Vintage view: Wine decanters

A jug decanter in John Singer Sargent's "A Dinner Table at Night" —c.1884.

WINE decanters of the 18th and 19th century have a fascinating history rooted in the feasts of ancient empire and the re-energising skill of Venetian glass makers of the Renaissance.

Even early and lavishly finished decanters (with care) can still be made use of today. Most will hold one to two 75cl bottles of wine, although I did discover there is some debate on the real benefits of decanting.

I asked Irish Examiner wine expert Leslie Williams, to raise a glass of wisdom on the subject.

“Decanting,” explains Leslie, “adds oxygen which is great for young and inexpensive wines — you are in effect artificially aging the wine. However decanting also unsettles the wine and knocks it about. Make sure to decant a half hour before you want to serve dinner. That inexpensive Argentinean Malbec could benefit quite a bit.”

Of course, decanters were never just a matter of getting the wine to the glass in good condition, the Georgian and Victorian gentleman was a show off, and wine accessories expressed good taste in everything else that mattered, not least the vibrant trade in expensive imported booze.

There are a few signature forms. An early decanter would be anything made before around 1830.

Early globe and shaft decanters have a wide bulbous onion like base and a long upright neck rather than definite shoulders seen in later wine bottle styles. They can have a foot to the body to just sit on the table.

Sugar loafs decanters are wide at the base but rise in a soft shoulder, named for the solid blocks of sugar sold in the 1700s. Mallets look like an old carpenter’s mallet and were shaped by being blown into a form. A port magnum is named for its volume, and holds about one bottle of wine.

Ship’s decanters (known affectionately as Rodneys in the trade) appeared in the late 17th century and have especially broad, hefty bottoms to keep them from sliding off a listing table.

Flat to the table or cone shaped, they are generally twice the weight of a standard decanter or carafe. The stopper will often be upright and flat for a good grip on choppy seas. The Victorians were mad about ship’s decanters so expect what you see to be late 19th century rather than Georgian.

What distinguishes many early decanters is the fabulous cutting applied to the clear glass body. Cutting the neck of a decanter or adding glass rings gave a good grip when decanting and pouring, and consequently you should be able to slide your fingers comfortably between the rings of a genuine, period decanter.

The shoulder, neck and body can be lavishly decorated with cuts including stars, lozenges, diamonds, hobnails, cabochons and panels. A port decanter may have simple fluting cut up from the base intended to hide sediment inevitable in an old port.

After the 1830s, there are plentiful examples of coloured decanters, typical of the popular flash of late Victorian. Coloured glass was also used for cheering up the presentation of spirits in the 19th century.

Bristol blue with its rich cobalt, toothy shade of milk and cased coloured glass are good examples, but you can find decanters in just about every shade over the blue, ruby and emerald spectrum, some wheel engraved into to reveal the clear glass beneath or gilded with identifying words on a cartoon label, transfer printed decoration or simply painted images. A star cut to the base may indicate a Bohemian maker.

Look for decanters without chips or cracks. The stopper should be a good tight fit and appropriate to the decanter. Georgian decanters could be in multiples and stoppers were often mixed up during serving, so being 100% sure that a stopper and decanter were made together can be tricky. Victorian decanters often are numbered on the base and stopper to match.

Some decanters never had stoppers at all, but look inside the neck to see signs of one that may have parted company at some time.

Flat mushroom stoppers were notorious for rolling off the table and many are recent replacement. Zoomorphic claret jugs from the Victorian era are highly collectable and with silver mounts, drunk with heady expense.

I asked Leslie if there are wines that really deserve and need proper, old style decanting. “Yes, Vintage Port (or the rarely seen Crusted Port) which has a lot of sediment. Stand the bottle upright for a few hours first and then slowly pour into the decanter in good light until you see the sediment appear.

30 year old Vintage Bordeaux may have sediment, but decanting is not usually recommended. The extra oxygen may damage a fragile wine (and you may not know how fragile it is until after it is decanted and that is too late).”

Does he have any treasured vessels? “My favourite decanter is my half bottle decanter and I have a couple of them. If I do open Vintage Port it rarely gets drunk in one go. A half decanter allows you to keep the second half of the bottle for later in the week. I also like my ships decanter which at least I can’t knock over.”

Leslie recommends a look at Riedel Decanters for their sheer beauty, the designs of which the makers suggest can improve flavours in particular wines such as Syrah. Leslie remains tight-lipped on this claim and clearly sceptical.

For some of the most beautiful, authentic period decanters on the market, then go to Robin Butler’s collection at: www.butlersantiques.com.


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