You may have heard before that it’s better to let your wine “breathe” before enjoying it. This is true—but what does it mean and why is it important? Letting your wine breathe, or “aerating” it simply means to expose it to air in order to allow undesirable odors and flavors to escape and desirable ones to become more pronounced. This process is often helped along with special vessels called decanters or devices called aerators.
But is this finicky process really so important?
Yes. And here’s why:
Sometimes when you open a new bottle of wine, you may detect scents that are less-than-palatable. You may catch a whiff of burnt matchsticks, onions, or even rotten eggs. Or maybe the first odor to hit your nose is the pungent scent of rubbing alcohol. The reason for these harsh smells is a number of compounds added to wines in order to kill microbes and prevent oxidation. Though these compounds are necessary to the wine-making process, they aren’t necessarily welcome when you’re actually ready to enjoy your wine.
This is where aeration comes in. Exposing your wine to air will allows those volatile compounds to dissolve, ridding your wine of unwanted smells. That way, there’s nothing between you and your wine’s more desirable bouquet.
Tannins, a kind of molecule found in wine grapes and oak barrels, are often what gives wines, especially red wines, their distinct bitter flavor. Though we usually want some tannins in our wine to deepen its profile, if a wine isn’t aerated, those tannins can build up to excess, giving the wine an overly harsh flavor. Exposing your wine to oxygen helps break down these excess tannins, mellowing its bitterness.
Generally speaking, the more tannins your wine has, the more time you should give it to aerate. Young red wines and vintage ports often have the highest tannin content and need an hour or more to aerate, while lighter reds and most white wines need very little aeration, if any at all.
This last reason for aerating your wine comes as a natural consequence of the first two. By removing distracting, undesirable smells and softening the harsh flavor of excess tannins, aeration reveals the unique, complex scents and flavors hiding in your wine. As a result, once you pick up the habit of aerating your wine, you may find that you can more easily distinguish between different wine varieties and brands, and appreciate them all the more. Flavors and aromas will be more complex and distinctive—and bottles that once seemed lackluster may suddenly be much more appealing.
Whether you use a decanter or aerator, giving your wine the space to breathe can dramatically enhance your wine-tasting experience and lead to a more flavorful, expensive-tasting wine overall. If you’ve never aerated your wine before, we challenge you to give it a try. Chances are, you’ll be able to taste (and smell) the difference.
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