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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.