The concept of “allowing wine to breathe” was one that made very little sense to me when I heard about the practice for the first time. Surely, I had learned in my countless tours of cellars with winemakers that one of the most important things in the wine making process, from when the wine goes into the barrels and the bottles, is that air should NOT be allowed near the wine. This is contradictory to the concept of allowing wine to breathe. Leonardo Da Vinci himself (or so many Italians claim) invented a glass device called an “airlock” which is still used today. This device is used to prevent air pockets from forming by replacing the wine that seeps into the wood of the barrel.
When so much thought has gone into separating air and wine, how can allowing wine to breathe be beneficial? It seems these two conflicting ideas can be reconciled quite easily. Many wines can really benefit from breathing. It can “open up” the wine, soften tannins and bring forward flavors and aromas which would otherwise be masked by tannins, sulphites or the alcohol. Before we get to that however, it is important to note beforehand, that not all wines benefit from breathing, or “aeration.”
Rule Of Thumb
Generally, the rule of thumb is the higher the concentration of tannins in the wine, the more likely it is that it will benefit from aeration. This includes mostly red wines, especially the younger ones.
One such wine is the Cape Sun Cabernet Sauvignon. Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the wine varieties which benefit the most from aeration. This wine, in particular, is a medium to full-bodied wine, and by allowing it to “breathe” tannins are softened and the flavors and aromas of the wine enhanced.
How Allowing Wine To Breathe Works
I am not much of a scientist, but luckily it doesn’t take one to understand aeration. After some research, I learned that basically, once a bottle of wine has been opened, two things begin to happen: evaporation and oxidation. The oxygen begins to react with the wine and alter compounds in the wine, while the evaporation slowly begins to remove compounds such as ethanol and sulphites. I like to think of it as all the little wine drops waking up and having a big sleepy stretch and a yawn.
Once I started understanding the principle of aeration, and its benefits, I was keen to start learning about the techniques people use. Turns out it is not difficult (or expensive) to do. There are so many ways to aerate wine, and here they are:
Open the bottle
The wine begins to “breathe” the second the bottle is open. Because the surface area exposed to the air is rather small, this can take a bit longer, so open the bottle a good 30 minutes before you want to drink it. Also: aeration is the reason why wine doesn’t keep well for long after opening it, because of all the breathing, so I recommend “bottoms up”.
Swirl the glass
By pouring it into the glass you are already enlarging the surface area for oxidation and evaporation, but you can speed the process up by giving your glass a few good swirls, allowing wine to breathe better. I always felt very awkward and clumsy doing this when I saw the confidence and panache with which professionals do it, but I believe it is a skill we all can master with enough practice.
Pour the wine into a decanter
If you don’t have a decanter, you can use a big glass jug. I often decant a wine when there is a sediment in the bottle which I want to separate from the wine I intend to drink. This is a “three birds with one stone” technique. You can get rid of sediment, speed up the breathing of the wine, and depending on your choice of decanter, make people think you are very sophisticated and wine savvy simply because you know about using a decanter.
Use an aerator
This is probably the most fun method. There are aerators of every shape, size and price range available, so everyone can find one that suits their needs and budget should they want to make this investment. I recommend that you do.
We often plan meals and games nights around wines that we want to share with our friends. We cannot however always anticipate that a wine we open will need to breathe, and it is in situations such as these, where having an aerator saves the day…or the wine. As the wine is fed into the device, air is pushed through the wine very quickly, resulting in instant aeration.
Since not all wines are created equal, it’s a good idea to do some research on which wines benefit from breathing before going crazy with aerators.
Are you a wine master or enthusiast? Share your thoughts on allowing wine to breathe by commenting below.