To breathe or not to breathe? That is a question I am often asked by perplexed wine lovers.
No, I'm not referring to the actual act of breathing, but rather to a term used in the wine lexicon to describe the somewhat controversial practice of aerating or decanting wine to improve both the aroma and taste of the stuff.
While it is undoubtedly true that 99 percent of all wine produced is ready to be drunk when it becomes available in the marketplace, what you won't know until you try it is whether the wine will actually drink better if you allow it to "breathe." Yet some people think that merely removing the cork will suffice in allowing enough oxygen to aerate the wine. Unfortunately, removing the cork allows only a minuscule amount of air into the bottle. Properly aerating a wine in this manner would take about two weeks.
Knowing when and how long to aerate a wine is a matter of judgment and experience. The idea is to decant the wine into a larger, more open container to allow a generous amount of oxygen to aerate the liquid and release the aromas and flavors that have been locked up in the bottle.
In reality, oxygen can be both friend and enemy to the wine we drink, depending upon the varietal type and age of the product. For example, I believe that young red wines always benefit from aeration. The process of decanting and letting these wines breathe for an hour or so can transform them from virtually tasteless and inert liquids into delicious beverages with pleasing aromas. On the other hand, aeration will also expose and magnify any flaws in the way a wine will taste or smell.
For older wines (20 years plus), my rule of thumb is to stand the bottle upright for a day before opening to allow the sediment- which is a natural byproduct of the aging process - to settle on the bottom of the bottle. Then the question is: Should I decant it and, if so, how long should I allow the wine to breathe before consuming it?
Most times, I decant older wines right before serving to preserve the delicate flavors and complexity that have been bottled up over time. I've had the unfortunate experience of allowing a 30-year-old California cabernet (which tasted wonderful right after decanting) to sit in a carafe for an hour before drinking it only to find that it had turned into something akin to Drano.
On another occasion, at a dinner party where everyone brought at least one bottle of wine, I forgot that I had opened a 25-year-old Barolo and mistakenly allowed it to sit for 24 hours in a decanter. The next day, to my utter amazement, the wine had morphed into liquid Nirvana with exotic aromas of violets and spice, and luscious flavors of chocolate and dark fruit.
So here's what I think: Reds less than 10 years old, particularly the heavier-bodied varietals such as cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel and syrah, etc., will benefit from a half-hour to an hour of aeration. However, one other factor to consider is the particular vintage year. If wines from a specific vintage were known to be fuller-bodied, for example, they might require even more aeration than ones from vintages where the wines were lighter in style. Older reds should be decanted and immediately poured into glasses and consumed since they tend to fade quickly once they are exposed to air.
Some fuller-bodied white wines such as chardonnay and Alsatian varietals (including Gewurztraminer, Riesling and pinot gris) will also improve from a half-hour to an hour in a carafe. In addition, very sweet wines such as Sauterne or late-harvest Riesling can improve with decanting.
Finally, the conditions under which the wine was stored will have a great bearing on how well the wine will stand up to air. Poorly stored wines will generally accelerate the aging process and thus be less tolerant of aeration. One quick clue to judge the condition of a bottle of wine is to check the level of the wine in the neck of the bottle. If the level is lower than normal, that could mean the wine has not been stored properly. In which case, you probably will want to open it carefully and taste it right away to determine whether it is drinkable.
So, like everything else associated with wine appreciation, there are no hard-and-fast rules, just opinions. Mine is: Pour the wine in a decanter, pour yourself a small glass and give your wine a little breathing space.
For more on the art and craft of wine, visit John Brown's WineBoy blog at thegazz.com.