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Wine: To Breathe?or Not to Breathe?


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Moody's Weekly Wine Review

In May 1977, my friend Alexis Bespaloff published an article entitled “A Corking New Wine Theory” in New York Magazine…  it nonetheless presented a radical new approach in regard to letting wines breathe...one of his bottles was decanted one hour before serving, one was simply uncorked an hour before serving, a third was decanted and served minutes before the tasting and the fourth was just uncorked and served minutes before the tasting… (Mondavi and Lichine also tasted each other’s wines.)  Don’t shoot the messenger, but: In every case, including a 1973 Chateau Pichon-Lalande with Zraly and Sheldon, the bottle that was just uncorked and served - at the time of the tasting - was preferred!

In reading some of the background on Alexis Bespaloff, who died recently, thread and obit here I read this article .. and wondered, after learning something new ...

Does wine taste better when it can breathe?

Or is it better straight out of the bottle, as is contended here?

Your experience with this?

Melissa Goodman aka "Gifted Gourmet"

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Moody's Weekly Wine Review
In May 1977, my friend Alexis Bespaloff published an article entitled “A Corking New Wine Theory” in New York Magazine…  it nonetheless presented a radical new approach in regard to letting wines breathe...one of his bottles was decanted one hour before serving, one was simply uncorked an hour before serving, a third was decanted and served minutes before the tasting and the fourth was just uncorked and served minutes before the tasting… (Mondavi and Lichine also tasted each other’s wines.)  Don’t shoot the messenger, but: In every case, including a 1973 Chateau Pichon-Lalande with Zraly and Sheldon, the bottle that was just uncorked and served - at the time of the tasting - was preferred!

In reading some of the background on Alexis Bespaloff, who died recently, thread and obit here I read this article .. and wondered, after learning something new ...

Does wine taste better when it can breathe?

Or is it better straight out of the bottle, as is contended here?

Your experience with this?

Whether to let the wine breath is a matter that requires a few factors to be considered. I this case, they let a 1973 Chateau Pichon-Lalande breath and being a well aged wine, of course it deteriorated. That wine needed to be decanted to remove the sediment and drunk immediately. I've had the same thing happen with an aged Insignia (it drank much better immediately upon opening than it did an hour later) On the other hand, I have never had a good Pinot Noir or Shiraz that was less than 6 years old that did not drink better after haveing time to breath. Whether to and how long to decant a wine depends on 1) the type of wine, and 2) it's age upon opening.

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For an anniversary-ending-in-zero a few years back, we splurged on a 1982 Leoville Las Cases, which was rated 100 by WS and Johnson.

I opened it and took a small taste immediately and after 10 minutes and found it tightly closed and tannic.

I decanted it into two giant Riedel Vinum Bordeaux glasses (each holding half a bottle) and tasted every 30 minutes for 3 hours, finding that it had opened up each time.

We had it with a Lobel steak after 3-1/2 hours, when it was excellent but still not quite ready.

We saved some to try at midnight (8 hours), when it had finally relaxed and showed its depth.

This wine, at least, needed substantial breathing, and benefitted from it.

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For an anniversary-ending-in-zero a few years back, we splurged on a 1982 Leoville Las Cases, which was rated 100 by WS and Johnson.

I opened it and took a small taste immediately and after 10 minutes and found it tightly closed and tannic.

I decanted it into two giant Riedel Vinum Bordeaux glasses (each holding half a bottle) and tasted every 30 minutes for 3 hours, finding that it had opened up each time.

We had it with a Lobel steak after 3-1/2 hours, when it was excellent but still not quite ready.

We saved some to try at midnight (8 hours), when it had finally relaxed and showed its depth.

This wine, at least, needed substantial breathing, and benefitted from it.

Curious--Is the Johnson to whom you refer--Hugh?

also--where did you see a "100 point rating" by Mr Johnson?

thanks!

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Moody's Weekly Wine Review
In May 1977, my friend Alexis Bespaloff published an article entitled “A Corking New Wine Theory” in New York Magazine…  it nonetheless presented a radical new approach in regard to letting wines breathe...one of his bottles was decanted one hour before serving, one was simply uncorked an hour before serving, a third was decanted and served minutes before the tasting and the fourth was just uncorked and served minutes before the tasting… (Mondavi and Lichine also tasted each other’s wines.)  Don’t shoot the messenger, but: In every case, including a 1973 Chateau Pichon-Lalande with Zraly and Sheldon, the bottle that was just uncorked and served - at the time of the tasting - was preferred!

In reading some of the background on Alexis Bespaloff, who died recently, thread and obit here I read this article .. and wondered, after learning something new ...

Does wine taste better when it can breathe?

Or is it better straight out of the bottle, as is contended here?

Your experience with this?

Opening a bottle and leaving it to "breathe" is a bit of mumbo jumbo unsupported by science or anything else.

The surface area exposed to air is miniscule.

Air--or really oxygen is after a point detrimental to wine--oxidation is a bad thing.

It is part of the process by which a wine evolves (ok ages) so it is a factor that can benefit wine's development if controlled.

Thus winemakers expend great effort in their attempts to control how and how much oxygen is involved in the wine making process.

If rapid exposure to oxygen was a good thing then all the time and effort in stoppering and sealing a bottle of wine would be wasted.

Aeration of a wine--either in the decanting process or swirling it in the glass--is primarily done to release the aromas of a wine--tasters do this to help in the evaluation of the wine.

Decanting--the main purpose is to enable one to eliminate any sediment from a wine.

As for leaving a wine open either in bottle or in a decanter is a controversial practice. There is little science to support claims that aerating a wine will improve it.

The key, I believe, is "improve"--it depends upon what one feels is meant by improve.

A young wine can be very tannic and difficult to approach--introducing some oxygen can release some aromas/bouquet and attenuate the tannins.

Old style Barolos are a good example of where aeration can help one approach a young wine.

However, common sense and experience dictates that a wine aged in a sealed bottle over a long period of time will always be preferable to the same wine drunk at an earlier age after spending hours or even days sitting in an open container.

In the end--either way-- one ends up with oxidized wine--the trick is--aging slowly and gradually can produce wonderful changes in a wine--the development of secondary aromas and flavors.

When one leaves a wine out over hours or days--these secondary aromas and flavors never appear--one may "soften the wine" a bit or make it more approachable--but one is not truly "aging the wine" as if they left it in the cellar for several years or so.

I would also say that if the ideal situation is to open a bottle --pour the wine and enjoy it--then having to leave it sitting in open air for hours to derive any enjoyment from it indicates there is something wrong.

Either the wine is not "ready" or the taster is "not ready for it."

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I decant most wines based on providence. If the wine is known to be a tight vintage then longer breathing time in the decanter is essential. Overall I let most young reds breathe as well as young vintages of white Burgundy. The older the wine...the more cautious I am when deciding on decanting and breathing.

Cheers,

Stephen Bonner

Vancouver

"who needs a wine list when you can get pissed on dessert" Gordon Ramsey Kitchen Nightmares 2005

MY BLOG

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For an anniversary-ending-in-zero a few years back, we splurged on a 1982 Leoville Las Cases, which was rated 100 by WS and Johnson.

Curious--Is the Johnson to whom you refer--Hugh?

also--where did you see a "100 point rating" by Mr Johnson?

thanks!

Hugh Johnson has railed against the 100 point scale for years. He scoffs at a system that fails any score below 80, and has pointed out the inflationary and overly commercial need for higher numbers. A bit like many college grades.

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I don't think you could say a 1973 Pichon-Lalande was "well-aged" in 1977.  If anything, at that point it would have been a young wine that you'd have expected would benefit from breathing.

You are right. When I read the post I automatically read 1997 instead of 1977. However, I agree with a post further along, that simply opening the bottle and letting it air is not enough. For many young wines, I decant so that they can get a decent amount of ariation. I have yet to meet a good Pinot Noir that did not benefit from some time in a decanter. Try it yourself, pour a glass of wine and taste it, then let it sit for about half an hour and taste it again. See which sip you think is better.

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This is an interesting topic to have stumbled on and one I've been thinking about since coming back from France. While in Avignon we purchased a Cotes du Rhone (2001 Le Sang des Cailloux from Vacqueyras) and the seller recommended decanting for 1-2 hours which is longer than we were used to. Sure enough the beautiful dense flavours and almost mineral flavours were popping out of the glass after close to an hour and a half.

I've started now as a general rule to leave wines open in the bottle (no decanter at home) for 30 minutes or so and it is quite different than drinking straight from the bottle. Not sure yet if it's better or worse in all cases but it IS different.

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This is an interesting topic to have stumbled on and one I've been thinking about since coming back from France. While in Avignon we purchased a Cotes du Rhone (2001 Le Sang des Cailloux from Vacqueyras) and the seller recommended decanting for 1-2 hours which is longer than we were used to. Sure enough the beautiful dense flavours and almost mineral flavours were popping out of the glass after close to an hour and a half.

I've started now as a general rule to leave wines open in the bottle (no decanter at home) for 30 minutes or so and it is quite different than drinking straight from the bottle. Not sure yet if it's better or worse in all cases but it IS different.

you don't need to have a decanter, though they can be had very inexpensively, any glass pitcher will do just fine. In fact, I've used a carafe that my wife previously used as a vase. I just put it in the dishwasher and made sure it was very clean. If you want to, you can put the wine back into the bottle after it has been decanted for a while for presentation at the table.

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For an anniversary-ending-in-zero a few years back, we splurged on a 1982 Leoville Las Cases, which was rated 100 by WS and Johnson.

Curious--Is the Johnson to whom you refer--Hugh?

also--where did you see a "100 point rating" by Mr Johnson?

thanks!

Hugh Johnson has railed against the 100 point scale for years. He scoffs at a system that fails any score below 80, and has pointed out the inflationary and overly commercial need for higher numbers. A bit like many college grades.

I believe that Mr Johnson "scored" the Leoville: four stars.

Also--in the 100 point system a "failling" mark would be 50-59 not 80 which denotes a "barely above average" wine--clearly not a poor or failing wine.

Food for a separate thread?

:wink:

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I agree that younger wines benefit more from breathing, although some older wines, depending on their original tannins and acidity, also blossom with some air. Another reason for letting older wines, especially French productions, breathe for an hour or more is that they have natural populations of Brettanomyces bacteria that overwhelm the wine's flavor; sometimes with air the Brett aromas fade a little and allow the wine's profile to shine through. However, there are many older wines--especially older than 20 years--that simply turn to sawdust after half an hour.

It also depends on one's expectations. We have a dear family friend who is always bringing us 'older' red wines to drink. He loves them and raves about their 'gentility' and 'integration.' And indeed, they taste like forest leaves, dust, faded cedar, tobacco, and/or dried herbs. But no fruit. (However, he selects wines that received 'gold medals' in American competitions--not through careful study of wines with a reputation for longevity.)

So . . . Friend loves them; I find them interesting; my SO (a winemaker) has begun to resent being constantly placed in a social situation where he is expected to compliment them, and now says simply, "Tastes old." :laugh:

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I agree that younger wines benefit more from breathing, although some older wines, depending on their original tannins and acidity, also blossom with some air.  Another reason for letting older wines, especially French productions, breathe for an hour or more is that they have natural populations of Brettanomyces bacteria that overwhelm the wine's flavor; sometimes with air the Brett aromas fade a little and allow the wine's profile to shine through.  However, there are many older wines--especially older than 20 years--that simply turn to sawdust after half an hour.

It also depends on one's expectations.  We have a dear family friend who is always bringing us 'older' red wines to drink.  He loves them and raves about their 'gentility' and 'integration.'  And indeed, they taste like forest leaves, dust, faded cedar, tobacco, and/or dried herbs.  But no fruit.  (However, he selects wines that received 'gold medals' in American competitions--not through  careful study of wines with a reputation for longevity.)

So . . . Friend loves them; I find them interesting; my SO (a winemaker) has begun to resent being constantly placed in a social situation where he is expected to compliment them, and now says simply, "Tastes old."    :laugh:

You touched upon some interesting points.

first--the thing to note about the Bespaloff piece is that his was a well constructed test (I ma not sure whether or not it was blind). It should carry quite a bit of weight in any discussion.

You are on to something with your anecdote about the gentleman who prefers his wine on the "old" side.

A lot of the determination of when a wine is drunk depends upon one's preferences and also what one expects from a wine. we are also talking about wine styles and fashion.

For example the British (at least the old guard writers) have long preferred wines that were drunk very old. This preference actually had an impact on how wines were vinified. particularly Bordeaux.

(I am also of the mind that much of the angst among some writers today is sourced in the changing styles of Bordeaux to suit different palates).

On the other hand the French have a general preference for drinking younger wines.

Fear of tannins:

I believe that often people are a bit mystified by wines and aging.

There is a belief that the presence of tannins is not good--that wines young or old should be soft and "round."

Also some folks confuse the "softening effect" one can achieve in a wine by leaving it out in the air for hours or days with aging a wine properly in a closed bottle until it has evolved.

Wines left out in the air do not have the same flavors and secondary aromas etc that are achieved by bottle aging. They may be more approachable but that's it.

Finally,

I agree with your SO--when a wine loses its fruit--it also loses its vibrancy--it is a matter of taste though!

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I like that one Russ!

Just yesterday someone in the wine business (aren't we all)

remarked that the French made Bordeaux for the British

and Burgundy for themselves.

guess there's some truth in all these saws.

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Decanting and time of aeration depend on the individual wine and the age at the time of drinking. One needs to have at least a case of the wine to truly know what to do. In general, the younger the wine, the greater the amount of aeration is needed. Older wines need little to no aeration in some cases. In many case of 30+ or older wines, I don't decant but pour from a standing rest and let the drinker decide when to consume. We have one case of a '61 Bordeaux left and i know that it should be served immediately after decanting from prior experience. -Dick

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.

Also--in the 100 point system a "failling" mark would be 50-59 not 80 which denotes a "barely above average" wine--clearly not a poor or failing wine.

Food for a separate thread?

:wink:

Well, yes, but it is sometimes difficult to get a new thread going...I suggested 'Cheese' a couple of years ago, and was underwhelmed by the response.

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.

Also--in the 100 point system a "failling" mark would be 50-59 not 80 which denotes a "barely above average" wine--clearly not a poor or failing wine.

Food for a separate thread?

:wink:

Well, yes, but it is sometimes difficult to get a new thread going...I suggested 'Cheese' a couple of years ago, and was underwhelmed by the response.

Best chuckle I've had all day. Took me a minute, though. :blink::biggrin:

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Mary Baker

Solid Communications

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We have one case of a '61 Bordeaux left and i know that it should be served immediately after decanting from prior experience. -Dick

My, that will be something to look forward to! Do you plan on opening another bottle soon?

I open one bottle of the 61's we have left every Xmas time when we have lunch at Carlos in Highland Park, Illinois. Mondays are no corkage at Carlos so that's when we go. We are now working on 1970's having drunk all the 64, 66's and 69's. 1970's were $40-45/case for futures, third growths. -Dick

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Thought I would add something after my experience last night. I opened a 2003 Cotes du Rhone from a pretty good producer, Saint Cosme. I had a glass immediately on opening and it was lovely with good fruit and the perfume (the much referenced violets?) of a probable syrah rich blend. However, I went back an hour later, half of this time having had the cork back in the bottle, and it was very dull in comparison.

This was a wine that I would have guessed would have benefitted from at least some breathing. The morale of the story is, you sometimes just don't know. Although I recommend doing as much research as you can to find out about any interesting bottle you are going to drink, you really need to give it a taste on opening and make a judgement and if necessary drink it immediately or quickly get the cork back in until your ready.

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