Written by: Tim Edison

Updated: November 3, 2018

What Does Letting Wine Breathe Do And Is It Necessary?

What Does Letting Wine Breathe Do And Is It Necessary?

All living things need to breathe to live.  This is rather obvious given the laws of biology.  In the world of food and drink, many experts believe that wine also needs to breathe. But what does letting wine breathe do and is it necessary?

This concept may be unclear to many people. What does the term “breathing” mean? Before we get into this concept of letting wine breathe, it is important to realize a few things.  Wine has a culture all its own. 

This culture can be both geographic and class oriented.  This culture can lead to a certain amount of intimidation when it comes to beginning to immerse yourself in this world of wine.  The best way to get over this feeling of intimidation is to educate yourself on why something is being done, what it really is, and how you do it.  If you this with wine, the intimidation element will disappear and you allow yourself to become a wine enthusiast.

Is letting a wine breathe even necessary?  How long should you let a wine breathe?  We will attempt to answer all of these questions and more in this article.

What Does the Wine Term “Breathing” Mean?

Allowing a wine to “breathe” is simply a process of exposing the wine to air for a period of time before serving.  The theory of allowing a wine to breathe prior to serving is that by exposing the wine to air for a short time allows it to oxidize, which may soften flavors and release aromas.  This process is also referred to as aeration.  The reaction between gases in the air and wine changes the flavor of wine.

The Science Behind the Scenes

When air and wine interact, two important processes occur, evaporation and oxidation.  Allowing these processes to occur can improve the quality of wine by changing its chemistry.  Let’s get technical here for a little bit.  Evaporation is the phase transition from the liquid state to the vapor state. 

Volatile compounds evaporate easily in air.  On occasion, when you uncork a bottle of wine, it can smell medicinal from the ethanol in the wine.  Aerating the wine will help disperse some of the initial odor, making the wine smell better.

By letting a bit of the alcohol evaporate, you can more readily smell the wine, not just the alcohol.  Sulfites present in wine also disperse when you let the wine breathe.  Sulfites are added to wine to protect it from microbes and to prevent excess oxidation, but they can sometimes smell like rotten eggs.  It’s not a bad idea to allow that odor to dissipate prior to taking the first sip.

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 contains certain compounds, such as catechins, anthocyanins, epicatechins and other phenolic compounds that are extremely susceptible to oxidation. 

Alcohol can also experience oxidation into acetaldehyde and acetic acid, which is the primary compound in vinegar.  Certain wines can benefit from the changes in flavor and aroma caused by the oxidation, as it can contribute fruity and nutty qualities.  All too often though, too much oxidation ruins wine.  This undesirable result is marked by diminished flavor, aroma and color, and is often referred to as flattening.

Which Wines Need to Breathe?

For the most part, white wines do not benefit from aeration because they do not contain the same high levels of pigment molecules or tannin that red wines possess.  The exception to this rule may be white wines that were originally intended to age and develop earthy flavors. 

Even with these particular whites, it may be best to taste them before considering aeration, just to see if the wine may benefit from it. Some red wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Zinfandel, and Bordeaux, which are all relatively high in tannin, actually taste better with aeration because their tannins soften and the wine becomes less harsh.  Inexpensive red wines, especially fruity red wines, most likely will not improve in flavor from aeration, and may even taste worse. 

These wines taste best right after the cork is pulled, and it is best to drink these wines quickly as the oxidation process can start to make them taste flat in as little as thirty minutes and undrinkable in an hour.  If you find an inexpensive red that smells strongly of alcohol upon opening, the best option is to pour the wine and simply allow a few minutes for the odor to dissipate.

As mentioned earlier, red wines such as the Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Zinfandel and Bordeaux, all of which are considered to by earthy flavored, are the ones most likely to benefit from aeration.  This is especially true for those wines which have been aged in a cellar for a few years. These wines truly open up to display a greater range of flavors if they are allowed to breathe for a while.

How Do You Aerate Wine?

When you uncork a bottle of wine, there will be very little interaction with air through the narrow next of the bottle and the wine inside.  You can allow thirty minutes to perhaps an hour for the wine to breathe on its own, but aeration greatly speeds the process so you don’t have to wait to drink the wine.  Who wants to wait longer than necessary to drink wine?  The best advice is to always taste a wine before aerating it, and then decide whether or not to proceed.

The easiest method to aerate wine is to attach an aerator to the wine bottle.  This aerates the wine as you pour it into your glass.  There are many different types of aerators on the market, so you shouldn’t expect a uniform level of aeration from each type of aerator. 

Another method involves pouring the wine into a decanter.  A decanter is simply a term for a large container that is capable of holding an entire bottle of wine.  Most decanters have a small neck, which allows for easy pouring, a large surface area, which permits ample mixing with air, and a curved shape which prevents wine sediment from getting into your wine glass. 

If you are in a pinch and do not have an aerator or decanter on hand, you can simply pour the wine back and forth between two containers or simply swirl the wine in your glass before enjoying it.  For adventurous wine drinkers, there is also a practice called hyperdecanting, which involves pulsing wine in a blender to aerate it.

How Long Do You Aerate or Decant Wine Before Drinking?

There is much debate and confusion regarding how long one should allow wine to aerate or decant before drinking.  Much of this confusion exists since there is a general belief that wine and air may in fact have a negative effect on each other.  To attempt to clear this confusion, let us consider the following.  Wine that is poured from a bottle into a glass and swirled is considered a positive since the air mixture allows aromas to be displayed and enjoyed. 

Wine that has had a brief exposure to the air is considered a positive since it allows a wine to breathe after being stagnant in the bottle for what could be many years.  This exposure to air has a positive effect on the wine after approximately 25 to 30 minutes.  Wines that are intensely tannic may need up to a few hours, but in general, most red and white wines will improve within the first half hour of being exposed to air.  Can you expose wine to air for too long of a time? 

Extended exposure to air has a negative effect on the wine.  Wine that has been exposed for more than a day often will have a vinegary smell or taste.  Red wines and sweet wines may last a little longer due to the natural preservatives of tannins and sugar.  You can extend the life of aerated white wine by simply refrigerating it.

Is This All a Myth?

There is much debate as to whether or not aerating or decanting wine is actually necessary.  As noted earlier, there is scientific theory that points toward aeration being helpful in making a wine have better aromas and taste.  Perhaps it is up to personal preference. 

A great way to decide if aeration is beneficial to your favorite type of wine is to open a bottle of wine and allow yourself a third of a glass pour every ten minutes or so.  With each pour, you should swirl the wine around in your glass.  This will give you a better understanding of wine itself as well as the aeration process.

If you take a pour upon opening the bottle, you may very well notice that the wine tastes a bit harsh, maybe even a little dusty.  This is caused by the tannin structure of the wine not being affect by the aeration process yet. 

There will be notes of fruit, but they will seem closed up and tight, like they are being held back.  Swirl it in your glass and go back to it in ten minutes, and you will notice a change happening.  At this point in the experiment, some of the alcohol has evaporated and the tannin is settling in, mixing in with the rest of the wine. 

Oxygen is doing its job by opening up the wine even more.  Those closed up and tight fruit notes are beginning to become more vibrant and flavorful, and the tannin no longer takes center stage, as it begins to fade into the background.  If you continue to come back to the wine, a little at a time, you will actually witness the wine opening up.  You may even notice new aromas wafting up into your face. 

After a little more time passes you may even get some savory hints of spices in addition to the vibrant fruit notes.

All of these aromas are going to be present at the wine’s peak openness, but since you have witnessed the transformation of the wine, you now know what happens as the wine comes full circle.  By simply letting the bottle of your favorite wine sit untouched, you would never have had the experience of witnessing the entire process of aeration.  And by having this experience, you can tell fellow wine lovers that the aeration or decanting process is definitely not a myth.

What About Screw-cap Wines?

While some people may not like to admit it, their favorite wine may actually be bottled in a screw-cap bottle.  While this almost seems sacrilegious, there are several wines that are sold this way.  Should these wines be aerated and decanted like the traditional wines found in corked bottles?

Screw-cap wines generally benefit from more aeration, not less, than cork-sealed wines.  Aeration can rectify a wine flaw that is most commonly encountered with screw caps rather than corks.  This flaw is called hydrogen sulfide, which causes an unpleasant odor that smells like rotten eggs. 

Hydrogen sulfide, while harmless, can be produced during fermentation, typically by yeasts that have been starved of nitrogen.  If the wine maker is not on top of this situation, hydrogen sulfide gets trapped in the bottle.  Corks are slightly porous, so they allow the hydrogen sulfide to escape over time, most often before the wine ever makes it to the table. 

Screw caps, however, are much less forgiving.  The hydrogen sulfide cannot escape.  So, when you twist open the seal, you very well may detect an unpleasant odor, which in the most extreme cases can smell of sewer gas.  That’s just want you want to smell when you are sitting down with your favorite glass of wine!  As hydrogen sulfide is highly volatile, it evaporates rather quickly.  Do not recap the bottle, and let your wine breathe for a few minutes. 

In Conclusion

Letting your favorite wine “breathe” can definitely improve your wine drinking experience.  Depending on your favorite wine, this process can take a little time or a few hours.  There are different ways to allow your wine to breathe, so find the one that works best for you.  Experiment with it and have fun.  After all, isn’t wine supposed to be enjoyable?

About the Author Tim Edison

Tim started Wine Turtle way back in 2015.
These days he contributes to Wine Turtle (and other renowned wine publications) while continuing his wine education.
Tim's wine of the month is the Coates & Seely Reserve Brut NV (from Hampshire, England).

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  1. very, very well done. As a heavy wine drinker, especially big bold wines like California Cab, I couldn't agree more. If you don't believe, exactly as Tim said, pour a bit, taste, let decant longer, pour a bit more, taste. The difference is almost always substantial.

    Early on, I cannot recall the number of times I poured wine too soon, and by the time we get to the end "crap!" we just lost an excellent wine to early drinking.

    We decant Cabs, heavy Zins, heavy Merlot. Really anything that leaves a deep, dark color on the cork, that is an immediate notice to me that the wine will be bold and need to sit a bit. Leaving the wine in the bottle to breath is practically useless; decant the wine.

    Thank you again, very solid article.

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