Why does wine need to breathe? Does it need to breathe at all? Certainly exposure to air changes wine. However, the benefits of decanting or aerating wine are not agreed upon universally. As the world of wine has changed, the need and the reasons for decanting have changed too.
As with food pairing, the decision to let a wine breathe shouldn’t strictly follow the red-white dividing line. A wine’s age and grape varietal are better indicators of whether some preparation is required. Some ardently insist there is no benefit to decanting wine, rather that swirling in the glass is all that is required. Some experts believe that even slight oxidation robs the wine of desired aromas.
However, you may find that by decanting a wine, exposing it to oxygen, even immediately before drinking, can help release aromas and open up the bouquet, adding to the overall enjoyment of a wine, and appreciation of its myriad characters.
Decanting red wine
More red wines suit being decanted than whites but not all reds benefit from breathing time. Pinot Noir or Zinfandel are just examples that improve little if at all. Bigger, younger, more tannic reds can open up by being decanted. This processed aerates and ‘ages’ the wine. Very old reds don’t necessarily need to be can but can benefit from the bottle being opened and left to stand prior to drinking.
Blockbuster reds, typically those from the Barossa Valley, develop very well being decanted for around two hours. The even-more tannic Nebbiolo, most notably those from the Barolo region of Italy, can benefit another hour in the decanter.
Aged red wines will form a sediment as they mature. This is completely natural and a result of tannins and other solid matter in the wine that gradually settles as the wine ages. Since tannins can often be bitter, the presence of this sediment in an old red wine may indicate that the wine will be smoother and more integrated. The secret is to ensure that you keep this sediment out of the wine when you pour it. The best way is to stand the bottle upright (for at least 6 hours before service). Then gently pour the wine out of the bottle into a decanter, stopping as soon as you see sediment appear near the end. A good way to do this is to hold the neck of the decanter in front of candle or another light source so you can see when any particles of sediment appear.
If you have an old red wine with a lot of sediment, try pouring it through a paper coffee filter. But keep the portion poured through the filter separate to the first portion poured out of the bottle as you may find a difference in flavour and character between the two.
Decanting white wine
While the red-white divide isn’t a good indicator of whether a wine needs time to ‘open’ up’ or breathe, most white wines don’t require decanting.
Some full-bodied, more mature white wines such as Chardonnay, particularly the white wines of Burgundy, can benefit from a air. Some of these older, pageant wines can show aromas that are the result of the winemaking process but are less appealing – struck match, rotten vegetation, asparagus.
A half an hour of decanting will open up the wine and it will lose the smell of some of these secondary aromas, letting the fruit and any oak characters shine.
The other benefit to decanting
In addition to releasing the full impact of the wine’s bouquet and aromas, the benefits of decanting wine allow room for that most undervalued stage of wine appreciation, observing the colour. A decanter, particularly on a white tablecloth, can reveal the ruby hues of mature red wine or golden honey colours of the best aged white wines like French Burgundies and old Rieslings.
Serve from the decanter or the original bottle
When you’ve decanted a wine, there’s no reason why you can’t pour the wine back into its original bottle (minus any sediment). This is especially handy if you’re taking a bottle out to a dinner party or restaurant. If you’re concerned about leaving the wine exposed to air in the neck of the bottle (for example, a very old wine that might be adversely affected by exposure to oxygen), here’s a tip. Put a few glass marbles into the bottle until the level of the wine raises to the lip of the bottle for screw-cap sealed wines, or just under the cork. This will create an airtight seal preventing any further changes from air exposure. Just make sure the marbles are impeccably clean beforehand, with no traces of detergent or any other materials on their surface.
Opening a bottle to let it ‘breathe’
Some people will take the top off a bottle of red and say “let’s just let it breathe”, leaving the opened bottle standing upright. This is a completely useless exercise. Other than releasing the aromas that would have been captured when the wine was bottled in the space of air between the lid (whether cork or screw cap) and the top of the wine, only the tiny portion at the top of the wine will come into contact with the air having little or no effect on aromas or flavours. The whole point of decanting is to expose as much of the wine to air as possible, where the oxygen can do its work helping to improve – or in some cases, with very old wines – ruin a wine. So the next time someone takes the top off a bottle and says they’ll “let it breathe” your best response would be to offer to immediately give the wine mouth-to-mouth.
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