I'll Huff and Puff Your Wine Away

DecanterBreathing may be overrated. Don’t get me wrong, I like to breath and try to do it as often as possible every day.

Breathing can do many things, it keeps us alive and opens up young wines to improve their drinkablity. What breathing does not do is replace time.

I don’t understand the claim by some that many, many hours, stretching even into days, can improve wines to the point that it almost replaces years and years in the cellar. Barolo/Barbaresco is the focal point of most of these wild claims. Time and time again you hear the refrain of, “when I first opened the wine it was closed, but after a day (or more) it finally opened…”  This, I think, is a bunch of crap.

As someone who opens far more bottles than he should, I constantly find myself with a cabinet full of bottles that have been open for various days or weeks and never has a bottle been better the next day than it was after a few hours of breathing. Some wines do better than others, with some bottles remaining delicious for days, while others are shot the next morning. Strange as it may seem,  the girth of a wine has little to do with how it fares with exposure to air.

A case in point, was a recent (gorgeous) bottle of 1999 Giuseppe Mascarello, Barolo Monprivato, which, when first opened was tight, but after two hours in a decanter was sublime and it then gained in complexity over the next two hours of sipping. Never once did it lose its edge. However, the next next night, this extraordinary wine was a shadow of itself: although a lovely shadow it was. The problem was, is this shadow now lacked definition. I want wine with sharp edges, not a diffuse, less interesting profile. It is best to drink a wine before it loses the edges that make it unique.

I agree you can’t argue with taste – actually no, I am debating taste on this point. I think that those who argue for outrageously long breathing periods for wines just don’t like the firm edges, that clear definition that certain wines bring you. Twenty-four hours in a decanter will make those edges hazy, less focused and demanding of the palate. While young wines certainly benefit from exposure to air before consumption, this evolution will never replace those slow years of development in the bottle. From time to time you will visit a producer who will proudly proffer a  wine that has been open for days to show its durability and the precision of their winemaking, but not a one will recommend that their wine is best if you leave it in a decanter while the earth does a complete revolution before consumption: not one.

For young, tight wines like Barolo and Barbaresco, two to three hours in a decanter before serving is adequate. Nebbiolo greatness comes from its firmness, precision and edgy cut. Don’t steal a wine's character and try to turn it into merlot, revel in its tannic beauty.