Does wine breathe?

It is commonly believed that you should let some wines breathe by opening them a few hours before drinking them, possibly decanting them as well. My first experiment to test this hypothesis was on Christmas Day 2014, with two bottles of 2001 Château le Meynieu.  I decanted one bottle for 3 hours and then opened a second bottle just before a blind comparison of the two, along with some of our dinner guests. There was very little discernible difference. I imagined one had a little more fruit on the palate, and that turned out to be the one that had just been opened. But I wasn’t sure of any real difference between them.

IMG_6056I wasn’t very satisfied with the experiment for a couple of reasons. For one thing, the wine was pretty ordinary, and for another, everybody knew they were different and was looking for it. So the following Thanksgiving Day, 2015, I chose a Barolo, a wine which people often say needs to breathe, and I used the Sesame Street method: each person was given three glasses and had to pick the one that was not like the others. One bottle was decanted 6 hours in advance, the other opened immediately beforehand. One guest served as a lab assistant, and, in another room, randomly chose and poured one of 6 possible configurations for each guest: ddb, dbd, bdd, bbd, bdb, dbb (where b = bottle and d = decanter). Nobody knew which position the odd glass out was in or whether it came from the bottle or the decanter, and each person had an independently and randomly chosen configuration. Here were the results

Person Configuration Choice
B dbb 1
D dbd 3
R bbd 2
A dbb 3
R&P dbb 2
J ddb 2

Only one person correctly picked the odd glass out, and, as it turns out, that person was me. Here are my notes from that occasion:

I had a feeling one of the three was more aromatic and spicier, more tannic on the palate, whereas the other two had a richer flavor on the palate. I was not at all sure it wasn’t my imagination, however. As it turns out, I correctly picked the glass that was not like the other two, but mis-identified it coming from freshly opened bottle rather than the decanter.

The reason I identified the odd wine out as coming from the freshly opened bottle was a hypothesis that the mostly like effect of breathing was to dispel some of the more volatile components in the aroma. Clearly more research was needed. I didn’t do my next breathing experiment until a few weeks ago, which I will describe in next week’s post.

My first wine experiment

I started collecting wine seriously in 2012. Apart from enjoying the wine, I am interested in finding out for myself whether the things people say about wine—that it ages, that you should let it breathe, that you must keep it at a certain temperature—are true. Over the last few years I have conducted various experiments to find out. Here I will describe my very first experiment, conducted in the summer of 2014.

In 2014, I left a bottle of 2012 Cascina Chicco Barbera d’Alba Granera Alta out in the Arizona heat all summer (100º–110º F). I had another bottle of the same wine in my temperature controlled storage facility (about 60º F). In November I did a blind tasting with my wife and another couple. The abused bottle had a wrinkled label, so I wrapped the bottles in pink tissue paper; once the corks were removed you couldn’t tell the difference. (In the photo the abused bottle is on the right.) Since I was the one who removed the corks I asked my wife to go into another room and, on the toss of a coin, either swap the bottles or not. Each guest had two glasses and was served from the two bottles in the same order.

Amazingly, the wine left out in the sun was drinkable. One of my guests could not tell the difference between it and the properly stored wine, and all agreed that the difference was subtle. I found that the abused wine was fruitier and lacking in acid, with harsher tannins, and a spicier aroma. The properly stored wine had more structure. It also had a slightly funky mulchy element to the nose. It was a much better food wine because of the acid; the abused wine was insipid during the meal. But it was quite drinkable, and preferred by two of my guests who like a softer style of wine.


This summer I am conducting the same experiment with a white burgundy, which I will write up in the fall.