I’ve long heard of people decanting wine and letting wine breathe. I had always thought that was some basic wine snobbery. I’m sure many feel the same way. I even recall jokes about letting wine breathe on TV shows. Like an episode of Where I Met Your Mother where Marshal and Lily are attending some party and waiting impatiently to drink the wine that the wine snobs at the party are letting breathe before they allow it be served.
So, yeah, I never let my big red wines breathe. Open and drink. Good enough.
I was wrong.
How I Discovered the Concept of Letting a Wine Breathe
I discovered how letting a wine breath can really open it up rather haphazardly. It was a bottle of 2010 Hester Creek Character. A Bordeaux style blend from the Southern Interior of British Columbia. I did not set out to let this wine breath. I opened it, poured a glass and began to drink, as usual. But it was a rather slow drinking night. So with each glass I poured (the bottle remained open the whole time) I began to notice the wine getting smoother and smoother. The buttery chocolate notes seemed to come out a bit more and more with each glass.
Eureka! This is why you let wine breath!
Let me rephrase that. This is why you let good tannin rich deep red wines breath.
What Wine’s Should be Allowed to Breathe?
Not all wines need to, or should be allowed to breathe. It’s the big bolder reds, the ones meant for aging, that you should let breathe before drinking. Think Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, or Shiraz and the big red Bordeaux style blends. But even among those wine varieties not all need to breathe. Cheaper mass produced wines, the commodity wines, are produced to be drunk young. No further aging required. They won’t and can’t get any better with age or with letting them breathe.
Why Let Wines Breathe?
Basically you are exposing the wine to oxygen which reacts with the tannins and other complex organic compounds in the wine. To some extent, for wines that benefit greatly from aging in the bottle, you are simulating and speeding up the aging process. Not exactly, but sort of.
Tannins, or tannic acid, give wines that astringent mouth puckering feel. Tannins are a long protein chain and the flavor receptors, where they interact with the surface of our tongue, exist at the ends of each chain. With age these chains slowly pair up to form longer chains, effectively diminishing the number of receptor ends. This is how the tannins in wine mellow with time.
Instead of letting the wine age, by letting it breathe the tannins will oxidize and form different compounds at the receptor ends, effectively turning some of those receptors off. A very different process from chain building with age, but a very similar effect on your tongue.
As the wine oxidizes it changes the flavor profile as well. This is the reaction with the other organic compounds, flavor compounds or aromatics in the wine (phenols, esters, carbonyls, etc). Certain flavors that may only be a faint hint can come forward more with breathing time, others may take a back seat.
How Long Should Wine Breathe
The length of time a wine should breathe will vary from wine to wine. As well as your method. Experiment with your favorite wines to fine an optimal resting period. If you use a decanter it will not need as much time as simply popping the cork early and letting it sit.
At time of this writing I do not own a decanter. So I just open the bottle and let them sit. At a minimum I shoot for an hour breathing time. Some of the bigger Bordeaux style blends I’ve been drinking lately do better with 2 to 3 hours breathing time. If I was using a decanter I might cut those times in half. The act of pouring the wine into the decanter does a fair amount of aeration and the wider neck of the decanter exposes more surface area of the wine to the air while you let it breath.
Note that by oxidizing wine you are speeding up it’s journey towards it’s ultimate existence. Vinegar. If you let it breathe too long it will become sour tasting.
Final note. If you don’t have time to wait, but wish you did because you know that wine would benefit from some breathing time, you can always try hyper-decanting. Crazy and blaspheme to some, but I’ve tried it and it does work. I pour a single serving of wine into a standard drinking glass or a tumbler. Using a small wire wisk spin it back and forth using the palms of your hands, like you were spinning a stick to make fire. Spin for 10 to 20 seconds. Pour from standard glass into you wine glass. Presto. 2 hours breathing time in 10 seconds. You could also use a hand blender, or pour the whole bottle into a full sized blender and hyper-decant it all at once.