Part of wine’s mythology is that it needs to “breathe.” Breathing goes along with the idea that wine is alive — it evolves in the bottle and the glass, it has moods, it gets better with age, like the best of us, at least to a point. The idea behind letting a wine breathe, in the bottle, a glass or decanter, is that time and air will allow its flavors to express themselves.
And, of course, there’s an entire industry of wine accessories to help us add air to our wines. Decanters are traditional, elegant and sometimes incredibly expensive. The ritual of decanting is so ingrained in wine tradition that it is included in the service examination for the Court of Master Sommeliers certification program.
More recently, devices called aerators became popular. You pour a wine through this gizmo into your glass or decanter, and a swirling, gurgling effect adds air violently, instantly aging the wine, supposedly. I’ve never been convinced aerators had more than a momentary effect on a wine’s flavor.
The conventional wisdom about allowing a wine to breathe is controversial. Simply pulling a cork or twisting off a screw cap and letting a bottle stand for a while will not add much air to wine — only a little bit of liquid is exposed in the neck of the bottle.
Even decanting has its detractors. Exposing a wine to air allows its aromas to dissipate, not develop, according to this argument. And why would you want to lose flavor?
Keith Goldston, a master sommelier who is beverage director for Landry’s, a national restaurant group based in Houston, is a decanting skeptic.
“In wine, we are always looking for a fail-safe solution,” Goldston says. “I find decanting unpredictable — sometimes it works, sometimes it hurts, sometimes it does nothing at all. It always leaves you more of a mess, and decanters rarely fit in the dishwasher.”
They work for restaurants, though. “I guarantee you, if a restaurant is decanting a lot of wine, they are selling more. But it’s mostly for show.”
But wait — what about those tannic baby reds we are too impatient to age properly?
“The conventional wisdom says big, young reds benefit from decanting, but I’ve found they tend to shut down even more,” Goldston says. A wine “shuts down” when it tastes tight and unyielding, as if it is safeguarding its flavors rather than sharing them.
To be honest, I was skeptical about Goldston’s skepticism. Time after time, I’ve enjoyed wines that clearly blossomed in the hours or even days after I opened them, revealing nuances with each sip. Not every wine, of course, but this has become one way I identify quality in a wine. Sure, the wine could be having a positive effect on me, as could the occasion or conversation, but is this idea of a wine improving simply a mirage?
“A lot of wines have an elegance that, as you pour them out of the bottle and swirl them in your glass, they do get better and more expressive,” Goldston says. “Maybe it’s the time, not just the amount of air.” No fancy toys like decanters or aerators needed.
Goldston concedes that decanting is worthwhile in certain situations. Older red wines, more than a decade past their vintage, are probably throwing some sediment. Decanting allows you to take the wine off that detritus that can make every sip unpleasant. Decant right before drinking though, as these wines have spent enough time in bottle already.
Full-bodied white wines, such as burgundies or skin-fermented orange wines, may also benefit from spending time in a decanter, he says. And if, in the middle of a dinner party, you decide to bring a special wine out of your really cold cellar to share with your guests, run warm water over the outside of a decanter and then pour the wine in.
And that last bit of advice may actually be the most important key to getting the most enjoyment from your wine. It’s not the air, but the temperature. We tend to drink our red wines too warm and our whites too cold.
“If you want your red wines to taste their best for a dinner party, put them in the fridge a few hours before, and when your first guest arrives, take them out and let them warm at room temperature for 30 minutes or so,” Goldston advises. “Take your whites out of the fridge 30 minutes before your guests are due. If they get too warm, you can always put them back to chill a little more.”