“If you were cooped up in a bottle for twenty years, you’d need to breathe a little too.”
I first heard this adage in culinary school during a wine affinity class, and lived by these words for many years. When opening up an old wine, let it breathe for a few hours – the astringent tannins that help to preserve the wine, need a little softening. And aerating the wine also lets the flavors develop.
My uncle Janusz similarly follows this rule on his impressive collection of first growth Bordeauxs. Whenever I visit him, we plan our day so that we are home at the right moment to open the evening’s wine. He insists that some wines, such as the 1982 Chateau Cos d’Estrournel, needs several hours. So at 2pm we open the wine we will serve at 7pm.
On one visit we experimented with wine aerators – the gadget that funnels wine into a glass or decanter through a special tube that amplifies the breathing process. After pouring many bottles of wine through the aerator many times, tasting and taking copious notes, we were a little giddy. Not just from the buzz of alcohol (I’m not very good at spitting), but from the discovery that each pass through the aerator simulated about 1 hour of breathing.
Most of our experiments involved $10 - $20 bottles of red wine and not the more expensive ($200+ per bottle) Bordeauxs. We did experiment with one of the more refined bottles and this killed the wine, sending it downhill faster than Lindsey Vonn.
Why is it that some wines benefit from the aerator but others do not? Is that some wines need to breathe, where as others need to age?
I’m not a scientist, and my head spins a little trying to wrap my mind around the difference between aging and breathing, between softening tannins and flavors blooming. And this time, it’s not the wine causing the spin.
I just returned from another visit… we drank amazingly well:
1982 Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou
1978 Chateau Montrose
1971 Chateau Latour
1982 Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande
1986 Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande
This time, we didn’t rearrange our schedules for the wines… we went out on hikes and horseback riding. When we returned to the house around 5pm, we opened wines for dinner. Amazingly, the wines drank beautifully straight from the bottle. Especially, the 1982 Pichon and the 1971 Latour. The tannins were soft, the fruit flavors were full and the leathery oak and spice were perfectly balanced.
So it would seem, perfectly aged wines require no breathing to soften tannins, just a few swirls in the glass to let the flavors envelop the palate.
What has been your experience?