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What is Decantation?

By Felicia Dye
Updated May 17, 2024
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Decantation is a process used to separate a mixture. It usually involves removing the liquid portion of a substance while leaving behind the sediment. This process is used in a variety of instances. Red wine is a common example of a substance that is decanted. Wastewater may also be processed using this method.

Insoluble matter is something that does not dissolve in a liquid. Instead, it tends to float and will generally settle if the substance is left at rest. The purpose of decantation is to separate the liquid from this type of matter.

This is done because in many cases the insoluble matter is undesired. In the case of wine, decantation leaves only the liquid, so a person does not have to be concerned with sediment when her glass is agitated. In a case such as wastewater treatment, it removes solids that cannot be broken down or treated along with the liquid waste.

The process of decantation is fairly simple, although some skill and practice may be required if it is done manually. There usually must be a minimum of two containers. One should have the substance that needs to be decanted. The other will be used to collect the liquid.

The substance can be poured from one container to the other. This should be done in such a manner that the insoluble material does not leave the first container. In most cases, a choice will have to be made. Either a small portion of the liquid will need to be sacrificed or a small amount of sediment will need to be permitted in the liquid. It can be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to manually decant all of a liquid.

Decantation is sometimes mistakenly used interchangeably with the word “filtration.” These two processes both accomplish similar goals. They are, however, not the same.

One of the greatest differences is that filtration utilizes a filter, or barrier material, that catches the sediment. With decantation, filters are not used. This means that filtration can be more effective because almost all of the liquid can be recovered.

Another difference is that some degree of settling is generally necessary to decant if the sediment is to be successfully separated. With filtration, however, since there is a barrier, it does not matter if the sediment and liquid are mixed together. This means filtration may not only be easier, but it can also be performed faster.

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Discussion Comments
By RunBoston — On Jun 14, 2011

@jmosh - If you want to decant your wine, you really should buy a decanter. The wide bottom and open top allows the oxygen to reach all of the wine, as long as you swish it around every so often before serving.

A lot of red wines should be aged a little because of the tannins in the wine that make the flavor harsh. The flavor doesn't change exactly, it just becomes smoother and tastes the way it's meant to taste.

And some red wines that have been aged more do have sediment. These are usually the more expensive bottles. The rule of thumb is any bottle of red wine aged more than three years should be decanted.

By Malachis — On Jun 11, 2011

@Lindsay21 - White wine usually isn't aged before serving, so it doesn't benefit from decanting like red wine does. Plus, white wine is meant to be served chilled. Decanting it would mean leaving it out and letting it get warm. Yuck.

By jmosh — On Jun 10, 2011

@ Lindsay21 - How do you decant your wine? I've never noticed "sediment" or anything that needs to be separated from red wine, so I'm not sure what the point is really. Does it actually change the flavor?

By Lindsay21 — On Jun 08, 2011

I always decant expensive bottles of red wine. It really helps to round out the flavor.

It's strange that this is only done for red wines, though, and not white. Anyone know why that is?

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