How and When to Let Wine Breathe

While most wines will not be harmed by a little breathing, aeration is often a necessary component to serving a fine, red wine. The term breathing, in wine, actually refers to aerating the wine – to allowing oxygen to intermix with the liquid. This is done in wines that have a lot of tannin, and results in a softer, more flavorful wine, that is smooth and tasty.

Tannins are organic compounds that are found in grape skins, grape seeds, stems, and wood. These tannins have antioxidant and preservative properties; they also serve to add structure and texture to the wine, as well as dimensions of flavor within the drink. Some red wines have few tannins in them, and thus should be drunk when very young, while the little tannin there is still flavorful. But tannin rich red wines improve with at least three years of aging. Wines with a lot of tannin, especially tannin rich wines that are being drunk relatively young, benefit greatly from being aerated before consumption. For example, a very young Cabernet Sauvignon, a tannin heavy wine, should be aerated for 30 to 60 minutes to soften the flavor of the tannins.

To properly aerate a wine involves more than simply popping the cork, then letting it sit while you finish making appetizers. Rather, the wine must actually be mixed with the air, allowing the oxygen molecules to mingle through the liquid, much as a fine hostess mingles with her guests. The oxygen must make its way through the red fluid, finding the tannins, and helping to soften their more robust flavor. Simply opening a bottle of wine does not allow sufficient oxygen mixture; the wine must fully contact the air to properly breathe. This can be done in one of two ways, either by decantering or by filling a glass.

Breathing is best achieved through decantering, which means simply, pouring the wine out of the bottle and into a serving decanter. As the wine is poured, it makes excellent contact with the air, allowing oxygen molecules to flow throughout the liquid. Once you have poured the wine into the container, allow it to sit for 10 or 20 minutes, maybe more for very young and hardy wines. This sitting allows the oxygen to fully interact with the tannins. Older wines, especially those over eight years aged, should be drunk immediately upon decantering.

Significantly aged wines do not need to be aerated, and in fact, doing so can push them over the edge, removing the flavor that remains after all those long years in the bottle. Also, very light wines, with little tannins (namely whites and blushes) do not really require breathing. But for a young, deep red wine, aerating is the only way to serve it properly. However, if your guests are arriving, and you suddenly realize that you forgot to let your wine breath, that is alright – there is still time. Simply pour the wine into the individual glasses, leaving them on the dinner table for a few minutes, until the food is ready.

By taking this small amount of wine, and pouring it through the air and into a large wine goblet, each serving will aerate individually, very quickly; this is the same idea behind the swirling of the wine that you often see wine connoisseurs do before they drink. When aerating wine by the glass, hold the bottle at least 6 inches from the glass, then pour the intoxicating liquid into the center of the goblet; this way, the wine has maximum contact with the air, effectively allowing it to breathe. In addition to softening the flavor, letting a wine aerate warms the wine slightly, and releases the aroma of the wine, adding to the drinkers enjoyment of the beverage.