Breathing Exercises

I don’t know whether it’s seasonal, or cyclical, or a function of the heat, but lately I’ve been reading more and hearing more about “breathing” wines than I have in a long time. Whatever: If this is a sign of a shift from wines of in-your-face simplicity to wines of some complexity, I’m all for it.

Breathing, of course, is not a yoga exercise for wines or winedrinkers, but the process of opening a bottle and allowing the wine to oxygenate – breathe – for a period of time. What gets people all worked up and confused are the numerous complications that seemingly simple exercise entails: first, the question of whether and/or which wines should be allowed to breathe at all, then whether they should be allowed to breathe in the bottle or should be decanted, and then for how long.

Some people even pour the wine back and forth between decanter and bottle a few times. I’m not kidding: The late Martin Gersh, for some years a wine writer for Vogue, was a serious advocate of that procedure. He argued that the accelerated exposure to oxygen it afforded allowed wines to open more rapidly and improved their flavor.

Everyone, I think, would agree that the whole point of letting a wine breathe is to improve its flavor by allowing it to “open.” And most winedrinkers know what “closed” means in a wine: You pull the cork, you sniff, you sniff again, you sip, and you’re getting nothing, or next to nothing, in nose and mouth. But what people mean by “open” is not always clear.

I’ve generally found two schools of thought. One says you breathe wines in order to allow them to show their mature flavor: The exposure to oxygen is a super-speed version of what happens over years in the bottle, with the slow penetration of oxygen through the cork. This was Martin Gersh’s theory, that he could by rapid but controlled oxygenation effectually advance the age of a young wine until its flavor approximated that of a mature bottle. The other school holds the seeming opposite: that when you allow a wine to breathe, it becomes fresher, the fruit comes forward, and you get more of its youthful charm.

It’s just possible that both could be true, that different kinds of wine respond to breathing in different ways. But The Oxford Companion to Wine would say rather emphatically that neither is true. Of breathing in the bottle, this authoritative tome says “the wine can take only the most minimal of ‘breaths’, and any change is bound to be imperceptible.” On the authority of Émile Peynaud, The Oxford Companion is equally skeptical of decanting: “the longer it is prolonged – i.e., the longer before serving a wine is decanted – the more diffuse its aroma and the less marked its sensory attributes.” In other words, breathing is a lot of hot air.

That should settle the issue, but it doesn’t. My own experience directly and strongly contradicts those opinions. Whatever the authorities may say, breathing does in fact make a difference, often a big one, and almost always for the better. (Fragile older wines are the exception: they can be killed by overlong breathing, and in extreme cases by any breathing at all.)

When I was considerably younger than I am now, just starting out in wine writing and still feeling my way into wine’s intricacies, Diane and I spent a lot of time trying to understand exactly what breathing did for a wine. In the best scientific, controlled-experiment fashion, we would take two bottles of the same wine and open one several hours before dinner and the other just at dinnertime, or decant one (sometimes immediately before dinner, sometimes at a predetermined length of time earlier) and pour the other from the bottle. We did this with many different types of wine, for different lengths of time. It was fun, and it was very, very informative.

In almost every case, the wine that had been more exposed to air tasted better to us: richer, fuller, more polished, more generous, sometimes even more developed – that is, tasting more like what we knew an older specimen of the same wine with more evolved flavors would taste like. To be sure, we were using young wines – we were young ourselves and correspondingly impecunious – but they were good wines: small Bordeaux chateaux, Burgundy village wines, Antoniolo Gattinara, Mastroberardino Taurasi, Poggio alle Mure Brunello – all affordable wines in that now-long-gone day.

Occasionally, to verify that we weren’t deluding ourselves, we had other tasters join us. The results were always the same: everyone agreed that the wine that had breathed was better – richer, more complex, a more intense version of what its sibling bottle tasted like. Even with simpler wines, like Beaujolais and Valpolicella, there was a difference: The fruit might not be any more complex, but it was more vibrant. With wines capable of bottle age, like those I mentioned above, often some of the complexities started to show – nothing like what you would get with a properly aged wine, but more than a simple pop-the-cork-and-pour would give you.

You can easily try this yourself. Take two bottles of the same wine, one opened for one, two, or three hours or decanted for whatever length of time piques your interest, the other opened and served immediately. As I’ve said in this blog many times already, you only taste with your own mouth. See if breathing the wine makes any difference to you. If it doesn’t, you saved yourself a lot of future fuss. But if you do detect a pleasurable difference, you have added a new dimension to your enjoyment of wine.

5 Responses to “Breathing Exercises”

  1. Tom Casagrande Says:

    Nice article/post. I agree with your observation “It’s just possible that both could be true, that different kinds of wine respond to breathing in different ways. ” My view is that wine aroma development generally follows a pattern: closed for while after botling; a little later youthful fruit (re)emerges; and then progessively oxygen changes the fruit aromas to tertiary stuff, until tertiary “aged wine” aromas are all that’s left. Breathing simply brings the wine to a point a little ahead of where it is on the curve. A young closed wine will show fruit. A fruity wine in its youth will soften and display a little tertiary development. A mature wine with both fruit and tertiary aromas will seem more mature. An older wine that’s on the tertiary end of the spectrum will speed toward the grave. I seem to recall that Gersh wrote a lot about Bordeaux of varying ages. So it seems logical he’d aerate many of them in his unique way to bring them along to something close to a mature state. Personally, and very generally speaking, I like youthful wine, so I typically aerate to rectify “closedness” and bring fruit out. I actually use a Vinturi a lot. I think it works great for that particular issue, though I’ve never tried it with a very mature wine.

  2. Rod Says:

    Hi Tom, Nice piece. I remember attending a tasting about two years ago here in NZ of some 1966 Bordeaux. I was mortified when I discovered upon arrival that the wines had been decanted and returned to their bottles an hour before. Needless to say the idiosyncracy normally attributable to place and producer was lost i.e. the high notes. My personal approach has always been to pour directly from the recently opened bottle to a large glass. And then watch the wine unfold and go through its changes right before your own nose. Continually swirl and appraise. Indeed, for me it is not only the changes a wine goes through over years in a bottle, but also the changes it goes through in the seconds, minutes and hours after opening. The last thing I want is the decanter being the sole witness to these immediate changes. Equally, having a number of bottles on the go enables one to appraise/enjoy the same bottle over a few days with often beneficial results. Cheers.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Thanks for the comment, and the salutary reminder that what gives one the greatest pleasure, be it palatal or intellectual, is what really matters.

  3. Magda Says:

    I’ll be more consistent about breathing my wines after reading your post, Tom, esp. since I love decanters. I have a small collection. I rarely saw wines in bottles when growing up since my grandfather and father too made their own, so they had to be poured into decanters to be presented at a table.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Hi, Magda. I too remember never-bottled home-made wine from “our cousins down on the farm” — then an interminably long drive away down single-lane, multi-traffic-lighted US 1 down to Tom’s River, now converted into a retirement community in all too nearby New Jersey. Ah but the wine! deep purple, smelling of fresh grapes, and potent. I’m not sure it ever saw anything as elegant as a decanter: a pitcher is more likely. You have stirred some long-dormant memories.

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