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/
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
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
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
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.
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.