Wine

Does wine need to breathe?

So, you're traveling for work, and your boss suggests dinner at an expensive restaurant. You're excited because that place specializes in dry aged steaks. Sure, you've been laying off the red meat for the past six months, but your company is paying. You sit down and look at the wine menu, and it’s all clicks and whistles. Your boss orders a nice red wine, a cabernet sauvignon, and, drowning in indecision, you say, “That sounds great, I'll have one too.” The waiter disappears briefly, returns with a bottle of wine, and pours some into your boss’s glass. He grabs the glass by its base and swirls it around creating a mini whirlpool. You think to yourself, Oh, I've seen someone else do that before, but are unsure of its meaning or significance.

In a few words, he was letting his wine breathe.

What is breathing?

Letting the wine breathe, or aerate, is all about releasing the aromas and softening the flavors by exposing it to oxygen. The idea is that the wine has been sealed in a bottle with limited exposure to oxygen. However, it is important to remember that oxygen is the primary reason that wine goes bad in the first place; so, you will want to avoid overexposure— unless you want to drink vinegar.

How do you aerate?

Just pouring the wine from the bottle into a glass does a bit of aeration, especially if you swirl the glass, or let it sit for a bit before taking a sip. However, there are more efficient ways to aerate. One way is decanting. Decanting is pouring the contents into another container which does a better job at increasing the oxygen to wine ratio. For home use, you’ll want to get a decanter— a glass vessel that has a narrow neck and a wide base. You can find many reasonably priced ones. Typically wines can benefit greatly from brief periods of aeration by decanting; however, other wines, such as syrah, can benefit from even longer periods of decanting— typically up to two hours.

What wines need to breathe?

I threw together a quick table describing just how much each of the different types of wines need aeration, ranging from more (longer, or extended periods of times), to none (no time at all).

More
  • Younger wines
  • Wines with a lot of tannins
  • Cheap wines
  • Vintage port
Less
  • Mature (older) red wines
  • Wines with sediment
  • Light bodied reds like pinot noir
None
  • Most whites
  • Sparkling whites

Notes:

  • Cheap wines can sometimes have a sulfur taste or smell that can easily be removed by letting it air out for a bit.
  • Mature wines do not need as much aeration, but are often decanted to release the aroma and remove the sediment--which is very common with older wines.
  • White wines and pinot noir can be decanted, but don't really need it.

Wrapping up

Although there are arguments for and against aerating wines, at the end of the day, enjoying your wine is a matter of personal preference. Aerating wine is one tool to achieve a desired outcome— in this case, helping to open up the aromas and smooth out the flavor profiles of the wine; and, ultimately make the wine more palatable for many people. There isn't really a great way to speed up the decanting process, but if you consider that a reasonable amount of time for decanting wine is around 25-35 minutes, you can easily be getting a block of cheese out of your fridge, up to room temperature, and sliced in that time.

Photo by Jenny Downing