The idea behind letting a wine “breathe” is that giving the wine some exposure to air before drinking may improve it. The fancy name for this is “aeration.” If you’ve ever noticed that a wine seems to change in the glass as you drink it, you’ve noticed the effect of aeration. Here’s a guide to when and how to aerate your wine.
When and why should a wine be aerated?
Aeration is not beneficial for every wine. Exposing tannic wines (like a young Cabernet or Syrah) to oxygen softens the tannins and allows the wine to become more aromatic. If you are drinking a young red wine with strong tannins, consider aerating or decanting. Older reds don’t benefit as much from aeration, and can actually be harmed by it. This is because older wines have already experienced a slow, gradual oxidation process, as the cork allows a small amount of air to circulate in and out of the bottle as the wine ages. White wines do not usually benefit from aeration because the objective is primarily to soften the tannins, which white wines do not normally have.
How do I aerate my wine?
Some aeration happens naturally when wine is poured into a glass and swirled before tasting. To further aerate a wine, you can decant it, which just means to pour it into a decanter, which is a pitcher specifically designed for wine. The act of pouring introduces oxygen, and most decanters have a wide base that increases the amount of the wine’s surface area which is exposed to air. To get the full benefit of decanting, let the wine sit in the decanter for at least 15 minutes. Some young cabernets could even benefit from being left in a decanter for 30 minutes or an hour or more.
Just opening the bottle – “letting the bottle breathe” – does little to aerate the wine. The tiny bottle opening and the small surface area of wine that’s exposed simply don’t create enough contact with the air to have any effect.
There are also gadgets – aerators – designed to increase air exposure while the wine is being poured into glasses. They provide a simpler and quicker alternative to decanting. Sometimes these fit into the bottle neck, and sometimes you have to hold the aerator while pouring the wine through it and into the glass. I strongly prefer models which fit into the neck of the bottle, as opposed to those you have to hold with your other hand while pouring – that’s just awkward.
The video I’ve linked below provides a few more tips on aeration from America’s Test Kitchen. I own the Nuance WineFiner aerator she demonstrates in the video, and I love it. If you don’t own an aerator or a decanter, fear not! They have a few highly unorthodox suggestions that just might work for you…
So the next time you drink a bottle of red wine, aerate a glass or two (by decanting, by using an aerator, or by one of the methods recommended in the video) and leave the rest in the bottle. Then taste and compare the results. I think you’ll be impressed with the difference you taste!