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Breathing: Who Needs It?


We've all heard the sommelier ask the question: "Shall I open the wine and let it breathe?"

Breathe? The word makes me giggle. If wine had the ability to breathe, wouldn't it have strangled long ago inside a corked bottle? I imagine a gagging sound coming from the neck of the bottle, and me giving the Cabernet CPR.

"Breathing the wine" is in large part a lovely myth. The word breathe refers to the aeration a wine gets, supposedly to improve it. This is not entirely true. It is true that wine is a living product and the more air it gets, the more it changes. And some air may well be a good thing for some wine. But not for very many.

Very young, tannic red wines may improve with some aeration, and splashing them roughly into a decanter or water pitcher will give them the shot of air that will "open" some of the aromas and flavors. But otherwise, decanting is a ritual best reserved only for wines you know very well.

If you know that an older wine has developed a fine-grained sediment, you may wish to stand the bottle upright for a few hours or a day, allowing the gunk to settle to the bottom, and then slowly pour the wine off the sediment. After that, pour the wine immediately into glasses so it can be consumed. Keeping a fragile wine airing in a decanter may harm its aroma.

Very old wine is especially sensitive to this treatment. Not long ago I brought a 1964 Echezeaux to a friend's house for a dinner party and he left the wine in the kitchen, intending to open it just before serving.

Some well-meaning oaf spotted the bottle and decanted it. More than an hour later, when the wine was served, everyone remarked about the oxidized aroma, the brown color and the rancid, raisiny smell. This was a bottle I was pretty sure had been well stored, but the premature aeration had destroyed the wine.

On the same tack, in 1986, a close friend poured a bottle of 1881 Chateau Lafite for a dinner party. He didn't decant it, but poured it using a special gadget that tilts the bottle very slowly. He was thus able to pour the wine into glassware directly from the bottle without much of the sediment getting into the glasses. (These gadgets are very expensive; what's more, I don't think they work any better than a steady hand.)

The 1881 Lafite was spectacular--for about half an hour. After that it started acquiring a smoked-bacon aroma. An hour later, the wine was dead. Decanting it would only have hastened its demise.

The same thing happened two years earlier with a bottle of 1945 Chateau Latour, and the same thing happened in 1991 with a bottle of 1961 Barolo. Decanting was avoided; the wine aroma was preserved. I am convinced that had I decanted these older wines, the aromas would have fled.

As for young wines, I once developed a tongue-in-cheek system for decanting them.

Wine geeks like to say that a young wine will sort of "age" as it breathes, based on the length of time it's in the decanter. They say that the formula is an hour per year; that is, if you air a wine in a decanter for three hours, it's like aging that same wine in a cellar for three years.

This is bunk, of course. Nothing replaces time in the cellar for maturing a wine. But it is true that very young wine can be very "tight" and awkward when first opened, and that a little aeration can help. Recognizing that these young wines didn't need gentle handling and the more splashing they get the better, I created what I called the Berger System for Decanting Young Wine.

The idea is that time in the decanter isn't as important as the height from which you decant the wine, and that a foot equals one year. Thus you could imitate 10 years in the cellar by decanting the wine from a height of 10 feet. This system never caught on (at least in civilized neighborhoods), in part, I suspect, because wine shops don't sell ladders.

Wines that need gentle decanting to get them off the sediment should be handled carefully so the sediment doesn't get all stirred up. First, take such bottles from their reclining position and look at the neck to see if any sediment is collected there. If it is, jostle the bottle so the sediment is jarred free and can float to the bottom.

Let the wine rest a day or two (a few hours at least). Then carefully remove the cork, wipe the neck with a rag, and pick up the bottle. Aim the neck of the bottle into a decanter, and place a light source underneath the curve in the bottle. Tradition says to use a candle, but a flashlight works as well.

Slowly pour the wine into the decanter, watching the curve of the bottle for the cloud of sediment that will soon appear. When you see it, stop pouring.

If you've left a lot of wine in the bottle, you may want to pour it through a coffee filter, or simply ignore it and pour a bit more. The sediment is harmless, though it might be a bit gritty.

And as for the sommelier who asks if the cork should be pulled to let the wine breathe, here is the answer: Simply pulling the cork and leaving the bottle open on the table does little to benefit a wine. Not enough air gets into the bottle to open up the aroma of a young wine, and doing this needlessly endangers the delicate nuances remaining in an older wine.

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