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Dear Dr. Vinny,
I have found there are not any breathing holes in the cork of some wines. Is it a must to have breathing holes in a cork?
—David W., Shanghai, China
A good cork shouldn’t have any “breathing holes” in it at all—in fact, its primary job is to protect the wine inside the bottle from exposure to air, which would prematurely age it.
I understand your confusion, though. Most corks contain at least a few small channels and cracks, which I’m guessing is what you thought of as breathing holes. But a cork’s unique texture and structure is what makes it a good, tight closure. It’s elastic and nearly impermeable, which means cork can create a good seal. There is evidence that most corks do allow passage of tiny amounts of air and other gasses over time, which is why older bottles will typically show signs of evaporation. But given a good cork, that takes decades.
I also think part of your confusion may be over the term “breathing.” When people say a wine is breathing, that means it’s being exposed to oxygen after the bottle is opened—in a wineglass or decanter, for example. Wine isn’t alive the way you or I are, of course, but it’s “alive” in the sense that chemical reactions take place. When a wine is exposed to oxygen, more reactions take place, similar to how an apple starts to turn brown when you break its skin.
Wine and oxygen have a strange relationship. When you’re trying to preserve a wine, you want to avoid oxygen. But when you open a bottle, you typically want to make it interact with oxygen by swirling your glass or decanting the wine, so that it will become more expressive and release more aromas and flavors. But then, after a while—say, a few hours for more delicate wines and up to a couple of days for more robust ones—all that oxygen will cause a wine to begin to fade, its aromas and flavors will flatten and dull, and eventually the wine will start to turn brown and take on stale, nutty notes.
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