How Long Should I Let My Wine Breathe?

As Featured by Wine Enthusiast

BY MARSHALL TILDEN IIIWoman opening bottle of wine next to man in kitchen

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It’s Friday, the end of a long week. You’ve decided to open a bottle to celebrate. Perhaps it’s an older Bordeaux, or a young, vibrant Austrian Grüner Veltliner. You pour a splash in the glass and give it a sniff. A wave of disappointment crashes down around you as the wine smells like burnt matches and rotten eggs.

Fear not. A little aeration may be all you need.

First, let’s get this out of the way. Not all wine needs to be decanted. Decanting is necessary mostly for younger red wines that need maximum aeration, or for older wines to help remove sediment.

However, just about every wine will improve with some aeration, whether in a decanter or through a quick swirl in the glass. So how much time does a wine need to breathe? And how long should you swirl before your wrist feels like it’s going to fall off? The answer is…it depends.Aerator vs Decanter: Which is Better?

If you have a young, opulent and highly tannic Rhône red, it may need to decant at least an hour to soften tannins and round out any hard edges. This applies to most wines with similar structure and concentration. But, for an easy-drinking New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, something that is fresh, zippy and full of aromatic citrus fruit, an hour of breathing may dull the qualities that give the wine its character.

However, a few swirls and a bit of time to breathe in the glass will usually help reductive or sulfur-related aromas blow off the wine. Here are a few tips to help decide how long a wine should breathe so each pour will shine.

Even at home, pour a sample before a full glass

Just like a sommelier at a restaurant, pour a small sample to test the nose and palate before you commit to a full glass. Some wines may have some reductive or sulfur notes, which come across most notably as aromas of rubber, burnt matches or rotten eggs. Often, these aromas will dissipate after 10–15 minutes. You may opt for a decanter, but it could be simpler to pour a small glass and swirl away to see if those odors fade.

Red wine being poured into decanter
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Young, tannic reds need oxygen to soften tannins

Whether it’s a young Napa Cab, an Argentine Malbec or Aussie Shiraz, these wines typically need a dose of oxygen to smooth out any roughness and soften tannins. Of course, if you enjoy the punch that these wines can pack straight out of the bottle, there’s no need to delay. Allowing them to breathe too long can overly soften their opulent nature.

Still, most young, tannic reds can benefit from some aggressive swirling and 10–20 minutes in the glass. This will help open up big, brooding wines and allow for overpowering oaky notes to fully integrate with the fruit and often high alcohol levels.

Happy friends having fun at dinner party. Bearded man opening wine bottle with bottle opener. Credit Getty
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Older vintage wines may be ready right out of the bottle

There’s a common misconception that older wines all require several hours of decanting. The truth is, even several minutes in a decanter may overly oxidize an older, delicate wine. It can obliterate the drinking window to just a few short seconds.

Yet, there are longer-aged wines, usually those that started with high levels of tannins, alcohol content and fruit concentration, that will benefit from several minutes in the glass to open completely. These could also potentially benefit from decanting.What are Tannins, Really?

The rule of thumb for older wines is that the lighter and older a wine, the less aeration it will need. When in doubt, pour a small sample into a glass and examine it. Red wines tend to lose color with age, meaning the lighter in color the wine appears, the less aeration it will likely need. An inky, bright ruby, opaque older wine will require more oxygenation. The opposite is true for white wines, which gain color as they age.

A juror swirls a glass of wine during the competition 'Best of Gold' in Wuerzburg, Germany, 11 May 2015. A jury elects the best wines from Franconia in the competition. Photo: Karl-Josef Hildenbrand /dpa | usage worldwide (Photo by Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/picture alliance via Getty Images)
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White and sparkling wines do not typically need aeration

That’s not to say all whites and sparkling wines can’t benefit from a bit of oxygen. If any reductive notes are detected in a white wine, by all means give it some air and possibly 10–15 minutes in a decanter. The same is true for those rich, deep gold whites that may need a little bit of room to stretch their legs. But the vast majority of these wines come out of the bottle ready to rock.

If you pour a sample and the wine is slightly muted or not as aromatic as expected, add a bit more to your glass and swirl away. The problem will usually solve itself.

Enjoy the process

One of the best parts about tasting wine is to see how it develops from the time it’s opened until the last sip. Nothing is more rewarding than when the final taste from a highly anticipated wine is the best of the bottle. It allows you to fully appreciate the journey that it took to get there. So, while aerating and decanting some wines will certainly help bring them to their ideal drinking window, to taste the natural evolution of the wine after it’s opened is its own great pleasure.Published on June 8, 2021

How to Understand the Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Aromas in Wine

As featured on Wine Enthusiast

Wine has three levels of flavors and aromas that evolve over the course of its life: primary, secondary and tertiary.

Younger wines display primary fruit flavors and aromas. These include black, red and dried fruit in red wines. For white wines, they can offer scents and flavors of green apples, plus citrus, tropical and stone fruits, and underripe fruits of all kinds. Primary aromas are the most obvious to detect in young wines, and they’re often what sparks interest in wine drinkers. Herbs and spices, like mint, pepper or licorice, are also part of the primary category.

How To Taste Wine - Wine Tasting Tips from Wine Enthusiast ...

Secondary aromas and flavors derive from winemaking processes like fermentation and aging. These can include the biscuit and yeasty notes that appear from lees stirring and autolysis (the effect when yeast dies off), or the very distinct buttery popcorn aroma that’s a byproduct of malolactic fermentation in many Chardonnays. It also encapsulates the wonderful characteristics that are imparted by oak aging, like vanilla, clove, smoke, coconut or even coffee.

The last of the three levels of aromas and flavors is tertiary. These complex components occur when wine is aged in an ideal environment.

In red wines, fresh ripe fruit starts to transform into stewed or dried fruit, like raisin or fig. Tertiary aromas of tobacco, earth and mushroom will come about, too.

Primary secondary tertiary wine aromas

White wines start to develop dried apricot, orange marmalade and sometimes even maderized qualities, or Sherry-like notes of almonds and candied fruit. Other tertiary characteristics include nutty aromas as well as complex spice components like nutmeg, ginger and petrol.

It’s important to note that wines with tertiary aromas and flavors are not “better” than those with primary and secondary ones. Around 90% of wines are meant to be consumed young and fresh, while a small percentage of wines improve with three to 10 years in the bottle. Only a tiny amount of wines (some estimate as low as 1%) are meant to age 10 years or more.

If you are drawn to wines with fresh fruit, powerful tannins and a mouthfilling finish, you might generally prefer primary and secondary flavors and aromas. Be honest about your palate and preferences, and be confident to drink whatever and whenever you like.

Learn the Five S’s of Wine Tasting

Don’t be intimidated by all of those fancy wine descriptors or the swishing and swooshing sounds that the pros make while they taste. To evaluate wine, it all comes down to the “five S’s.”

Illustration by Ryan McAmis

 

 

Illustration of man with glasses looking at wine
Evaluating the wine’s visual qualities / Illustration by Ryan McAmis

See. Similar to a psychic who gazes into a crystal ball, inspecting wine in the glass can help predict much of what’s to come on the nose and palate. The color, depth and intensity of a wine can offer a glimpse into its age, concentration, body and overall style.

Hint: white wines gain color as they age, while red wines lose color.

Illustration of a couple swirling red and white wine
It’s all in the wrist / Illustration by Ryan McAmis

Swirl. Swirling is integral to aerate the wine and allow oxygen to “open it up.” This seductive art reveals a wine’s complexities, and it will raise intensity in most young, opulent bottlings as well as those aged beauties. Better yet, when done properly, it will wow and potentially hypnotize those around you.

Illustration of a man evaluating a white wine's aroma
Technique that’s right on the nose / Illustration by Ryan McAmis

Sniff/Smell. Don’t be afraid to shove your entire nose right into the glass. Wines with medium to pronounced intensity shouldn’t need such a deep dive, but others may be a little bashful at first. In these cases, revert back to Step No. 2 and swirl some more. Aroma is usually where you hear all those cool, eccentric wine termslike “cat pee,” “wet dog” and “grilled watermelon.”

Illustration of standing woman sipping red wine
A matter of good taste / Illustration by Ryan McAmis

Sip. It takes a while to actually taste a wine during the examination process, but it’s often well worth the wait. Plus, all the prior steps should impart a pretty good idea of how the wine should come across on the palate.

When pros taste wine, you may notice some pretty off-putting and downright disgusting sounds, but there are reasons for it. The swishing, swooshing and gulping ensures that the wine hits all parts of the tongue and mouth. Thus, the taster can gauge sweetness, acidity, bitterness, tannins and identify the overall mouthfeel. Sucking in air allows for further aeration on the palate, and it helps volatile components be sensed by the olfactory system to tap in to all the characteristics of the wine.

Here, you look for primary characteristics (fruit, floral and spice), secondary characteristics (oak and fermentation-related flavors) and tertiary character (those that result from bottle aging, like mushroom, tobacco and nuttiness), depending on the age of the wine.

Illustration of couple savoring wine after sipping
Don’t forget to enjoy / Illustration by Ryan McAmis

Savor. Here’s where the finish comes into play. You want to savor the final essence of a wine. Here, you not only look for length, but balance of fruit, acidity, tannin and texture. When a wine leaves you with an overwhelming desire for another sip, you know you’ve found a winner.

Final tip

If a young wine has a far superior finish than its taste on the palate, it probably needs a bit of aeration or even a little more time in the cellar.

Published on April 15, 2019
TOPICS:Wine Basics
About the Author
MARSHALL TILDEN III

From his first sips of wicker basket Chianti at his grandfather’s dinner table to a 1986 Premier Cru Gevrey-Chambertin, Tilden knew that there was something magical about wine. He earned his Diploma in Wine and Spirits from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and is a Certified Specialist of Wine with the Society of Wine Educators. Having been with Wine Enthusiast catalog since 2005, when he is not writing about wine he also runs the wine storage division and is head of W.E.’s in-house education program.