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.

6 thoughts on “Does wine breathe?

  1. Did you let your palate breathe?
    People experience a wine “opening up” over the course of a meal. A lot of interactions there.
    When comparing wines analytically, I have found using plain bread to reset palate between each taste helps the analysis, although not the pleasure.


  2. Yeah, I’ve been collecting comments people make about wine on CellarTracker. Some examples: “more savory notes emerged after 3 hours drinking” and “a little disjointed out of the gate, the wine took about an hour to come together.” But the same things happens with paintings. As you look at a painting your perceptions evolve, but it’s not the painting that is changing. I think with wine it is a mix of actual changes and changes in perception.

    I’ll add the bread to the methodology!


  3. Thanks for starting this fascinating blog!

    At first it seemed unlucky that only one person correctly picked the odd glass out, but if I’m doing this right then one would expect that to happen by chance around a third of the time: (1/3)^0*(2/3)^6 + 6*(1/3)^1*(2/3)^5 = 256/729 or about 0.35.

    Some years ago I had the privilege of meeting Anders Ericsson, a researcher in the field of expert performance. He said his group had been unable to study expert performance in wine tasting because subjects with a reputation for expertise proved to be inconsistent in their performance in objective tasting tasks.

    I’ll put up two references that you might have read already or might want to read:

    Gawel, R. (1997). The use of language by trained and untrained experienced wine tasters. Journal of Sensory Studies, 12 , 267–284

    Valentin, D., Pichon, M., de Boishebert, V., & Abdi, H. (2000). What’s in a wine name? When and why do wine experts perform better than novices? Abstracts of the Psychonomic Society, 5, 36.

    These are cited in “The Influence of Experience and Deliberate Practice on the Development of Superior Expert Performance,” Anders’s chapter for The Cambridge Handbook of Expert Performance. If you don’t have it already, the chapter is available in several places online.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the calculation and the references! One of the experiments I want to do is analyze my own tasting notes on CellarTracker for consistency in rating and language across different notes for the same wine. I write all my tasting notes and ratings off-line first, without looking up the wine, and then post them on CellarTracker without changing them (even if reading others’ notes makes me want to). Once I have enough repeat tastings of the same wine I want to measure the consistency. Fortunately I am forgetful enough that repeat tastings are more or less independent of each other. It will probably take years of drinking to establish consistency. Then I want to use that consistency to measure variation over time, the Holy Grail of this project. That will take even more years of drinking. The things we do for Science.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Breathing experiment no. 2 | Wine Experiments

  5. Pingback: Breathing experiment no. 3 | Wine Experiments

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