanter instead of out of the bottle. It just adds a certain air of class, I think.


@indemnifyme - I've been meaning to get a decanter for this purpose also. There is nothing more gross and annoying than sediment in a delicious glass of wine. In my opinion, it ruins the entire experience!

Based on some of the comments below, I'm going to make sure to get one that is easy to clean though. I don't want to have to go to extreme efforts to clean something I might not use very often.


I love to drink red wine, but I never understood the purpose behind a decanter. I just thought they were purely decorative, so it's kind of cool they actually serve a function too!

I don't store very much wine at home (I live in an apartment, so it's not like I have room for a wine cellar) but in the future, if I purchase older wine, I will definitely consider getting a decanter so I can get rid of the sediment.


I bought a decanter and glasses to match last winter. The decorative floral pattern makes the set look more expensive than it actually was.

The decanter has a glass plug that I use after I have let the wine breathe for awhile. Flowers and butterflies have been etched onto all the pieces, so if I bring this to a friend's house, it's easy to tell mine apart from any others that might be in the kitchen.


@kylee07drg – I use raw rice to scrub the wine out of the crevices in my crystal wine decanter. I fill it with hot water first so that the rice has something to float around in, and I add a couple of other ingredients that act as cleaning agents.

I use a few drops of dish soap and a couple of tablespoons of white vinegar. This helps break down the stains, and when I swirl everything around in the decanter, the rice knocks against the sides and loosens the stains up.

I had never cleaned anything with rice before I did this, and I was surprised by how well it worked. I'm sure that dry rice would probably just scratch the insides, but since it is in water, it's safe.


I got a beautiful crystal decanter as a wedding gift. I used it at a party last week, but now I have no idea how to clean it.

The cuts in the crystal create many grooves that I just can't scrub. The neck is too narrow for my hand to fit down in there, and even a brush can't curve to reach all of them.

Can anyone tell me how to clean a crystal decanter? I don't want the wine to stain it, and I'm afraid to leave it on there much longer.


I have seen many decanter bottles that widen out at the bottom. They make sort of an extreme pear shape.

I don't think the shape matters so much when it comes to function. The shape is mostly just for visual appeal.

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