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How to let a wine breathe, and when – Ask Decanter

Have you ever wondered what letting a wine ‘breathe’ means? Or why it is done?

Letting wine breathe means exposing it to oxygen before drinking it. There are various reasons you might want to do this for your bottle, and also different methods to achieve results depending on the age and style of your wine.

What are the benefits of letting a wine breathe?

If you’ve ever left an opened bottle of wine overnight and noticed that it tastes better the next day, you have experienced the benefits of letting a wine breathe. Letting a wine breathe emulates the process of ageing, where tannins slowly soften and aromas and flavours develop over time.

One key benefit is if you want to drink a youthful red wine – exposure to oxygen will help to soften those tannins and help it to ‘open up’ and reveal more flavours and aromas.

You can let white wines breathe before drinking too, but you will get more benefit from doing this with complex whites such as Puligny Montrachet or Alsace or German Riesling, rather than a wine that’s designed to be drunk in its youth such as Muscadet or New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

Best ways to let a wine breathe

A common way to let wines breathe is to simply pull the cork or remove the screwcap. This isn’t the most efficient method, as only a tiny proportion of wine in the neck of the bottle is exposed to the air, but this can be a good tactic for more delicate wines such as Nebbiolo or Pinot Noir.

‘When I pull a wine from our cellar, I uncork it three or four hours ahead of time for gradual, consistent aeration,’ said Kerin O’Keefe in a column in 2023. ‘If I’m at a restaurant, I order the older red right away, and have them uncork it at the table while I sip a young white or bubbles with my starters and first courses.’

There are kitchen gadgets which make all sorts of claims, some more spurious than others. While the idea that they can ‘make a £5 wine taste like a £100 wine’ is a bit far-fetched, the fact that they are aerating the wine can often lead to a more enjoyable sip.

We couldn’t cover this subject without discussing the decanter! Decanting a wine into another vessel was traditionally used to remove the sediment from mature wines, but today decanting a wine is popular for young wines too, in order to aerate them in preparation for drinking.

If you’re facing a really youthful wine which typically demands years of ageing before opening, you can double decant several hours in advance. This involves pouring the wine into a decanter, leaving it for a period of time, then pouring it back in to the bottle (after giving it a rinse).

The action of pouring exposes the wine to oxygen, so doing this twice maximises the effect of aeration and will ultimately make the wine drinkable earlier.

‘It’s good for the young vintages to do this, for more aeration,’ said Pierre Graffeuille, director of Château Léoville Las Cases, at a masterclass of the St-Julien estate’s wines held during Decanter‘s Bordeaux Fine Wine Encounter in 2017.

But beware, double decanting an older or more delicate style of wine can strip it of its complexity and structure.

When should you let a wine breathe?

Letting a wine breathe is typically most useful for more robust wines including Bordeaux, Super Tuscans and Napa Cabernet, which can be decanted without much risk, unless it’s a very old vintage.

More delicate wines including red and white Burgundy, Nebbiolo or Rioja should be treated with care, and might respond better to leaving the bottle open rather than decanting, unless a very young vintage.

Typically, white wines will require less time breathing than red wines, since they don’t have the tannic structure of the latter.

If your wine has mild reductive aromas such as ‘struck match’ or sulphur-like odours, you can give the wine some air (swirling in the glass vigorously is an effective method) and they should eventually ‘blow off’ and reveal the wine’s fruit character.

In 2016, an article in the Journal of Agricultural Chemistry found evidence that ethanol evaporates once a wine has been poured into the glass, slightly lowering the abv content. It said this was strongly influenced by exposure to air.

As part of this process, the researchers noted that: ‘Evaporation also resulted in decreases in the concentration of some fermentation volatiles and a perceptible change in wine aroma.’

Professor Andrew Waterhouse, a wine chemist at UC Davis in California, wrote in Scientific American back in 2004 that ‘a wine’s aroma will change during the first 10 to 30 minutes the bottle is open’.

He said that decanting accelerates the breathing process by encouraging volatile aromas to evaporate and emphasising fruit and oak aromas. However, he also said that decanting may not improve less complex wines designed for immediate consumption, while some white wines’ fruit aromas could actually lose intensity.

Others have argued that advances in winemaking mean that fewer wines require the sort of aeration that might have been considered beneficial in the past.

Letting a wine breath: Top tips

Know your wine

Young, robust wines will respond better to lots of oxygen, while older or more delicate styles will require less intervention.

Use your glass, not a decanter

Use a reasonably sized glass and simply swirl the wine gently (or more vigorously if you’re trying to blow off any reductive odours). When you pour a glass of wine, you’re also dropping the level in the bottle to the shoulder, which has much more surface area for wine-to-air contact than the neck, so you get to enjoy a glass immediately and also reap the benefits of gentle oxygenation in the bottle.

Enjoy over two days

If you have a good bottle of wine, you can enjoy its evolution over a day or two. This will only work with wines built to age, but while on day one it may seems tightly tannic and maybe even a bit austere, by the second day you should notice it has softened and there is more fruit complexity and – ultimately – more enjoyment.

Make sure you replace the cork/screwcap and ideally put the bottle in the fridge to help prevent the wine becoming oxidised (too much oxygen is a bad thing!).

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Decanting wine: When and how to do it

How long does wine last after opening? – Ask Decanter

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