What does a wine aerator do?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

What does a wine aerator do? Why use one?

—Gabriel, Alhambra, Calif.

Dear Gabriel,

I’m going to first talk about what aeration does to wine, and then get into aerators, or tools designed specifically for this task.

Aerating is a fancy way of saying you’re exposing a wine to air. As you might guess, it begins the moment you unseal the wine, continues as you pour the wine into a glass, and further as you swirl and sip. Exposing a wine to air triggers both oxidation and evaporation. You’ve probably seen oxidation happen firsthand—it’s the cause of the browning of a piece of fruit after the skin is broken. And even though your wine isn’t going to evaporate very quickly, the volatile compounds in wine will evaporate first.

Both of these processes will change the way a wine presents itself, and usually for the better. Most wines will get more expressive and aromatic with some exposure to air, especially younger, more robust wines. Older wines might start to fade after a while. Sometimes folks describe aeration as letting a wine “breathe” or “open up.” After a while, too much oxygen will work against any wine. Anyone who’s sipped a wine left in a glass overnight will know what I’m talking about.

For most folks, simply swirling their wine is plenty of aeration. Decanters are also useful for exposing an entire bottle of wine to some air, and I use them regularly (and I also use them for their other function, to separate wine from sediment).

There are also smaller, hand-held aerators out there, where you hold the aerator over a glass, and then pour the wine into this gurgling funnel and then into your glass. I’ve tried them, have done blind tastings comparing wine directly from the bottle with wine from the aerator, and my personal results have been inconclusive. Sometimes I think it’s aerating the wine to the wine’s benefit, but not always. I also cringe at their claims that they add the “proper amount of air,” because in my experience, the proper amount of air varies from wine to wine.

That said, some members of my family use an aerator, and I have no problem with it. It’s kind of nice to not have to drag the decanter out every time you want a glass of wine, and they like the ritual, so who am I to judge?

—Dr. Vinny

Ask Dr. Vinny

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