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Do Wines Need to 'Breath'?
Copyright 2001 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed July 09, 2001. For more information go to

The wine steward approaches with a dusty bottle and a corkscrew and asks the question: "Do you want to let the wine 'breathe' before dinner?"

What should you say?

As a follow-up to the discussion in one of last week's Wine Advisor Express bulletins about decanting wine, a related procedure, a number of you have asked for some quick pointers on "breathing."

First, let's define it: "Breathing" or "letting the wine breathe" means opening the bottle some time before serving, with the idea that exposing it to air will somehow make it more enjoyable to drink.

In fact, most wines don't particularly benefit from this practice, and a few might actually suffer from it. In practice, exposure to air is helpful only with immature, ageworthy wines of the type that benefit from aging. Many Bordeaux, a few Rhones and some Burgundies, some of the best Italian red wines and Vintage Port fit into this category, as do their New World counterparts in the pricier realms of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah (Shiraz) and a few others.

When you consume wines of this type in their youth, before they are really ready to drink, you may find them "tight" or "closed," showing little of their potential aroma or flavor; and they may be "tannic" or astringent, a characteristic of young reds that usually mellows with age. Wines of this type may open up and mellow a bit if you expose them to air for an hour or two (or even, in some extreme cases, overnight) before serving.

If you're going to let your wine "breathe" at all, don't simply pull out the cork, which exposes only a tiny circle of wine in the bottle neck to the atmosphere. Pour a glass or two, or better yet, decant the wine by pouring the entire bottle into a clean pitcher or decanter.

Again, there's no benefit to breathing wines that don't need aging - most whites and many reds are fresh and fruity and ready to go as soon as you open the bottle. What's more, you should never allow breathing time for an older wine that's already fully mature, as it may be "fragile" with age and give up its spirit quickly after it's poured.

Another approach is to forget about breathing and simply open your wine, take it as it comes, but if you find it shy, harsh and astringent, push back your glass and enjoy it after dinner, after it's had a little air.


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