A History of Wine Decanters and Decanting

To decant or not to decant wine is one of the longest-running debates in the history and science of wine.

Wine decanters have been used for centuries to aerate the wine and remove sediment before serving. It’s thought that decanting allows the wine to breathe and opens up the complex flavors and aromas of the wine. There are many different types of decanters, from the traditional angled spouts to the intricate U-shaped wine decanters made from various 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, wine was 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. 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 and Decanters

Before delving further into the history of decanters and decanting, let’s briefly explore the science of decanting. This is a contested issue, and not all sommeliers and oenologists agree that decanting wine is beneficial. Some highly respected authorities, such as the late Professor of Oenology at the University of Bordeaux,  Émile Peynaud, argued that decanting should only be used in specific circumstances. 

The primary goal of decanting is to aerate the wine. To make, wine is confined to a tight 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 before serving it is to aerate and open up the aromatics. However, opponents of decanting argue that aerating wine actually has the opposite effect of what is intended. Oxygen further diminishes the flavor of wine that has been sitting for even half an hour.

Putting aside the dispute of whether aerating wine improves its flavor, decanting, traditionally, has other 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]

The Many Types of 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. Wine was often transported in large jars or amphorae and had to be decanted into smaller jugs or vessels to be able 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]

The Decline of Decanting and Decanters in Medieval Times

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 decanting experienced a swift decline. This was almost entirely owing to the damage inflicted on the European economy during these centuries and the subsequent destruction of the glassmaking industry in countries like Italy, Spain, and France during these years.

Yet glassmaking and the use of decanters didn’t disappear entirely from Europe. For instance, in the Early Middle Ages, wine decanters continued to be used in royal and noble courts. 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 less effective glass decanters, the likes of which would soon become available in Renaissance Italy. [3]

The History of Decanters Continues in Renaissance Italy

The emergence of the modern wine decanter and decanting methods has to be traced to developments in Italy from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Innovation was at its height on the Mediterranean peninsula during this period in fields as diverse as politics, banking, art, the rediscovery of ancient Greek literature, and the humble craft of glassmaking. In particular, Venice emerged by the sixteenth century as the center for 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 made out of materials of a much finer finish that were much less likely to contaminate the wine. Moreover, there was growing awareness across Europe of the 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 promoted 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 the mercantile communities of France, England, and cities like Amsterdam and Antwerp employed Italian banking methods.

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

By the mid-seventeenth century, capitalism began to take hold in cities like London, Amsterdam, and Antwerp, and consumer societies also started to develop rapidly in England and elsewhere. People were beginning to acquire a taste 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 to import fine European glass and crystal in the late 1660s. He soon decided to cut out the middleman, 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 being exported as far away as the Polish royal court in Warsaw.

In the decades that followed, decanters evolved rapidly. Their use began expanding 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 decanters 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 distinctive cross shape on the decanter’s base. 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. 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 from the second half of the nineteenth century that you can 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 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 was reached 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 was that a full 70cl or 75cl bottle of wine could 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.

How to Decant a Bottle of Wine

There are a few key things to keep in mind when choosing the right decanter 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 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.

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 enjoyment of wine, whether simply for their aesthetic qualities or for 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!

Some Famous Decanters

There have been many famous decanters throughout history. Here are a few examples:

  • The Riedel Vinum XL Pinot Noir decanter: This decanter is made by the Riedel glassware company and is designed specifically for Pinot Noir wine. It has a wide base and a narrow neck, which helps to aerate the wine and release its aromas.
  • The Lalique Cactus decanter: This decanter is made by the French glassware company Lalique and is known for its unique cactus-inspired design. It is made of clear crystal and is often used to serve spirits or liqueurs.
  • The Baccarat Harcourt decanter: This decanter is made by the French crystal company Baccarat and is known for its elegant and timeless design. It is often used to serve high-end spirits or wine and is considered a classic piece of glassware.
  • The Waterford Lismore decanter: This decanter is made by the Irish glassware company Waterford and is known for its distinctive diamond-cut pattern. It is often used to serve high-end spirits or wine and is considered a classic piece of glassware.
  • The Sèvres Porcelain decanter: This decanter is made by the French porcelain company Sèvres and is known for its intricate and delicate design. It is often used to serve high-end spirits or wine and is considered a luxurious and collectible piece.

Overall, there have been many famous decanters throughout history. The decanter considered the most famous will depend on personal preference and the specific context in which it is used.

Also read: History of the Riedel Glass Company

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 the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1910. After surviving imprisonment by the Nazis during the Second World War, Bacik 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 producing 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 are held in high esteem. They continue to sell for a minimum price of $300.

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 entered the wine trade as a teenager and acquired a doctorate from the University of Bordeaux in 1946. He then became a Professor of Oenology at the same institution. Peynaud is one of the most significant figures in developing the science of viticulture and winemaking in the second half of the twentieth century. He worked on everything from malolactic fermentation to the science of grape picking. Amongst his other contributions, Peynaud was a marked critic of wine decantation. He argued that only wines with a large amount of sediment should be decanted and that aerating most wines to improve their bouquet didn’t make sense from an oenological perspective. His views point to the never-ending debate whether to decant wine or not.

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[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).

Categories: This Day in Wine History | Articles, Wine History In-DepthTags: , , , , By Published On: October 15, 2022Last Updated: April 5, 2023

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