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Tuesday, 4 January 2011

How much air ?

Aeration is the process of bring wine into contact with air - as wine is a living, breathing product, it changes over time and exposure to air is the main factor in causing those changes.

Wine's complex relationship with air starts during fermentation, be it in stainless steel tanks, concrete or oak. Then there is aging - again in tanks or oak, followed by bottle-aging either under cork, synthetic stopper, screw-cap or some other closure.

The size of bottle will also be a factor - magnums, for example, have twice the amount of wine with the same amount of air.

Finally, there is the serving - pouring either straight from a bottle or into a broad-bottomed decanter, whilst the size and shape of the tasting glass will also be a factor.

Given all this, I wondered whether there is any way to predict how much air a wine needs before showing its best; with new bottles, I tend to drink them over several days to see how they develop; some wines continue to improve for 24, 48 or even more hours after the initial opening.

I tend to find that full-bodied young wines (whether red or white) can take more air than others, but for fear of a wine spoiling, I tend to find I give them too little air and often they seem to be much better right at the end of a meal than at the beginning, which can be disappointing - with three quarters of the bottle consumed, the wine can suddenly start to open up and turn from a mere pleasant quaffer into something much more complex and rich ... with only a few drops left to enjoy.

I asked advice from a couple of experts, including Roger Bohmrich who in 1993 became one of the first Americans to pass the Master of Wine* ("MW") examination.

Roger explained that he had experienced a similar range of results "but I do prefer to err on the side of too little rather than too much airing. As you point out, powerful young wines can withstand more airing than delicate youthful examples, or very old vintages.

My personal practice is to decant many "big" reds for up to an hour, but not more. I also concur that young whites of certain types - top white Burgundy, for example - can benefit from airing, and I usually decant such wines and leave the decanter (sealed with plastic wrap) in the refrigerator before serving. I know many wine lovers who swear by long aeration, but there really is only anecdotal evidence to rely on. Then add our own preferences to the mix. It is virtually impossible to conduct reliable taste tests which pertain to all wines in all vintages; in short, there are no universal rules.

With so many aspects of wine - given its remarkable complexity and individuality - we often want simple answers and are disappointed to find that it's too complicated and variable!"

Mark Norman, General Manager at Cave Nil Vino also commented that "too often my wife & I are too busy during the course of our working day to decide what we will drink and I would agree that often the wine is much better on the 2nd glass ... usually after we have finished the meal. I tend to think that is why some of us (yes - guilty) use areators to expedite matters ... but I think that it depends on the wine."

Given all this, there are three bits of advice I can think of:

- eke out bottles over a number of days to establish how they change with time
- always buy wines two bottles at a time, so that you learn with the first and enjoy the second.
- invest in a broad-bottomed decanter which will expose the wine to much more air
I had previously dismissed decanters as only for poseurs and restaurants, being too tricky to clean out and dry properly, but having recently received one as a gift from a friend I am now truly converted.


Roger Bohmrich - http://www.millesima-usa.com/about-us/roger-bohmrich.html

Mark Norman on LinkedIn - http://www.linkedin.com/in/marktnorman


  1. Wow...you're posts get better and better!

    A couple of comments to add to this interesting discussion.

    -Don't forget that many great vineyards like Coz in Sicily and a number of others are experimenting with fermentation in Anfora clay pots. Check out Coz's Frappato/Nero D'Avolo blend in Anfora. A remarkable wine.

    -My experience is that the more 'natural' and the less C02 (sulfites) are added the more the wine changes over time and this can be accelerated by exposure to air. Some really wacky (and sometime wonderful) natural wines are alive and in a constant state of flux. Wild and wonderful actually.

    -I'm with you on the two bottle at least purchase to truly get the wine.

    -Holding a bottle around over a number of days is a challenge for me so I usually drink the same wine, across different bottles over a week. Not the effect you are describing but does breed some familiarity.

    Again, thanks for this post

  2. Great post! I do not like to aerate my wines much. I've seen too many fabulous wines annihilated by well-meaning, but over-zealous, decanting regimes.

    The wake-up call was the decanting of a Comte de Vogüe Grand Cru vertical (top Burgundy producer) from the 1960's to present. The wines were decanted for a private dinner party by a guest, a highly experienced and revered expert, at 5:00pm. We sat down to dinner hours later (9:00 or 9:30ish?) and his pronouncement? "This is why I've always preferred Bordeaux: You can see that Burgundy simply cannot age. It doesn't hold its fruit."

    Ever since, I've refused to aerate other than shortly before serving. For me, the pleasure is seeing how the wines evolve in my glass(es) during a lengthy and relaxed dinner - not trying to hit some mysterious à point target. In the days when wines were frequently faulty, a touch of aeration helped diminish a few off-aromas. Or, when unbearably tannic there was a perceived softening, but those days are thankfully over!

    Glad you've come to enjoy a decanter as they do help 'ready' a wine for tasting (when used in moderation). I would say that 48 hours works only with young, hefty reds. Fine vintage Bordeaux will only hold its complexity for the evening (which is fine with me!).

  3. Tom I find with older wines it is better to open just before you are going to drink them. Sometimes they do not open up for hours, or fade away in a short period of time. Do not understand the chemistry or why one wine will die and one will need time to open. Another thing that I have found interesting is the wines will change colour with some air, they will go from brown to red and then back to brown , again do not know why this happens. Maybe on of your readers has the answer.

  4. Arnold - thanks for your comments; I've never tried anything fermented in clay pots, but it sounds fascinating.

    Debra - the wines I first found improving with a decent amount of air were 1) young, full-bodied Austrian whites and 2) young, textured French reds (purchased in France - where they really go for texture).

    Also, once the meal is over, if we do not finish the bottle, we pour the wine back in and reseal, so the 48 hours is really time spent in the bottle, not in a decanter (now that would be impressive !).

    Frank - certainly younger, fuller-bodied wines seem to take and benefit from more airing than older wines; that said, I had a magnum of 11-year-old Troplong Mondot not that long ago and found it was still improving 24 hours after opening - see here:


  5. I've always had trouble reconciling this in my mind: During the course of an evening/dinner whatever, how much of it is actually aeration and how much is it "palate acclimatisation". The second glass is ALWAYS different to the first, even when drunk minutes apart. Can this REALLY be down to aeration?

    Given, that if you have one glass every 24hrs or so then yes, aeration is certainly playing the leading role, but over a dinner???

  6. WBFTF

    There are probably lots of factors in play here and it's hard to know which might be causing the effect you describe - perhaps it's "palate acclimatisation" or it could be the effect of the food.

    Depending on how you aerate the wine (and the wine itself) you can see changes over a relatively short period of time.

    I now use a decanter and some very large, bulbous glasses to get maximum aeration as quickly as possible, but I still find that some wines can continue to develop over the course of 48 hours and more.

    It's a fascinating study and one that I intend to continue researching !