Letting Wine Breathe [Why? When? How Long For?]
Letting a wine “breathe” might be an unfamiliar concept to some and it’s actually a really weird thing to say to someone that doesn’t drink wine.
But what does it mean and is it really necessary?
In this wine guide, I explain what wine “breathing” is and why we do it.
I also explain how long we should let certain wines breathe for and which wines don’t care for it at all!
What Does Letting Wine Breathe Mean?
Letting your wine "breathe" is a phrase used to describe the process of exposing wine to air, allowing it to interact with oxygen.
It’s the same process as wine aeration, which is another commonly used phrase in the wine world.
Oxygen exposure to wine encourages the development and expression of the wine's various aroma compounds and flavors, which can lead to a more enjoyable and complex drinking experience.
The chemical reaction as wine is oxidized causes flavors to become more rounded and soften. It also causes more aromas to be released.
Oxidation is the chemical reaction between certain molecules present in wine and the oxygen from the air. This is the same process that you witness when you cut an apple and it turns brown, or when iron begins to rust.
The oxidation reaction occurs naturally during winemaking and continues even after it has been bottled.
Wine tannin is composed of compounds that are extremely susceptible to oxidation. Some examples of these phenolic compounds are catechins, anthocyanins, epicatechins. This is why tannic wines benefit so much from being allowed to breathe.
Alcohol can also experience oxidation into acetaldehyde and acetic acid, which is the primary compound in vinegar. This undesirable result is marked by diminished flavor, aroma and color, and is often referred to as flattening. This is why we need to control how much air we allow to interact with wine.
I’ll explain which wines benefit from being allowed to breathe in the next section.
Which Wines Need to Breathe?
It's essential to understand that not all wines benefit from breathing.
Typically, younger, more tannic, and full-bodied red wines with complex flavor profiles benefit the most from this process.
Breathing often helps to soften tannins and integrate flavors, creating a smoother, more balanced wine.
On the other hand, delicate, older, or more fragile wines may not benefit from exposure to air and can, in some cases, be damaged by the process.
You can add cheap wine to this list of red wines that don’t need aerating too. Cheap, fruity reds are typically best drank straight after opening unless they have a strong alcohol smell. Some of the alcohol should evaporate given a few minutes in a glass or decanter.
Most white wines don’t benefit from breathing either. Their delicate nature means exposure to oxygen often does more harm than good. However, there are a few exceptions.
Let’s look at some specific wine types and varietals and the rules for letting them breathe (or not).
Young Red Wines
Young red wines often have high levels of tannins and can be tight, with their flavors not fully integrated.
Allowing these wines to breathe softens the tannins and helps to bring out the wine's fruit and spice characteristics.
Some specific varietals within this category include:
Breathing helps to open up these flavors and integrate them, creating a smoother, more balanced wine.
Full-bodied Red Wines
Full-bodied red wines with a high concentration of tannins and bold flavors also benefit from breathing.
This process enables them to display their complexity, smooth out the tannins, and harmonize the flavors.
Some specific varietals in this category include:
You can also add Bordeaux blends, Red Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah to this list.
Full-bodied reds that have a few years of age behind them really do need to be allowed to breathe for an hour or two before drinking.
After being cooped up in a bottle for so long, just a bit of air has a big effect on their taste and aroma.
While breathing is less common for white wines, some full-bodied and oak-aged whites can benefit from aeration. It can help to integrate the flavors and bring out the wine's complexity.
The only white wines you should consider aerating are:
It's important to note that delicate, older, or more fragile wines may not benefit from exposure to air and can be damaged by the process.
In such cases, it's best to taste the wine first and assess whether it requires aeration or not.
How Long Does a Wine Need to Breathe For?
The aeration time for each wine usually varies based on its age, structure, and tannin content.
To be honest, there’s no strict answer for a wine varietal, you’ll just need to taste as you go.
Once you notice the wine flavors opening up and become more expressive then you’re in the sweet spot.
However, it’s important that you don’t let a wine become overexposed to oxygen. Eventually, it will turn to vinegar.
Here's are some general guidelines for how long to let wine breathe for:
Young Red Wines
One to two hours of aeration is usually sufficient to soften the tannins and open up the flavors for something like a young Cabernet Sauvignon wine. The same goes for a typical bottle of Syrah/Shiraz.
Full-Bodied Red Wines
1-2 hours of aeration will typically soften the tannins and bring out the flavors in full-bodied Malbec wines.
Aeration for 2-3 hours can help soften the dense tannins and enhance the spice and licorice notes in Petite Sirah wines.
Full-bodied, oak-aged Chardonnays can benefit from 30 minutes to 1 hour of aeration to balance the oak and fruit flavors.
30 minutes to 1 hour of aeration is usually sufficient to harmonize the flavors in white Bordeaux blends.
It's always a good idea to taste the wine at different intervals during aeration to assess the wine's development and decide when it has reached its optimal state.
If you can’t finish a bottle of wine after aerating it then be sure to keep it in the refrigerator to slow down the effects of overexposure to oxygen. Too much oxygen causes wine to lose its freshness and vitality.
Always keep it corked or use a wine preservation device.
How to Let a Wine Breathe
Due to the nature of a wine bottles narrow neck, allowing a wine to breathe in the bottle after opening doesn’t really have much of an effect.
Therefore you have three options for letting wine breathe.
- 1Let it breathe in the glass. Red wine glasses have wide bowls which allow a good amount of oxygen to come into contact with the wine.
- 2Use a decanter. A decanter is basically a specialist wine jug. It is designed in such a way that the wine comes into contact with as much air as possible. Decanting a wine allows you to let the whole bottle of wine breathe at the same time, speeding up the process. You can see the wine decanter that I use on my ‘Wine Essentials’ page.
- 3Use a wine aerator. A wine aerator injects little air bubbles into your wine as it is poured (it attaches to the bottle). This is the fastest way to aerate your wine and let it breathe.
How Do I Tell if I Need to Let My Wine Breathe?
As I mentioned earlier, generally, young and full-bodied red wines with high tannin content benefit the most from aeration.
Older red wines may also require some breathing time to revive their flavors. On the other hand, most white wines, rosés, and light-bodied red wines don't require aeration.
Upon opening a bottle, take a small sip and smell the wine. If you notice strong tannins, a closed aroma, or muted flavors, it's an indication that the wine may need to breathe.
Wine appreciation is subjective, and some people prefer a wine with more pronounced tannins, while others enjoy a smoother, more balanced taste. Aeration can help adjust the wine to your palate, so experiment to find your preferred level of aeration.
If you're unsure whether your wine needs to breathe, start with a short aeration period and taste the wine at intervals to assess its development.
This way, you can avoid over-aerating and ensure the wine reaches its optimal state for your enjoyment.
Remember, every wine benefits from a swirl in the glass. Swirling like this aerates the wine slightly and projects aromas.
Every wine also benefits for say 30 minutes in a glass or decanter after being trapped in a bottle for such a long time.
It’s only those with really heavy tannins that need two or three hours of decanting.
If you’re unsure whether to let your wine breathe or not, or if you’re not sure how long to do it for then just taste as you go.
Pour a little into a glass and swirl. Your first sniff and taste is your benchmark. Take note of the aroma and flavors, partying particular attention to the tannin.
Repeat the process after 15 minutes and compare notes. Do you notice any developments?
Got any questions? Let me know in the comments section.