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Breathing Revisited - Generally Unneccesary But There Are Exceptions
Copyright 2003 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed November 3, 2003. For more information go to

As I point out in one of our standard "Frequently Asked Questions," I usually consider the practice of allowing a wine to "breathe" before serving to be distinctly overrated.

This is particularly true of the practice of simply extracting the cork and allowing the full bottle of wine to sit open for a while before serving: The amount of oxygen that the wine will receive by exposing a dime-sized circle of wine in the bottle neck to the air for a few minutes is so small as to be negligible. Mark this one down as one of those persistent wine myths that's best discarded.

Most wines, especially fresh and fruity whites and lighter reds, are ready to drink when they're put in the bottle, and they don't need "breathing" to bring them around. With older wines, fully mature or even past their peak, "breathing" may be an actively bad idea, allowing the wine's fragile life to flee before you get around to tasting it.

But before we throw out the idea entirely, there are times when exposing wine to air is a good thing. Young wines that actually need aging may be shy on aroma and flavor, a quality sometimes described as "closed" or "tight." Give them a quick shot of air before serving, and you're providing a rough-and-ready (if somewhat less graceful) substitute for the more gentle oxidation that occurs as wines age in the cellar.

If you're going to do it, do it right. As noted above, don't just pull the cork and expect something to happen. Rather, pour out a glass, and do it briskly to mix in plenty of air. Then leave the glass, and the rest of the bottle, sitting open for an hour or two before dinner.

If you're like me, you rarely plan this far ahead. But if you uncork a sturdy red and find it shy and closed, there's still hope. Match your young reds with rare red meat or robust cheese, and you'll find that these "tannin-wiping" accompaniments often help immature reds find their balance. Or push your glass back during dinner and then enjoy a glass of it afterward, hoping that an hour's breathing time has helped.

Perhaps the best approach of all is to enjoy your glass, shrug off its youthful awkwardness, then stick the cork back in the bottle. Leave it just like that, unrefrigerated overnight, and try it again after 24 hours or even two or three days. Although wines don't last forever in an open bottle and soon start developing objectionable "Sherry-like" qualities, I've often found that immature but ageworthy reds actually benefit from a day or two in the open bottle, offering more open, generous and enjoyable aromas and flavors after 24 hours than they did on the first night.


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