caroline1(7b)August 8, 2006

Hello all,

Its fun to learn and try wines. Let's keep posting & get some conversations going, ok?

Here's something I've been wondering about: 'letting the wine breathe'. What exactly does this mean? For how long? Which wines? etc, etc.

I ask because last night I opened a Zinfandel I'd never had before (Dancing Bull). It started out super soft (almost water-like) and very plummy - too plummy. Then within about 20 minutes it was more like a proper Zin. I imagine it was because of the breathing thing... So, I have to ask about it!

Thanks for sharing,


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I dunno... I have read that there's two schools of thought, one, that oxygen is good for it, or two, that wine and oxygen don't mix, that the minute air hits it, it starts to degrade or something. I am not sure where I stand.

    Bookmark   August 11, 2006 at 8:41PM
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dgriff(z8 VA)

I open all of my bottles up except for whites at least an hour before I consume them. For newer wines the oxygen does help to blow off and intergrate some of the chemicals.

    Bookmark   August 15, 2006 at 1:16PM
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mrsmarv(M-H Valley/z 6A)

We decanter our wines about 1/2 hour to 1 hour before consuming. The proper decanter is also important. It should have a wide almost flat base/body with a flared neck/top. When you are pouring the bottle into the decanter, you'll see the wine 'spread out' through the neck to the bottom of the decanter. This will help release the different flavors in the wine, while letting it breathe. We learned this from visiting wineries in our area and in the Finger Lakes region of NY. We didn't believe that there could be such a difference in the taste of the wines (we drink mostly dry reds) but we had fun doing quite a few taste tests with friends ;o) Whenever possible, we decanter our wine.

    Bookmark   August 16, 2006 at 8:55AM
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So you'd say pretty much all reds to do that?

    Bookmark   August 17, 2006 at 1:47PM
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Several reasons to decant wine. You may want to blow off "bottle funk". The sulfur compounds that are in wine can get to be kind of stinky and initially, not pleasant to some people, so you let that blow off. Chateauneuf du Pape for example, is made with grenache, which oxidizes easily, so winemakers add lots of sulfur. Over time, this gets funky. In addition, they often have mourvedre in that wine and on its own it has a very "leathery" or "earthy" scent. So the wine you are starting with has something to do with the funkiness. Barolos and lots of Tuscan wines are similar.

Another reason to decant is that with a very young wine, the tannins may not yet have integrated and the wine may be somewhat disjointed so allowing some air to mix in will kind of "age" the wine, although it won't really be aging. And since many wines are not very good and are sold young, they are pretty rough and the decanting allows them to smooth out a bit.

Pick a widely available wine - Columbia Crest Grand Estates cabernet sauvignon, for example, can be found in most states fairly readily. It is under $10. It is not a "bad" wine but it will never be extraordinary. I think it's a very good example of an inexpensive rather pedestrian wine, perhaps akin to one of the "country" wines in Europe - something for dinner that is not particularly memorable. Decant it for a couple of hours. Then open another bottle and taste side by side. That way you won't waste money on something expensive, but you won't have something that is undrinkable either.

Most big young wines really benefit from some air IMO.

Another reason to decant is to eliminate sediment. Ports that are 30-40 years old are usually quite full of sediment. Other wines that have not been filtered may also have lots of sediment.

Old wines are another matter. Sometimes they can be decanted, but generally a wine that is maybe 30 - 40 years old or more, other than a Port, should be tasted first. Sometimes those wines are quite fragile and while they taste fine right out of the bottle, they can fall apart very quickly once the bottle has been open a while. In general, I would say that it is rather dangerous to decant them for that reason. Beating the air into the wine while decanting may be the last gasp of the wine.

The exact shape of the decanter is not particularly important - usually there is a wider bottom to provide stability and provide a larger surface area, but remember that most of the design decisions are made for aesthetic, rather than scientific, reasons. So in a pinch, I have used an old milk bottle. Needed to decant some old Port and had nothing else handy.

Finally, a lot of the wines from south France and Italy have a good shot of brettanomyces because the wineries aren't always clean, so that adds to the funk. Burgundies are also classic for this. Some people say that a little bit of brett helps, others disagree. University of California Davis always preached clean wineries, so most American wineries do not have a brett problem and they also don't have that "earthiness" that some people kind of like. That doesn't really go away entirely with decanting.

As far as what heathen said - oxygen and wine do not mix. That is why bottles are sealed with corks and why the winemakers "top up" the barrels periodically to replace anything that has evaporated or been removed for tasting. However, this is over time. You want the chemical processes to take place in the absence of oxygen (some people believe that the cork is supposed to allow some oxygen to pass - too much to cover here) but as mentioned earlier, when you are drinking the wine, you MAY want some of those processes to speed up. If a wine has recieved oxygen, it acquires a very distinct taste. You can try a Madiera or some types of sherry to learn about that.

    Bookmark   August 17, 2006 at 6:42PM
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here are two articles saying breathing does nothing for a wine...

But some people feel more comfortable with old ways... but here's a little article..

MYTH: Wines taste better when allowed to "breathe" and get "smoother" the longer they are open.
IMPLICATION: All wine should have the cork removed long before consumption and the longer the better.
ORIGIN: The only substance other than grapes traditionally added to make wine is sulfur, which prevents the wine from oxidizing (spoiling). In the traditional application of sulfur, experience was often more of a factor than science and excess frequently left wines stinking of sulfur dioxide (burnt match), hydrogen sulfide (rotten egg), or mercaptan (skunk). In young wines, these stenches often are volatile and not chemically bound in solution, thus some aeration can alleviate the problem. If not removed prior to bottling, however, the sulfur compounds can bind over time with other elements and become harder if not impossible to remove. Another basis for breathing is that wine seems to get "smoother" over the course of a meal or overnight.

REALITY: Simply removing the cork to allow the wine to "breathe" has no effect whatsoever.
APPLICATION: The waiter, sommelier, or "expert" is wasting your time by simply removing the cork without decanting the bottle. It has been scientifically proven1 that the narrow space of the bottle neck where the wine can contact air is inadequate to produce any change within a period of even 24 hours, let alone a few minutes.
MY CONTENTIONS: I first became suspect of the value of "breathing" in 1974, when, in wine appreciation classes, we drank two different bottles of 1899 (not a misprint) Sierra Madre Zinfandel. These 75-year-old bottles were throwing a very silty sediment and so we decanted them to remove it. The first bottle had a wonderful, heady, cigar-box nose when we pulled the cork, but by the end of the 30 seconds or so we took to decant it, the aroma had almost entirely vanished. So, when we opened the second bottle, we beckoned everyone gather around the decanting table to enjoy the fleeting sensation.

Modern methods of wine hygiene and low-sulfur production techniques have greatly reduced the occurrence of sulfur-compound stinks in wine, rendering aeration at serving moot. The phenomenon of wines "changing" over the course of a dinner to become perceptively "smoother" is a function more of physiology than chemistry.

In the time window of one or two hours during which it is consumed, the wine does not change so much as the wine taster changes. That first taste of wine includes the very slightly painful sensations of heat from the alcohols and pucker from the acids and tannins. As the wine is consumed, not only does the palate adapt, becoming more tolerant and less sensitive to these stimuli, but the tastebuds and brain also become more and more anesthetized from the effects of ethanol. As the initial shock dissipates, the taster becomes aware of more subtle complexities. The wine seems to taste smoother and more complex, when it is in fact the taster's sensitivities that undergo the most rapid and greatest degree of change. (see Taste: A User's Manual)

As far as (especially) big red wines tasting smoother the day after opening, I suspect most of the smoothness comes from the very slight evaporation and reduction in ethanol, the most volatile component, but this at the expense of the aromas which have dissipated.

Before you argue against this point, try an experiment (with no deviation or prejudice). It requires two bottles of the same wine, preferably from the same case, two identical decanters, masking tape, a pen, and an assistant (although this exercise is more instructive and fun with additional tasters). The morning of your tasting, open and decant one bottle. Do not open the other bottle. Out of sight, the assistant uses the pen and masking tape to mark each bottle and its corresponding decanter (with a random mark, such as X and O) to keep track. Several hours later, but immediately before tasting and out of sight of the taster(s), he decants the second bottle. The wines are then immediately poured "blind" for the tasters to decide which bottle (decanter) smells and tastes best. Most of the time, the just-opened bottle wins. The results, furthermore, will be consistent, whether using young or aged wines, whether white or red, and whether the tasters are experienced or not.

A great deal of the pleasure of wine comes from smell. The smells in wine are comprised of Volatile Organic Compounds. Some VOCs are present in such minute concentrations and are so volatile that they may be exhausted and disappear completely with only a few seconds of aeration. Is it worth sacrificing these scents for what amounts to superstition that has no scientific basis?

MY ADVICE: If you are unwilling to forgo the "breathing" ritual and truly place great value in allowing your wines to aerate, simply pulling corks won't do it. Decant the wine, regardless of an absence of sediment. However, you must keep in mind that the older the bottle of wine, the more brief the aroma window, so gather your friends around to appreciate the fragrances as you decant to remove any sediment and then pour that wine at once!

And, if you are tempted to spend money on one of the many devices on the market that promise "instant breathing" or "accelerated aging", please consider instead purchasing a bottle of Dr. Jim's Cure-All Snakeoil (its placebo effect is guaranteed to solve all ailments but stupidity) ...

(Post Script: the unpleasant, musty smell that comes from the presence of TCA, often referred to as "corkiness", unfortunately will not dissipate, no matter how long the wine is open, nor how violent the decanting.)

    Bookmark   August 17, 2006 at 11:31PM
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Yep. "Breathing" is not simply removing a cork. And old wines, like that old zin from 1899, may be far too fragile to decant and may fall apart quickly.

As an aside, while most people understand that simply pulling a cork is not going to accomplish much, FWIW, the person in the world who has probably drunk more old wine than anybody and who has the means and the desire to drink the worlds oldest wine, Francois Andouze, recommends pulling out the cork and then loosely replacing it for a few hours when opening bottles of extremely old Burgundies, etc. Since he drinks far more 70 yr old wines than I or just about anyone else, it is hard to challenge that assertion based on the same first-hand experience. I contend that he needs to have 2 bottles, as Heathen suggested above, but at the ages he is drinking, who is to say that the bottles are any longer identical?

However, I don't entirely agree with this: "Modern methods of wine hygiene and low-sulfur production techniques have greatly reduced the occurrence of sulfur-compound stinks in wine, rendering aeration at serving moot."

It's probably true for 90% of the wines found in supermarkets. But it is also one of the debates in the wine world. UC Davis and others preached clean winemaking for many years. However, that is not what is practiced worldwide - brunellos and CdPs, among many many others. Hence, the question is not moot.

Moreover, most German rieslings, for ex, are quite acidic and have incredible levels of free SO2, especially the sweeter ones. This SO2 is what puts some people off of the wine and is what makes it have the characteristic riesling aroma.

As far as the experiment in decanting, of course it is a good idea. And in fact, producers and importers do it all the time. If you are going to show your wines to an important critic for example, you want them to show at their best. So you keep notes on serving temperature, aeration, etc.

If you are going to show a big huge wine that won't be ready in several years, you don't want to take a chance that it is going to seem tight and closed and consequently get a lower score, because people who don't know otherwise will pay attention to that score. So if aeration doesn't matter, so much the better - it's less work for you. But if a couple of your wines show better after some airing, you make sure that you air them before the tasting.

Incidentally, heathen, a couple of the people mentioned in the Moody's article are friends of mine. John Sheldon in particular - we've been getting together with him and his wife and a few other wine people each month for many years now. Thanks for posting the link - I'm going to ask him about it.

    Bookmark   August 18, 2006 at 12:29PM
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Thanks for the education. I'm still processing it, and I may have a few more questions. :-)

    Bookmark   August 19, 2006 at 11:17AM
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Ron Natalie

Heathen. That stuff you posted is a load of crap. All kinds of stuff get added to wine (sulfites are just one). The whole description of sulfites that follows is just pure drivel written by someone without a single clue as to how (at least red) wine is made.

    Bookmark   August 28, 2006 at 2:33PM
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Really ronnatalie? I make my own red wine, and I've known others who make their own red wines. Are you not thinking of WHITE wines which go through other fermentations? Maybe you ought to buy organic. Sounds to me like you need to drink some wine and relax, you're wound a little too tight.

    Bookmark   August 29, 2006 at 10:39PM
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Ron Natalie

No I am not thinking of white wines that go through other fermentations. I am talking about the process of making red white. Even if you don't add campden tablets, the alcoholic fermentation process will produce some as a by product.

Sorry about the "load of crap comment", but I stand by the statement. The article is full of outright mistakes and misconclusions from those mistakes.

    Bookmark   August 30, 2006 at 10:28AM
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Problem is that the guy who wrote the 3d article wants to be "controversial". So he sets up some straw men to knock down. I.e., the article equates "breathing" with removing a cork.

And as Heathen noted, "The first bottle had a wonderful, heady, cigar-box nose when we pulled the cork, but by the end of the 30 seconds or so we took to decant it, the aroma had almost entirely vanished" Seventy years is pretty old for a zin and lots of really old wines can be quite fragile, but clearly the decanting, and "breathing" had an effect on this wine.

Then the idea of aging wine beyond 5 years. I suppose if he is buying the $8 wine at the supermarket, he is correct that not much is going to improve. But who drinks that anyway? And for the people who do, how many really age it and why on earth would they? Doesn't mean that there is nothing to be said for aging wine. Lots of wine is almost undrinkable before it gets 10-20 years. Some of those 1989 Bordeaux are much better now than they were in 1995. Try the 1989 l'Evangile and see if it is past its prime or still way too young.

As far as other stuff getting added - I like to think that nothing gets added except grape juice and maybe some sulfur, but clearly that isn't true. Even in the better wines, in France they can chaptelize, in Germany they were able to acidify during the hot 2003 vintage, and in many places they add coloring, powdered tannins, etc.

At the mass-production level the plan is to get consistency, not quality. At the artisanal level, it depends on the integrety of the winemaker. You might still get crap.

But articles like that Winepros article just adds to confusion by mixing everything up together. A lot depends on the quality of the wine you are talking about in the first place.

    Bookmark   August 30, 2006 at 6:11PM
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Yeah... it is mainly to start controversy. I SHOULD find an article I read a year or two ago in my winemaking mag and copy that... it was a good one.... I couldn't find it online when I searched. My main remembering was the people who insist that any oxygen is detrimental to wine... they have good arguements.... and I know if there's too much oxygen in my carboys when making wine, it'll be ruined. I vacillate on the subject, but like to get people to think instead of just repeating what they've heard. Course if the wine is a bad wine, no amount of not letting it breathe or LETTING it breathe will make it better. :o)

    Bookmark   September 1, 2006 at 1:17PM
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Of course.

But the oxygen in the wine while you are making it, or in the bottle while aging it, or in the glass while drinking it is all different, no?

There is a lot of info regarding corks as stoppers and whether SOME air is needed for proper aging. The Australians have done a lot of research on that - not everyone buys into it tho.

And in the carboys, you are really SOL if you get air in there when you don't want it. I have a buddy in Hungary who ruined a few hundred cases because he had bad barrels and air got into them. Luckily he had already sold it off to a French guy who didn't know and wasn't happy when he got his shipment. Of course, Chirac had just PO'd the Hungarians with the comment about keeping their mouths shut so the French guy wasn't going to get any help from the courts in Hungary.

I'm over there next week to taste some wines in Europe and I am going to bring up this airing thing. We can do it at some of the wineries but I'm going to do it when I come home too - take two bottles, open one & decant for a few hours, and then serve both side by side but not let anyone know which is which. It's always good to try it first hand.
And I see John Sheldon the following Monday for our regular monthly tasting and I'm going to do it to him too, just to see if all those years make a difference!

Take care.

    Bookmark   September 1, 2006 at 9:20PM
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