Letting the Wine Breathe

by Dennis Mayer | November 15th, 2012 | Well-Stocked Bar

This week and next, we’re zeroing in on wines we’ve covered over the past year that will pair well with Thanksgiving dinner — it seems only natural, since the meal is the most touted and, probably, most important family sit-down meal most people have every year. And since this week, we’re talking about reds, let’s take a minute to talk about letting wine “breathe.”

Now, the alcohol and water in wine are both stable, but many of the other flavor compounds that impart the aromas, flavors,  et cetera, that give a wine its specific characteristics are not. (Neither are the tannic compounds that give drier, more bitter wines their bite.) While many of those compounds evolve in the bottle (and their evolution in the barrel, as they age, is crucial to the wine making process), they don’t really start changing until they’re exposed to open air.

Those changes aren’t universally good or bad. Open air can mellow out a wine’s tannins, helping to bring more subtle but modest flavors to the forefront of the flavor. Too much air, though, can mellow out those flavors entirely, leaving you with, essentially, alcoholic grape juice. (Which is all well and good, but it’s probably not what you wanted when you bought the wine.) Here’s the best scientific explanation I could find for the phenomenon, and here’s a decent point-counterpoint.

Generally speaking, red wines that are bitter and tannic (cabernets, malbecs, and the like) can benefit from a bit of breathing — between a half hour and two hours before serving. (The only white that could perhaps benefit from breathing would be some chardonnay.) Breathing doesn’t just mean opening a bottle, though — just look at the size of the opening of a bottle of wine, and you’ll see that not a lot of wine is exposed to the air. To really let a wine breathe, you need to go beyond uncorking:

  • Use a decanter, or other oversized pitcher that will expose a maximum amount of wine to the air. Note that the decanter I’ve linked to would fit much more than a standard 25-oz. bottle of wine. Don’t take that as a sign to pour in more than one bottle — the decanter is designed to hold a full bottle of wine with the surface just hitting the point where the decanter flares out the widest.
  • Alternately, you could pour your wine through an aerator, which disrupts and gurgles the wine, adding air as it flows. Some aerators are designed to fit on the bottle itself; others should be held above the glass.
  • Lacking either a decanter or an aerator, you can simply pour wine into glasses some time before you plan to serve it. This will allow your wine to breathe, as long as you’re using a wine glass with a decent-sized bowl, and not a narrow Italian-style wine glass, which resembles a small Collins glass.
  1. […] but are just fine for drinking everyday table wine. If you can stretch your budget a little bit, a good decanter would pair very well with the wine glasses, and would do a lot to help feature whatever wine she […]

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