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:
1. It reduces the amount of smelly compounds in your wine.
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.
2. It mellows the harsh flavor of excess tannins.
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.
3. It reveals the wine’s natural, more subtle flavors.
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.
Things To Keep In Mind
Is it possible to aerate a wine too much?Though most wines benefit from aeration, it is indeed possible to overdo the process. Giving the wine too much time to aerate can lead to the compounds that give it its flavor breaking down along with the less desirable ones, leading to a flat-tasting wine without much character. To avoid this, do your research into how much time your brand or variety of wine needs to aerate. To reiterate, heavy red wines often need much more time to aerate than lighter or white wines. If you’re lucky, you may find suggestions online for how long a specific bottle needs to aerate to achieve the perfect balance of flavor and character.
Isn’t a wine “aerated” when I open the bottle and pour it into a glass?Technically, yes, some of your wine is indeed aerated in the process of transferring it from bottle to glass. However, aeration isn’t just a brief exposure of some of the wine to air. For the best results, it requires a large amount of the wine’s surface area to aerate. When being poured, only a portion of the wine’s surface area is exposed to the air, leaving the rest of it unaerated. This means that many of the undesirable compounds and excess tannins will still remain in your wine. Decanters and aerators make the process much more efficient by exposing the greatest amount of the wine’s surface area to air at the same time, allowing the wine to become fully aerated.
Should I use a decanter or an aerator to aerate my wine?Both a decanter and an aerator can be used to aerate your wine with about the same results. The main difference between a decanter and an aerator is the time they take to finish the process. Decanters are simply containers designed to increase the amount of wine exposed to the air and have been around since the Roman Empire. They come in many beautiful designs and can make a breath-taking centerpiece at your next wine-tasting or formal get-together; however, they don’t aerate your wine as quickly as an aerator would. An aerator is often a device through which wine is poured that sends air bubbles through the wine as it passes through. This is a very quick, efficient way to aerate wine, though it may not be as thorough as actually giving the wine time to aerate in a decanter. That said, whether you should use a decanter or an aerator largely depends on your needs. If you have the time and space, a decanter is an effective and beautiful way to aerate your wine while an aerator may be better if time is of the essence.
Importance of Aerating Wine
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.