To air, not to air, that is the real question with wine - WTRF 7 News Sports Weather - Wheeling Steubenville

To air, not to air, that is the real question with wine

Posted: Updated:
John Brown John Brown

John Brown is president of Brown Communications in Charleston. He writes a monthly wine column for The State Journal.

At dinner the other evening at a local restaurant, I asked the waiter if he could decant the rather full-bodied red wine that I had selected to accompany our meal. One of my tablemates looked quizzically at me and inquired why I felt the wine needed to be decanted.

To air or not to air. That is the question I am often asked by perplexed wine lovers. No, I'm not referring to one's wine-stained undergarments here, but to the somewhat controversial practice of decanting wine.

The air we breathe can be both friend and enemy to the wine we drink. Depending upon the wine type and its age, oxygen can transform a tight, tannic, young wine into a mellow and more appealing nectar, or it can turn an old, valuable, complex wine into salad dressing.

Most of us will agree that before we open a bottle of old wine, we should stand it up for a day and then decant the wine so that the sediment (which is a natural by-product of the aging process, particularly in red wine) can be left in the bottom of the bottle.

The burning question here, though, is how long we should allow the wine to "breathe" before consuming it.

Most wine makers will tell you that their wine is ready to drink right out of the bottle, and they're probably right. What they don't tell you is whether or not the wine will actually improve after an hour or so in a decanter.

And hey, you don't need a crystal decanter to aerate your wine. I've used a fruit pitcher. As long as the decanter is clean and free from off tastes or smells (hint: don't use a pickle jar), any open container will do.

Some "experts" suggest that merely removing the cork will suffice in allowing enough oxygen for the wine to benefit. That's completely ridiculous since only a miniscule amount of air actually touches the top-most surface of the wine.

Knowing when to aerate the wine (allowing air to interact with a substance) by decanting it into a larger, more open container is a matter of judgement and experience. Generally, I think that young red wines (under 10 years old) benefit from being decanted.

With older wines, I will also generally decant the stuff right before serving to preserve the delicate flavors and complexity that have been bottled up over time. I've had the unfortunate experience of allowing an older wine (a 30-year old California cabernet) to sit in a carafe for as little as 15 minutes and have literally tasted the wine lose its flavor.

On the other hand, I once mistakenly allowed a 25-year old Barolo to sit for 18 hours in a decanter and the result was a wine with an aroma of violets and spice, and flavors of chocolate and currants. Go figure.

To breathe or not to breathe?

So, here are three factors to consider in weighing whether or not to aerate your wine: the type of wine; the age and vintage date; and the manner in which the wine was stored.

Most fuller bodied red wines such as cabernet sauvignon (to include Bordeaux), zinfandel, Rhone varietals such as syrah and mourvedre along with Italian reds like Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello and Amarone will benefit from at least an hour's worth of decanting.

Decanting white wines is a little trickier. Some white wines such as chardonnay, young sauvignon blanc or Alsatian varietals such as gewurztraminer, pinot blanc, riesling and pinot gris will also improve from a half-hour to an hour in a carafe or decanter. Some sweet whites such as Sauterne or late harvest wines will also improve from several years of bottle age, but delicate whites such as pinot grigio are better left undecanted.

One other factor to consider when contemplating decanting is the particular vintage year of the wine. If wines from a specific vintage were known to be fuller-bodied, for example, they might require even more aeration than ones from lesser vintages (see my example regarding Barolo).

Finally, the conditions under which the wine was stored will have a great bearing on how well the wine will stand up to air. Poorly stored wines will generally accelerate the aging process and thus be less tolerant of aeration. 

One quick clue to how a wine is stored is to check the level of the wine in the neck of the bottle. If the level is lower than normal, that could mean the wine has not been stored properly.

One fun way to test whether or not a wine benefits from aeration in a decanter is to purchase two bottles of the same wine, decant one for an hour and then open the other and evaluate both the wines.

To breathe or not to breathe: you be the judge.