A History of Wine Decanters and Decanting

Whether to decant wine or not must surely be one of the most long-running debates in the history and science of wine.

Wine decanters have been used for centuries to aerate the wine and remove sediment from the wine before serving. Decanting wine allows the wine to breathe and opens up the complex flavors and aromas of the wine. Wine decanters come in a variety of styles and sizes, and can be made from a variety of materials including glass, crystal, or metal.

Wine decanters have come in all shapes and sizes throughout history. For example, in ancient Rome, wine was typically decanted into amphorae – large urn-like vessels – which were then buried in the ground to keep them cool. In medieval Europe, meanwhile, wine was often decanted into elaborate glass vessels known as “finger bowls.” These bowls were often decorated with prints of fingers, hence their name. More recently, wine decanters have taken on a more functional design, with a long neck and wide base to allow for easy pouring. However, no matter what their shape or size, wine decanters have always played an important role in the history of viticulture.

But do they really make a difference in wine tasting?

The Contested Science of Decanting

Before delving further into the history of decanters and wine decanting, let’s briefly explore the science of decanting. This is a contested issue and not all sommeliers and oenologists agree that decanting wine has a specific set of benefits. Indeed some highly respected authorities such as the Professor of Oenology at the University of Bordeaux for much of the second half of the twentieth century, Émile Peynaud, argued that decanting should only be used in a very limited amount of circumstances.

The primary goal of decanting is to aerate the wine. By the very nature of its production wine is confined to a tight wine bottle that has been sealed for a significant amount of time. The goal of opening a bottle of wine and allowing the wine to sit in a larger vessel for an hour or so before serving it is to aerate it and open up the bouquet. However, opponents of decantation argue that decanting wine actually has the opposite effect of what is intended, with oxygen further diminishing the flavor of wine that has been sitting for even half an hour.

Putting aside the dispute of how long to decant wine, it is universally accepted that decanting has many benefits. In particular, it has been used for millennia as a means of removing sediment from wine before it is poured into a glass or goblet. Yet this has become less necessary in recent centuries as the art of clarification has developed. Moreover, most lower-quality, cheaper wines that are mass-produced today are so heavily filtered that they usually contain little or no sediment. [1]

Ancient Decanters

The concept of decanting wine has been around for millennia. For many early societies in the Mediterranean such as the Phoenicians and the Greeks, it was necessary as wine was often transported in large jars or amphorae and had to be decanted into smaller jugs or vessels in order to pour wine at the table or at the benches of the Greek symposia. Much of decanting in the ancient era was for purely practical reasons as it was designed to remove sediment from the wine.

The Romans were the first society to begin developing sophisticated methods of decantation. Glass jugs of a square or circular shape with a wide base and much thinner neck, much like modern wine decanters, were already in use by the end of the Roman Republic in the first century BC. Their application expanded across the Roman Empire in the centuries that followed as the technology and practice of glassmaking improved. As the Roman Empire began to fragment in Late Antiquity and new powers such as the Byzantine Empire and the Arab Caliphate emerged in the Eastern Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Middle East, the use of wine decanters managed to survive and outlive its originators. [2]

Medieval Decline

Following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century AD and Europe’s descent into the Dark Ages, the art of wine decantation experienced a swift decline. This was almost entirely owing to the damage inflicted on the European economy during these centuries and the concomitant destruction of the glassmaking industry in countries like Italy, Spain, and France during these years.

Yet this is not to suggest that glassmaking and the use of decanters disappeared entirely from Europe. For instance, in the Early Middle Ages wine decanters continued to be used at royal and noble courts, but these were usually made out of more durable materials which were less effective as decanters, notably silver and pewter decanting jugs. By the advent of the High Middle Ages (1000 AD – 1300 AD) forest glass or waldglas was also being extensively produced in Germany out of wood ash and sand. This greenish glass was often of poor quality and thus made for less effective glass decanters, the likes of which would soon become available in Renaissance Italy. [3]

Glassmaking in Renaissance Italy

The emergence of the modern wine decanter and wine decanting methods has to be traced to developments in Italy from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries onwards. All manner of innovations were occurring on the Mediterranean peninsula during this period in fields as diverse as politics, banking, art, the rediscovery of ancient Greek literature, as well as the humble craft of glassmaking. In particular, Venice had emerged by the sixteenth century as the center of sophisticated glassmaking techniques which surpassed all methods used in Europe during medieval times. [4]

The glassmaking techniques developed in Venice, Genoa, Florence, and other Italian centers at this time allowed for wine to be decanted into glass decanters that were made out of materials of a much finer finish and were much less likely to contaminate the wine. Moreover, there was a general growing awareness across Europe of the ostensible benefits of aerating wine in well-made polished vessels. Indeed, even further to the north, a salt glaze was being used on the surface of pewter or earthenware jugs in which wine was stored. This gave them a more polished finish, not unlike the feel of the outside of an orange or lemon. This polished finish also facilitated the aeration of wine and inculcated a growing appreciation amongst Northern Europeans in France, Britain, and elsewhere of the benefits of decanting wine. [5]

French, British and Dutch Decanters, c. 1500–1800

The sixteenth century witnessed the movement of the Renaissance northwards, as the Italian Renaissance of the fifteenth century became the European Renaissance of the sixteenth century. By the 1530s fine Renaissance paintings and artworks were being produced at the courts of Francois I and Henry VIII in Paris and London and Italian banking methods were being employed by the mercantile communities of France, England, and cities like Amsterdam and Antwerp.

Glassmaking also moved north. The advent of modern decanters really came from the late sixteenth century onwards in France, Britain, and the Dutch Republic. Indeed the term ‘decant’ dates to this period when it began to be applied to wine decanting as an abstraction of the French décanter which had primarily been used as a term in alchemy (a type of proto-chemistry) for several hundred years.

By the mid-seventeenth century, as capitalism began to emerge in cities like London, Amsterdam, and Antwerp, and consumer societies also started to develop rapidly in England and elsewhere, people were beginning to acquire tastes for luxury household items. Prominent amongst these were wine glasses and decanters made from the new types of glassmaking that had spread north from Italy in the sixteenth century.

By the second half of the seventeenth century, a number of acclaimed glassmakers were emerging in Northern Europe as the producers of the best decanters available to high society. For instance, after spending some time in Venice himself in the 1650s and 1660s George Ravencroft returned to his native England and began working importing fine European glass and crystal in the late 1660s. He soon decided to cut out the middlemen and by the 1670s Ravenscroft Glassworks in London were producing some of the finest crystal glasses and decanters made anywhere in Europe. By 1677 these were even being exported as far away as the Polish royal court in Warsaw.

In the decades that followed decanters began evolving rapidly and their use began expanding commensurately as Europe shifted from the subsistence economy of the late middle ages to the highly developed manufacturing and consumer society of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As these processes occurred new types of decanter emerged, first evolving from the basic decanting jug of the seventeenth century to the cruciform decanter of the 1720s. The latter was given its name for its idiosyncratic cross shape on the base of the decanter. It was also around this time that British glassmakers began introducing stoppers to limit the exposure of the decanted wine to the air if it was left for a longer period of time.

The cruciform decanter was soon followed by the shaft and globe-shaped decanter of the mid-eighteenth century and the numerous different-shaped decanters of the period from the 1760s to the 1790s, notably the shoulder decanter, taper decanter, and Indian club decanter. Thus, by 1800 decanters were beginning to look more like bottles than large jugs and were being widely produced by fine glassmakers across much of Europe.

Modern Decanters and the Decanting Debate

The nineteenth century saw widespread innovation in the manufacturing of decanters. Steam-powered precision tools led to the ever finer cut glass being produced, while the enormous wealth creation wrought across Europe during the Industrial Revolution and the Age of Imperialism saw an unheralded level of ostentation in the production of wine decanters. It is thus from the second half of the nineteenth century that one will begin to see highly ornate glass decanters inlaid with gold and silver plating and diamonds. Many of these are fairly tasteless in appearance, but that has not stopped such gaudy decanters from being produced even now in the current age.

The shape and design of decanters continued to evolve from decade to decade from the mid-nineteenth century into the twentieth. Sometimes old designs resurfaced. For instance, the shaft and globe design which had been popular in England and France in the 1730s and 1740s re-emerged as the favored decanter shape in Britain in the 1840s and 1850s. Equally, the decoration of decanters was impacted by changing fashions. The Arts and Crafts Movement of the Late Victorian Age, for example, influenced the design of decanters in the 1890s and 1900s.

By the late twentieth century, a consensus began to emerge on the optimum type of decanter for aerating wine. The ideal decanter had an extremely wide base but quickly tapered to a long narrow neck. The idea is that a full 70cl or 75cl bottle of wine can be poured into the decanter and rest entirely in the wide base, allowing for maximum aeration of the wine after it is decanted. However, there is no set design for a modern decanter and just as the debate on whether or not decanting is even beneficial continues, so too does the shape and design of wine decanters continue to evolve.

Final Thoughts

There are a few key things to keep in mind when choosing the right one for your wine. First of all, are you decanting red wine or white wine? For red wines, you’ll want a decanter with a wide base and a narrow neck. This will allow the wine to breathe and open up, releasing its full flavor and aroma. For white and rosé wines, on the other hand, you’ll want a decanter with a narrower base and a wider neck. This will help to preserve the wine’s delicate aromatics. Of course, these are just guidelines – ultimately, the best way to choose a decanter is to experiment and find what works best for you. With so many options available, there’s sure to be a wine decanter that’s perfect for your taste.

Ultimately, wine decanters are a gift of the ancient world that has made it all the way to our modern dining tables today. Discerning wine drinkers know how much wine decanters add to the overall experience and enjoyment of wine, whether simply for their aesthetic qualities or for their impact on wine’s flavor. So, as you lift your next glass, take a moment to appreciate the centuries of innovation and refinement that have gone into its design. Cheers!

On This Day

11 July 1991 – On this day in 1991 Charles Bacik died. Bacik was a Czech glassmaker who was born in the Bohemia region of what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1910. Having been imprisoned by the Nazis during the Second World War, Bacik survived and soon headed for Ireland after the war ended. There he became involved in reviving the Waterford Crystal glassmaking business, the origins of which went back to 1783. Under Bacik’s influence, Waterford Crystal once again became a European market leader in the manufacture of fine crystal or lead glass cut glass. One of the most popular items produced during Bacik’s several decades at Waterford Crystal was the company’s crystal glass decanters. These were produced in a wide range of different styles, from wide, flat-bottomed decanters to ornately designed and cut cruciform shoulder, and classic bottle-style decanters. Today Waterford Crystal wine decanters continue to sell for a minimum price of $300 such is the high regard in which their craftsmanship is held.

18 July 2004 – On this day in 2004 the acclaimed French oenologist and wine researcher, Émile Peynaud, died at Talence near Bordeaux at 92 years of age. Peynaud first entered the wine trade when he was a teenager and subsequently acquired a doctorate from the University of Bordeaux in 1946. He then became a Professor of Oenology at the same institution. Peynaud is celebrated as one of the most significant figures in developing the science of viticulture and winemaking in the second half of the twentieth century, working on everything from malolactic fermentation to the science of grape picking. Amongst his other contributions, Peynaud was a marked critic of wine decantation, arguing that only wines with a large amount of sediment should be decanted and that in general, the idea that most wines should be aerated to improve their bouquet is indefensible from an oenological perspective. His views in this regard point to the seemingly never-ending nature of the debate as to whether one should decant wine or not.

Want to read more? Try these books!

Wine Decanters and Decanting, A History of Wine Decanters and DecantingWine Decanters and Decanting, A History of Wine Decanters and Decanting

 

 

 

 

 

 

References

[1] ‘Decanting’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006); Kerin O’Keeffe, ‘The Great Debate: To Decant or Not?’, Wine Enthusiast, 21 May 2015. [2] Karen MacNeil, The Wine Bible (New York, 2001), pp. 93–95; ‘Decanters’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006). [3] Pirkko Kuisma-Kursula, Jyrki Räisänen and Heikki Matiskainen, ‘Chemical Analyses of European Forest Glass’, in Journal of Glass Studies, Vol. 39 (1997), pp. 57–68; Georg Haggrén, Stuart Whatley and Hanna Dahlström, ‘Medieval and Early Modern Utility Glass in Denmark’, in Journal of Glass Studies, Vol. 62 (2020), pp. 185–212. [4] W. Patrick McCray, ‘Glassmaking in Renaissance Italy: The Innovation of Venetian Cristallo’, in Archaeotechnology, Vol. 50 (1998), pp. 14–19. [5] Karen MacNeil, The Wine Bible (New York, 2001), pp. 93–95; ‘Decanters’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006). [6] Craig Harbison, The Art of the Northern Renaissance (London, 2012).

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