Everyone knows that wine needs to breathe, but there are different ways to treat wines that have spent months, years, or even a decade in a bottle. Aerating wine can be a bit confusing, so here is a concise summary of what aerating does for wine and how to go about doing it for young and old wines. First of all let’s talk about why you want to aerate wine.
One of the attributes of wine is its aroma, or nose: a fragrant representation of its character, and an indication what you can expect to taste. When you open a new bottle of wine, it may be difficult to identify all the subtleties of the wine in the aroma because the wine molecules, especially in younger wines, have had little interaction with air or oxygen while it has been in the bottle. Aerating is a method to diffuse oxygen gas molecules into the liquid wine molecules. This process is commonly referred to as letting a wine breathe or open up. The diffusion of oxygen releases the aroma and serves to separate the liquid molecules, a process that maximizes the dispersion of the wine in your mouth. Because the wine is thereby loosened up, letting a wine breathe improves the sensational experiences of smell and taste.
Now that the “why” of aerating has been discussed, here is the “how.” There are many different methods to aerate a wine. One of the most common is to decant a wine. To decant means to pour the bottle of wine into a separate inert (glass) container. Decanting was not originally used for the purpose of aerating. Instead, it was used to separate the sediment from the wine in bottles that had been stored for many years. Today, decanting is used for both purposes. For example, an old wine should not be aerated very long (maybe 10-20 minutes). It has been interacting with low concentrations of oxygen for a long period of time, so the air has permeated the wine and softened the tannic acids. If you order an old wine at an upscale restaurant, the standard practice is to pour the bottle gently into a bulbous decanter–one with not too wide of a base–while holding a candle underneath the bottle to visually ensure sediment is not poured with the wine.
On the other hand, decanting has become quite popular for younger wines that need to breathe and open up by interacting with as much oxygen as possible. In this case, a wide based decanter is used to maximize the wine surface area and thereby maximize the wine’s exposure to air. The wine should be poured with a bit of violence to help loosen up the tannic acids. It should then be allowed to sit much longer than an old wine, anywhere from 30 minutes to over an hour. Taste the wine periodically to determine when it is ready to serve.
Another popular tool of late has been the Vinturi Essential Wine Aerator. This is a tool that you hold in one hand over a wine glass and pour the wine into with the other. The funneling effect of the wide mouth and narrow next is designed to maximize the interaction of wine and air. This tool is a particularly good choice for young tannic or acidic wines (cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, syrah, barolo, bordeaux, or pinot noir to name a few).
A battery powered electronic wine breather by Rouge is also a tool that has gained some popularity, but not nearly as much as the Vinturi aerator. A long slender rod is inserted into the bottle of wine and a battery powered motor sends vibrations that permeate the wine for about a minute. Essentially the method is mixture by sonication, which is a common laboratory practice for cleaning lab ware or mixing chemical solutions. In principle, this does an excellent job of dispersing oxygen into the wine in a short period of time, but the effect of vibrations on the wine is unclear and I personally would not want to risk using it with a wine that I have been diligently preserving to be drunk at an optimal time.
Finally, the simplest method to aerate wine is to simply pour it into a glass and let it sit for 20 minutes if it is an older wine and 30-45 minutes with intermittent swirling if it is a younger wine.
Regardless of your method, just remember to treat your wine the same way you would treat your prospective boss in an interview: with respect.