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 market place, what you won’t know until you try it is whether or not 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 miniscule 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 by-product 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.