It often improves the taste, but uncorking a bottle and letting it sit undisturbed for a while doesn’t accomplish your goal.
Have you ever wondered about this? It’s sort of like the advice of not going swimming right after you eat. It doesn’t make much sense at all, considering we often do strenuous things right after we eat—yet there’s something in the back of our mind that says, “What if it’s true?”
We’re going to apply some obvious common sense to this subject right at the start, and then we’ll get into what you really need to know about allowing wine to breathe.
You uncork a bottle of red wine and set it back down on the counter. There it sits, undisturbed, for 20 minutes or so. It’s breathing, right? Actually, it’s not.
Barely any of the wine has come into contact with air if all you did was uncork it. It’s for this reason that you also shouldn’t worry too much about recorking a bottle of wine that you don’t finish a bottle of wine. It’ll generally stay in the same drinkable condition for a couple of days after you open it—because very little of it is ever exposed to air.
There you go. That’s pretty much all you need to know about what does not happen when most people think they are allowing a bottle of wine to breathe.
Allowing a wine to breathe
Exposing wine to air for a short time allows it to oxidize. This process—known as oxidation—helps to soften the flavors and releases its aromas. Most red and white wines will improve when exposed to air for at least 30 minutes. The improvement, however, requires exposure to far more than the teaspoon or so exposed by simply uncorking the wine.
To accomplish this, you have to decant the wine. This process aerates the wine in its entirety.
You want the wine—all of it—to breathe or be exposed to air. This is the way to do it. Decanting wine serves a dual purpose. You’ll aerate the wine, and you’ll separate it from any sediment that may have formed during its production and aging.
White wines rarely produce sediment, but older reds and vintage ports continue to produce it as they age. It’s caused as color pigments and tannins bond together and drops to the bottom of the bottle. Stirred up, those sediments can insert a bitter flavor and gritty texture to the wine. They will also cloud the wine’s appearance.
Decanting a wine is a fancy way of saying you’re pouring it from the bottle into another vessel. As you pour the wine slowly but steadily from the bottle to a new vessel—say, a carafe—you’ll expose it to air and separate the sediment from the wine you’ll end up drinking.
It’s a gentle process, and you’ll likely sacrifice only about an ounce of the wine that’s filled with sediment. The magic will start to happen now that you’ve exposed the entire bottle of wine to air.
Young red wines can be high in tannins. This is especially true of Cabernet Sauvignon, Bordeaux, and Red Zinfandel varieties. Aeration exposes the tannins to oxidation, which softens their mild bitterness. White wines don’t have tannins, so decanting them isn’t really necessary.
So, the whole “uncork it and let it breathe” thing isn’t doing too much. It doesn’t accomplish what you want. Decanting, on the other hand, is definitely much more effort than uncorking a bottle and setting it back down on the counter for 20 minutes. Is there a middle ground?
You can accomplish much of the same benefits of decanting by pouring the wine into your glass and gently swirling it each time before you take another sip.