If you are like so many wine lovers who open a bottle of red wine minutes before serving it, you’re missing out on at least 80 percent of what that wine has to offer. Wine, and especially red wine, needs air.
Wine’s relationship with air is complex. While just about any wine needs air to allow it to really open up in your glass, it’s different while the wine is still in the winery.
During the winemaking process, most winemakers do just about everything they can to keep air away from their wines, especially red wines like Pinot Noir. It’s not like the old days (especially in California) when many red wines looked thin and even brownish and tasted tire — like they were 20 years old at release. In many cases, this was because of excess handling and exposure to air in the winemaking process. Today, winemakers in general do everything they can do to keep their wines away from air—little or no pumping, gentle handling, gravity fed wineries, a “leave it alone” winemaking philosophy.
However, once that wine is in the bottle — or on your table awaiting your enjoyment — air becomes one of its best friends and, I think, a critical element in its enjoyment.
How much air? I recommend a minimum of one hour. Two hours is better for a bigger wine to really show its nuance; it’s depth of flavor. But we are a people who want everything now. We love our immediate gratification. Winemakers in the past two decades have responded to this by making some wines that are much more approachable earlier.
Most people never get the chance to taste just how good that bottle of Cabernet or Pinot on the table can taste. How many times have you pulled a bottle from your cellar (or purchased it at your local wine shop), pulled the cork, poured it out for yourself and your guests and immediately began drinking — with dinner or by itself? You and your friends probably finished the bottle within an hour or so.
Well, guess what? You probably missed out on most of what that wine had to offer.
Try an experiment. Open a bottle of red wine. Try a taste right away. Then leave the bottle open and walk away for at least an hour. Then try the wine again, and again after two hours. In almost every case, that wine will have blossomed in the glass and added dimensions and layers of flavor that simply weren’t there when you first tasted it.
Depending on the wine, you might even want to splash decant the wine– that is, pour the wine vigorously into a decanter or some other container. The splashing aerates the wine and helps it open up even faster. You don’t need to leave it in the decanter, go ahead and pour it back into the bottle if you want.
If you’re at a restaurant, it can be even tougher to get the wine enough air to open it up. Whether you order a bottle off the list or bring your own bottle, have the server open it right away and even pour it into glasses while you decide on a white wine to get things started. Or, if it’s a special dinner for two or 20, call the restaurant ahead and see if they can open the wine you’d like to serve an hour before you get there.
As anxious as you may be to drink that Pinot or Cabernet, you will find that your patience will be rewarded if you plan ahead, get that bottle open and then stand back and give it some air.
As always, you can email me with questions or comments at [email protected]
Greg Walter, a Sonoma resident for more than 20 years, has been in wine and food publishing for more than 30 years, 15 of which were spent as a senior editor and later president of Wine Spectator magazine. Today he writes the PinotReport newsletter (Pinotreport.com) and publishes books through his Carneros Press imprint (Carnerospress.com).