Wine: Let it breathe

Wine: Let it breathe (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)


Air is one of the most talked about but most misunderstood elements in wine.

We say a wine needs to "breathe" as if it just needs a few minutes to freshen itself up, releasing its seductive perfume. In fact, most wines have been waiting years just to cast off a little gas.

In the end, the result is the same: To be appreciated, a wine needs to smell its best. To do that, it needs more air, faster, than you might think -- but not for the reasons you might have heard.

People talk about a wine being "closed," says Piero Selvaggio, owner of Valentino Restaurant Group. "A closed flower doesn't give you the pleasure a beautiful rose will give you when it's in full bloom. You want the petals of the wine, its aromas, to open up and talk to you."

But poetry aside, to wine researchers, "closed" means nothing. It's just another metaphor, like saying a wine is "cheeky."

"The word 'closed' does not have a physical meaning for sensory testing," says Andrew Waterhouse, chairman of the Department of Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis.

Further, Waterhouse says the implication that a "closed" wine is missing something is a misdiagnosis. In fact, rather than withholding scents, the wine is actually giving you something extra: sulfur compounds that are potent enough even in tiny amounts to cover up the fresh fruit aromas you want to smell.

Sulfur occurs naturally in both grapes and the yeasts that turn grapes into wine. Sulfur forms more than 100 compounds called mercaptans. These sulfuric compounds form differently and unpredictably in every bottle of wine.

When exposed to air, they eventually re-form into something less annoying, but they need a few minutes to do so. We call it "breathing," but it's really a seething sea of recombining elements.

"I think of wine as a tier of about 100 different compounds that are either taking on oxygen or passing it on to something else," says Kenneth Fugelsang, associate professor of enology at Cal State Fresno. "When that process is finished, the wine is ready to drink."

Even if you don't smell rotting cabbage, asparagus or burnt rubber -- some of mercaptan's more noxious calling cards -- sulfur compounds are still what keep you from fully enjoying wine right away.

"These reductive compounds are excellent masking agents," Fugelsang says. "They can hide the positive characteristics of any wine."

So what should you do to make your wine smell and taste better?

"I believe that every wine should be decanted," says Maximilian Riedel. No wonder: As heir apparent to the Riedel crystal dynasty, he's in the business of selling decanters. But that doesn't make him wrong.

"Decanting is kind of a loaded word," says Karen MacNeil, faculty chair of the wine department at the Culinary Institute of America's Greystone campus. "People think they have to have a candle and they have to do it slowly. Unless the wine needs to be removed from its sediment, I like to call [decanting] 'aerating.' You don't need a decanter. You could use a jelly jar."

Beyond the cork

Pulling the cork doesn't aerate a wine much because so little of the surface area of the wine is exposed to air. However, pouring out half the bottle -- jelly jar or no -- will do the trick.

"Almost every wine in the world does benefit from aeration," MacNeil says. "The only exceptions are wines we rarely drink -- older, expensive Burgundies that could collapse with too much air."

Drew Langley, wine director at Providence restaurant, says, "If a wine can't stand up to decanting, it can't stand up to drinking. I decant a lot of white wines here, especially wines that are oaked. Once you decant the wines, they become much more aromatic and expressive."

In fact, with young red wines, Langley double-decants: He pours from the bottle into one decanter, then