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Dear Dr. Vinny,
What types of wine benefit from being opened ahead of time "to breathe"? Old, aristocratic, bold reds, or young, fresh, low-tannin ones?
—Stefano G., Flossmoor, Ill.
Any wine may benefit at some level from breathing. To clarify, when we wine lovers say a wine is “breathing,” it’s just another way to say the wine is aerating, or being exposed to oxygen. It happens the moment a bottle is opened. As the wine is exposed to oxygen (and as it starts to evaporate), it becomes more expressive, releasing aromas and flavors. It can also expose flaws you didn’t notice at first. Decanting, pouring and swirling a wine around in your glass maximizes this process.
Every wine is different as to how much aeration it can take before its character starts to fade. To make a sweeping generalization, older, more mature wines will typically deteriorate much faster than something young and robust. I don’t believe the difference between bold tannins or low tannins (as you describe) matters as much as a wine’s age in these scenarios. Nothing happens to the tannins themselves during aeration—though giving a tannic wine the chance to breathe might make it appear more balanced and integrated.
Breathing is also a matter of personal preference. (You know I’m still talking about wine here, right?) The more a wine is exposed to oxygen, the more its fruit flavors will start to fade and the alcohol will stick out, and eventually the wine will take on nutty, earthy notes. Older wines typically have less fruit flavor to start with, though of course there are always exceptions. Personal preference for these aged notes should be your guide. Dr. Vinny usually likes to drink ’em young, and quickly.
Most wines will be good for at least two or three hours once you’ve opened them, and they will show differently in this time frame, usually for the better. But beyond that, how much life is left in the bottle depends on the wine and the person drinking it.
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