How Long Should Wines Breathe?

By Barbara Ensrud


One of the ongoing controversies concerning wine is the breathing question. How long should a wine “breathe” before serving it, or more to the point, drinking it? Breathing, of course, is wine jargon for aeration, exposing the wine to oxygen. Contact with the air has a big impact on wine; it interacts with flavor molecules, in effect opening them up to release aromas and a burst of flavors for the taste buds.

 

If you’ve opened a bottle and found it a little funky, or perhaps not giving much of either aroma or flavor — even simple wines such as Beaujolais or Pinot Grigio — you may have discovered that the second sniff ’n sip is better. That’s because air has already done a little work on it — especially if you’ve swirled it around a bit to gather in even more air. Part of what is going on is aging. Air is wine’s friend — up to a point; ultimately, however, it becomes the enemy. Wines are sealed against air to prevent premature oxidizing, which eventually turns them madeira-like (maderized) or vinegary. Cork has been used as the seal for centuries — quite a story on its own (but that’s for another day) — because it appears to allow minute quantities of air into the bottle so that the wine evolves slowly over the years — one year or two for some but up to 10, 20, even 30 or more for deep, well-structured wines such as fine Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon, certain Rhône reds and syrah/ shiraz.

 

There are different theories about letting wine breathe. Traditionally, it was recommended that a wine be opened about half an hour before serving. But just how much air can get into the neck of a wine bottle that is the size of a nickel? Not really enough to make a difference, unless you pour off two or three ounces

 

I’ve had a chance recently to check this out with wines of different ages in sorting my wine collection into new cellar conditions. The big discovery is that I have way more wine than the new space will accommodate. Tonight, for instance, I opened a 1980 Sebastiani Cabernet Sauvignon, Best of the Vintage from the Eagle Vineyard — made from selected best lots. It bore a special label with a dramatic photo of an American eagle soaring over the vineyard. Frankly, I didn’t expect much from this 27-year-old red, but I have to say something about California wines of the 1980s. The best ones were really well made, as I’ve discovered on more than one occasion.

 

We thought they were big then — at 13 percent or 13.5 percent alcohol, they were bigger and riper than Bordeaux of that era — but compared with today’s ripeness levels and alcohols of 14.5 percent and higher, California reds of the ’80s (notably 1980, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1989) are proving again and again how well-made and age worthy they were. This 1980 was a revelation. With wines this old, you have to be careful about letting them breathe. They may be fragile and can’t stand up to much aeration. So I stood the 1980 upright for a day and pulled the cork — soaked through but intact — and decanted it.

 

Decanting aerates a wine quickly — one reason to decant a young tannic red to make it drinkable sooner. The 1980 amazed me because, once decanted, the aromas of ripe berries exploded out of the glass and the intensity of flavors followed. And they didn’t dissipate! A good 45 minutes later, both were still vivid, lively and the aftertaste still long and tasty.

 

Just goes to show: you can’t predict. You have to open, pour and taste. On another recent evening I opened the Faiveley 2005 Bourgogne Rouge and was initially disappointed. It was a little thin, surprising since 2005 is an outstanding vintage in Burgundy (see Wine Buy of the Month). So I left it overnight, uncorked, thinking I would pour it out. As usual, though, I gave it another taste and found that — after 24 hours — the fruit had come forward and rounded it out into something much more enjoyable. Twenty-four hours of breathing is not typically recommended, but not unheard of. In Italy, the producers of Biondi-Santi Brunello di Montalcino always recommend aerating that amount of time. I’ve certainly experienced other Italian reds such as Super Tuscans and Barolos that tasted better a day, sometimes two after opening — with the cork in, of course.

 

The fact is, it’s difficult to pronounce a rule of thumb for aerating wine. Despite the caveat, however, I do have a few guidelines for letting wines breathe:

 

1. For young reds, 2 to 5 years old: open and either decant or pour off a glass to allow air into the bottle. The wine will soften and open with exposure to air.

 

2. Wines 7 to 10 or 12 years old: decant or pour and let them breathe in the glass; watch them unfold.

 

3. Older wines, 15 to 20 years or older: stand upright at least a day or 24 hours so the sediments can slide to the bottom; decant carefully just before serving (for decanting techniques, see my Web site: www.bewinewise.com/winetips.html).

Very old wines can be fragile and lose intensity within 10 or 15 minutes.

 

 

WINE BUYS OF THE MONTH

 

Véro Pinot Noir 2005, Maison Joseph Drouhin, France, $18-23.

This red Burgundy — a basic entry-level Bourgogne Rouge — is a great indication of how good the 2005 vintage is: clean, bright flavors of black raspberry and black cherry, with nice concentration make for a very tasty, drinkable Pinot. Delicious with duck, roast pork, grilled chicken legs, sausages, liver and onions, goat cheese with black pepper or herbs.

 

Childress Vineyards 2006 Riesling, North Carolina, $13.

A lovely Riesling, fragrant with charming floral accents, beautifully balanced with a hint of sweetness but crisp acidity that finishes dry. Excellent for Asian foods but delightful for sipping on its own. Kudos to Childress winemaker Mark Friszolowski!

 

Speaking of North Carolina, September is harvest month (even though this drought-driven year it began in August). This is a great time to visit wineries, when they are in full swing with a new vintage, enjoying a picnic on the grounds as most NC wineries have such facilities. The second edition of A Guide to North Carolina’s Wineries (John F. Blair, $16.95) is out in paperback and it’s a must-have for those interested in our rapidly growing wine industry. Authors Joseph Mills and Danielle Tarmey do a valiant job of keeping up and telling the stories of North Carolina winegrowers — as well as providing the latest statistics, grape profiles, addresses and contact information for each winery. Check it out.