To Breathe or not to Breathe


“To Breathe or not to Breathe ….what was the question?”

Recently I was asked about decanting wines and why do it. I thought there might be others out there that were interested in this too, and thought I’d use this week’s column to answer.

Decanting can be a vague issue. If I was to ask 20 wine people their opinion on it, I’d probably get 25 different answers, plus a lecture on “Why I prefer beer over wine with my curry!”

There are two reasons to decant a wine: first, to remove sediment, and second, to let a wine breathe. As red wine ages, colouring matter and tannins will eventually cling together. These fine particles given time, settle out after the wine is bottled. Generally, the richer coloured and tannic wines will have heavier sediment. The sediment isn’t harmful, but it can make the wine awkward to drink and impart some bitterness.

Letting a wine breathe is more debatable, not because anyone doubts that air changes the wine, or that some wines improve with breathing, but because it is not always clear when and for how long to let a wine breathe. The answer can often be a matter of experience, educated guesses or personal preferences. Personally with an everyday wine, I don’t bother decanting. I let the wine breathe in the glass; a small amount of wine will breathe fairly quickly in a large glass, and there’s not that much sediment in an everyday drinking wine. I decant when I know that a particular wine will need longer to breathe, it has a lot of sediment or if we’re having a group for dinner. Use either a wine decanter, (with or without a filter) or very steady hand and pour straight into the glass, leaving the sediment in the bottle. Either way you choose, try not to slosh the bottle around, getting that glugging sound, and try to do as many pours as you can without returning the bottle to a standing position.

A tough, young wine can improve dramatically with air, so a young wine I decant a few hours before I would want to serve. This also allows for a tasting, I don’t want any surprises when serving. However older wines can often be a little fragile, and, whilst decanting will help remove the sediment, it will also aerate the wine and cause it to fade too quickly. With older wines I generally decant just before serving, yet really old wines I don’t decant at all. I stand them up vertically for a full day before I want to serve it, and then carefully hand pour straight into the wine glass.

You might find that some whites, such as chardonnay or viognier, can benefit from decanting for the aeration too. Sometimes I get the breathing time wrong and find the wine is perfect just a bit too late or by the time it’s nearly all gone, but it’s a skill that I’m willing to work on.

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