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From the Vine: While experts debate the merits and methods, aerating is widely seen as beneficial for many wines

by on January 01, 2018 11:00 AM

We all know the scene in the movies where the guy orders a bottle of wine at a restaurant and tells the server to open the bottle in order to “let it breathe” before it is served. I always snicker when I see a scene like that because the amount of “breathing” a wine can do through a nickel-sized surface area in the neck of a bottle is negligible.

The very concept of allowing a wine to “breathe” is to aerate it, i.e., expose the wine to oxygen. It is widely believed that this exposure to oxygen helps the wine present its best self, “opening up” the wine and allowing its flavor and aromas to show fully. It is also widely believed that this aeration is of benefit to a great many wines, with the exception of very old wines, which are considered likely too delicate to expose to an abrupt exposure to air.

So if simply opening a bottle is not a sufficient method of aeration, how can you help your wine breathe more effectively? There are actually a few ways this can be done.

If you think the whole bottle is likely to be consumed in one sitting — say at dinner with friends! — you can pour the wine into a decanter if you have one. The process of simply exposing the entire contents of the bottle to oxygen as you pour it into the decanter will sufficiently aerate your wine and you can then serve it from the decanter into wine glasses at the table. If you don’t have a decanter, you can use any clean pitcher or other vessel big enough to hold the contents of the bottle. If you don’t want to serve the wine at the table out of a pitcher or alternative vessel, simply pour the wine back into the bottle. It’s the process of pouring the wine that aerates it, not the vessel itself, so feel free to pour your newly aerated wine back into the bottle. (In fact, there’s an aerator you can buy that locks onto your open wine bottle — Menu Wine Breather Carafe, $55, available at Sur Le Table. You flip the bottle and the wine passes through an aerator straight into an attached decanter, and you can just flip it back over again and the wine goes right back into the bottle, so you never have to worry about spilling a single drop!)

If you will be having only a glass of wine, you can purchase a wine aerator (Vinturi makes one for about $30) that you hold over your glass — you pour the wine into the aerator and then the wine comes out the other end into the glass and essentially does the same job as pouring it into a decanter. And if you don’t have an aerator, you could pour yourself a glass of wine, and then pour it into another wine glass, allowing the wine to be exposed to additional oxygen.

Some wine experts believe that just pouring the wine into a glass with a big enough bowl to allow easy swirling is enough to aerate it. And most of us have had the experience of pouring a glass of wine, tasting it, and then not tasting it again for 15 minutes or so and realizing the wine has changed just from the time spent in the glass — not necessarily into something better or worse, but perhaps into something more expressive, i.e., different/more flavors and/or aromas emerge that weren’t present at the outset.

Our wine panel was divided about the merits and methods of aerating wine, so we decided to conduct a tasting experiment. We purchased three identical bottles of wine. On the day of the tasting, we uncorked one of the three bottles and let it sit just like that the entire day, and then brought it to the tasting. At the tasting, we aerated the second bottle using the aerator decanter. The third bottle we opened and poured at the moment of the tasting. Each of us had all three wines side-by-side, blind – we did not know which wines had ben aerated or just opened.

The results were interesting because all three wines smelled different. One was less pungent; the next had more varied and more obvious aromas, and the third’s bouquet was similar to the second glass, but not as obvious. The tastes then followed suit. The one with the least detectable aromas also had the least amount of identifiable flavors, and correspondingly, the one with the most opulent nose tended to have the most opulent or noticeable flavors. The third was a muted version of number two, but continued to change the most in the glass over the 15 minutes or so that we were comparing and contrasting the set.

We then identified which wine of the set we individually preferred most, and then we unveiled which wine had undergone what process (one of our members served as the master of ceremonies and kept mum about the aeration).

Almost to a person, the wine that had been aerated into a decanter was preferred — both for aromas and flavors. The majority of us also thought the wine that had been newly opened was the second choice, noting that this wine changed the most during the tasting session. The least favorite was the wine that had simply been opened in the morning.

It’s usually not a good idea to make categorical statements about wine because there are always so many variables involved in the winemaking process – growth, harvest, production, aging, bottling, storage – that truly no two wines will ever really be exactly the same, even from the same vineyard and vintage. And each year a new vintage comes out – one with different growing conditions from the year before, changing the way the grapes ripen from harvest to harvest, so that in comparing a wine from the same vineyard, same grape but from two different years, startling differences may appear. Or not. They might be quite similar. That’s just the way it is. So to say that “all wines benefit from aeration via decanter before consumption” may be a little too broad. And depending on your personal preferences in regard to fruit forwardness and tannins, aeration may not be as important to you. But as a fellow wine lover said to me when I asked about the by-the-glass aerator he was using and whether he thought it worked: “I haven’t had a glass of wine it hasn’t helped.”

That makes me more inclined to aerate a glass when I open a bottle now. And if I were going to have a dinner party and serve wine, I would open the wine about 20 minutes before I was going to serve dinner and pour the wine into my guests’ glasses ahead of time, thereby aerating the wine through the pouring, but also by allowing the wine to sit in the bowl of the glass until dinnertime, with the hope that I am maximizing what the wine is bringing to the meal in terms of flavor and complexity.

As for the scene in the restaurant, if you are the one ordering the bottle of wine, have the server pour you the customary taste, and feel free to ask the server to pour the wine into a decanter for you. If you feel it’s too fussy to ask for a decanter, have the server pour you and your dining companion(s) their wine, give the wine a good couple of swirls, and let it sit for a few minutes.

But if you find that really all you want to do is toast and drink up, do it — sometimes we’re just too thirsty to think about the wine we’re drinking! Happy 2018!

Lucy Rogers is the tasting room manager for Big Spring Spirits in Bellefonte. She can be reached at lucy@bigspringspirits.com, or you can find her in the tasting room.

 



Lucy Rogers teaches wine classes and offers private wine tastings through Wines by the Class. She also is the event coordinator for Zola Catering.
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