What does the wine term "breathing" mean? And how long should a wine "breathe"?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

In a recent question you talked about a wine “breathing.” What does that mean, exactly? And how long should a wine “breathe”?

—Krishnan, India

Dear Krishnan,

To say a wine is “breathing” is to say a finished wine is aerating, or being exposed to oxygen. A wine is “alive” in the sense that there are constant chemical reactions taking place, but wine doesn’t breathe in the sense that you and I do. I think the term appeals to the romance of some wine lovers. Who doesn’t want to give life to a wine gasping for breath? Let it breathe!

“Breathing” begins the moment a cork is pulled or a twist off is uncapped. But if that’s all you do, the amount of surface area that the wine has that can be exposed to oxygen is only the size of a nickel. For more aeration, pouring a glass will help, as will swirling that glass around. To maximize the “breathing” phenomenon, though, you’ll want to use a decanter.

Typically, as a wine is exposed to oxygen, it becomes more expressive, releasing aromas and flavors. But aeration can also expose flaws, or make an older, more delicate wine deteriorate more quickly. It can also take the bubbles out of a bubbly. You will probably notice the effects of aeration within minutes, but some wines will continue to evolve in your glass or decanter for an hour or more. Each wine is different, but typically young, tannic red wines need the most air to become expressive.

—Dr. Vinny

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