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The Decanter

Report of the lecture given by
Andy McConnell
on October 27th 2010

Andy Mc Connell started his unconventional presentation by finding out on a show of hands, that only a tiny proportion of the hall-filling audience decant their wine before serving it. He told us that the reason why we should decant wines before serving them were firstly aesthetic - a decanter on the table is more attractive than a bottle - and secondly, that decanting the wine and only then serving it substantially enhanced the wine's flavour.

Apparently, vessels for serving wine were known about 5,000 years BC, but he restricted his talk largely to glass decanters. He said that glass decanters were known at the time of Christ. He started by showing us a slide of a decanter 1,500 years old, but said that the expertise for glass blowing decanters started much earlier with the Middle Eastern Arabs. Their practices in this regard were absorbed by the Romans, and it is to them that we owe the spread of the practice to Western Europe.

Moving to more modern times, he showed us a slide of a so-called Delftware decanters, which he described as being like white-washed flower pots. He took us through later Stuart period productions, explaining as he went along that the British made decanters of the time were inferior to those made on the Continent. It seems though that our production improved by the adoption of practices brought here by the Huguenots as they fled here from France. Improvement was also assisted by a Royal decree forbidding the destruction of forests for wood burning for glass smelting. Coal took its place, resulting in stronger glass being produced due to higher temperatures produced by coal burning. Glass production was also improved considerably by discoveries enabling smelters to incorporate rock crystal and lead in to their glass.

In the early 18th Century decanters with fattened bottoms were usual. Such bottoms made the decanters more stable. In about the middle of the century though, glass wine storage was revolutionized by the production of round bottles with stoppers, thus facilitating the practice of laying down wine bottles for storage, an event Hugh Johnson, the renowned writer on wine, described apparently as the event that democratized wine. The problem of wine degradation through ultra violet light penetrating bottles was overcome by the introduction into the glass of sulphur from the coal fuel for smelting which turned the glass green, as it persists today.

It was not until the middle of the 18th Century that wine decanters on the dining table came to be accepted. Prior to that, the wine containers were on the sideboards. That in turn led to larger wine glasses and ever more decorative decanters. Industrial developments in the 19th Century led to cheaper production methods and more advanced decorative techniques such as acid etching, while the 20th century saw strangely shaped decanters being made to satisfy fashion.

Audience questions elicited advice that a decanter stained white with calcium from the use of hard water should be professionally cleaned, but that 3 tablets of a denture cleaner in hot water should remove wine deposit. Decanters with wide bottoms are to be preferred, and white wine decanters should be cooled in the refrigerator before the wine is served. The presentation ended with a strangled cry from Andy as he responded to a question by saying that one should never try to remove air from a decanter where the wine has not been fully consumed. Such wine will keep well for 3 days.

The presentation was marked by excellent slides and some unusual humour.

Brian Pistorius

Andy McConnell is one of Britain's leading authorities on glassware of all types, and his books have covered the subject from 1650 to the present. He is the first glass specialist recruited to BBC TV's Antiques Roadshow, for which he has recorded three series. He lectures widely on glass and has written for journals as diverse as The Times, Country Life, BBC Homes & Antiques and Glass Circle News. Italy.