Decanting wine exposes it to fresh air and helps separate old wine from its sediment. (Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

To decant or not to decant, that is the question. When it comes to wine, there is no pat answer.

The original definition of decanting spoke only to the process of drawing off liquid from one bottle into another bottle for the purpose of removing sediment. But there are others reasons for decanting, painfully remembered.

Several years ago when celebrating our anniversary, my significant other and I by prior arrangement brought a special bottle of upscale cabernet to one of our favorite out-of-town eateries.

The proprietor had obviously coached our waitperson to take extra care with this special bottle, making said waitperson a nervous wreck. Waitperson struggled with extricating the cork, eventually bringing out only a piece and pushing the rest down into the wine.

We suggested decanting, and said person returned with a carafe and a coffee filter to achieve the task. Of course, one of the first rules of decanting a wine is that it be poured slowly from bottle into decanter.

The wine overflowed the makeshift filter, spilling out onto a white starched tablecloth, making a giant splotch, and spewing droplets onto my clothing. So I am a bit gun-shy when it comes to decanting wine.

Certainly one legitimate reason for decanting is to filter out pieces of cork that have fallen into the wine. Old corks have been known to crumble, but our wine disaster occurred with a current vintage.

To my great relief, few wines need decanting these days, at least not for filtering out sediment and hopefully not for extricating cork pieces.

Most wines hitting the market today are ready to be consumed upon release. It is estimated that 90 percent of wine purchased in American is consumed within 24 hours of purchase, so there is no time for sediment to form.

Most decanting is done today for the purpose of aerating wine. Winemakers zealously protect their wines from exposure to oxygen because prolonged exposure can cause spoilage. There are situations — especially with young tannic reds — when exposure to oxygen through decanting actually improves the wine by making it more approachable and softening out astringent tannins.

Although white wines are not traditionally decanted, there is nothing wrong with decanting them if for no other purpose than to show off a beautiful decanter.

Some decant all wines before serving. This is not necessarily a good thing. Fragile old reds from Bordeaux and older revered California cabernets can fall apart when decanted, becoming more like an astringent, bitter, acid-laced mouthwash. Such older wines should be stood upright for several hours before opening. They should be poured slowly from bottle to glass, with care being taken to stop the pour as soon as sediment appears in the neck of the bottle. Swallowing sediment may not be the most pleasant thing in the world, but I have never known it to kill anyone.

If interested in decanting wines, spend a bit of money on the proper tools and take care in selecting the right decanter. Here are some things to consider:

• Perhaps the most important thing is if the decanter can be cleaned in the dishwasher. Generally, the more expensive a decanter, the less likely it is to be dishwasher-proof. So this might be an instance when cheaper is better.

• The second consideration is the shape of the decanter. Simple is better. A wide mouth is desirable not only for cleaning purposes but also for aerating. Invest in an inexpensive funnel that will fit into the wide mouth of the selected decanter for ease of transferring wine to decanter.

• Thirdly, consider the weight of the decanter. A standard bottle of wine weighs approximately two pounds. Pick the decanter up and imagine how it would feel when filled with a bottle of wine.

• Finally, consider the shape of the decanter. It should be comfortable in your hand. Glassblowers get carried away making expensive decanters in artsy shapes. While such decanters may be aesthetically pleasing, they are a bear to use.

If you are not into decanting, most wines can be sufficiently aerated by simply opening the wine and leaving it to breathe in bottle an hour or so before serving.

Pat Kettles writes about wine and spirits every other Wednesday. Contact her at