This is an update of an article I wrote a couple of years ago for one of Chico Harris'publications that I think is worth running again. You may have heard wine snobs talk about "breathing" their wine before serving it. Well, this is another one of those interesting facets of wine that has some basis in fact, but which many people have run off with before they understand what they are doing.
First of all, breathing applies, for the most part, only to red wines. Occasionally, a white wine will have some off odors right after it is opened, but these usually dissipate within a few minutes without any special handling of the wine. Therefore, as a rule of thumb, white wines are about as good as they are going to get right out of the bottle. Red wines frequently are a different story and the smell and taste can change dramatically in the space of an hour or less.
Most of the experts with whom I have discussed this believe the changes we observe in some red wines after they have been opened is a result of a combination of the release of trapped gases and the mixing of air with the wine. In fact, the reason we swirl wine in the glass is to facilitate the release of the aromatic compounds that are responsible for the smell or bouquet.
When the character of a wine changes as a result of breathing, this probably reflects the loss of some of the more volatile components in the wine and possibly a chemical reaction between other compounds and oxygen in the air. Just remember that any wine left open to the air long enough will sooner or later turn into vinegar and some other nasty tasting stuff as products of the inevitable spoilage process.
It is interesting that not all red wines benefit from breathing, but I have witnessed repeatedly some remarkable transformations in certain types of wines that had been well exposed to the air for various lengths of time. To best appreciate this transformation you have to like dry red wines. I want to give you some tips on how to take advantage of this phenomenon along with a little exercise to illustrate the kind of change I am talking about.
One thing of which I am absolutely certain is that nothing of consequence will happen to your wine if you just pull the cork and let the bottle stand on the counter. To get the kind of noticeable change I have described, you need to expose a wine to as much air as possible, not just the one square inch hole left by the cork. What I do is give my red wines a good thrashing by vigorously sloshing them into a large container with a wide opening such as an ice tea pitcher. I let the wine stand for as long as I can discipline myself, which can be up to an hour or more depending on the type of wine. Of course, I always taste a sample right after opening the bottle to make sure the wine basically is okay and to provide a reference point for later.
For very heavy wines, or if the wine seems a bit rough or harsh, I will let the wine stand longer with periodic stirring. I have had some wine that didn't smooth out until the next day. Wines that have been stored for a long time, like eight to ten years or more, also might require a little more time to fully release their aromas. But it is important to check frequently on the progress of these kinds of wines since they can become somewhat fragile over time and can quickly dissipate in the decanter or glass.
As I mentioned, some wines never change and others change dramatically, and it seems that the wines most susceptible to change from breathing are those made from the Pinot Noir grape. The best way to illustrate the effect is to get a bottle of either Fleur de Carneros, Napa Ridge, or Indigo Hills Pinot Noir, all of which are available in Oxford. Open the bottle and pour a full glass of the wine and quickly cover the glass with plastic wrap to seal out the air. Pour the wine into the glass gently to limit the amount of air you stir into the wine. Take the remaining wine, or the portion you think you will drink at this sitting, and slosh it into a container as I described above to get a lot of air into the wine and let it stand for at least one hour. You might want to put a paper towel or something over the mouth of the container to keep the bugs out, but be sure air can get in and out. Stir the wine vigorously several times during this period to mix in the air.
At the end of the hour or so, take several good whiffs of the wine in the open container and then smell the wine in the sealed glass. Smelling and tasting the wines side by side you should detect noticeable differences. The wine that was open to the air usually will smell much fruitier, have more complex flavors, and have a softer feel in your mouth, while the "fresh" wine might seem a little dull, lacking aroma and flavor, and it might feel a little harsh.
A better way to do this exercise is to get some friends together for a meal and use two separate bottles of the same wine. Open one bottle and do the breathing thing for an hour or so, and then compare it to the freshly opened second bottle. Then you can wax philosophical for the rest of the evening about how complex and interesting wine can be.
Since I have had some dramatic experiences with breathing wines, I now routinely dump most of my red wines into a pitcher just in case they intend to play this hide and seek game. However, one type of wine that does not seem to improve with breathing is red Zinfandel. I have heard some people object to breathing any wine since they believe you can lose some of the fruit aromas and flavors this way. I'm not sure I agree with this, but the best thing to do is to smell and taste your wine right after opening it. If it seems a little funky or dull, pour some in a glass and try airing it out. If it seems okay, serve it up or put the cork back in until you are ready to serve it.
For those of you who want to keep a bit of poetry about your wine and don't want to be bothered by all the technical details, you can think of this process as the unfolding of the petals of a flower. The wine has been tightly folded up on itself and sealed in a bottle for a year or more. When you pour the wine into a glass or a large vessel you are allowing the wine to unfold its petals and release its fragrant bouquet. I, however, prefer to view the process as releasing a magical genie who promises to grant me my wish for a fantastic glass of wine. "Open, says me!"