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Sep 9, 2000 12:55 PM

Aerating wine

  • c

Per Jim's requests, I'm starting a new thread, but this is really a response to Re(8): Aging (was Rioja...), below.

More a wine ignoramus than a wine geek, but I'm intrigued by this and have a few questions for you, Melanie:

1. Any wines you specifically *don't* think benefit from a little "air-time" before drinking?
2. I'll only be drinking half my bottle with this meal; how best to aerate? Decant half (into what if I don't have a "decanter" per se), pour a few extra glasses and set aside, etc.?
3. How long? Can I pour while I cook (half hour) and be happy with the diff; does two hours make so much of a diff I should try for that, etc.
4. How about temperature maintenance for drinking, i.e., avoiding taking too much chill off the white or warming the red to room temp when in a winter-heated house, etc.

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  1. 1. a) Old wines (more than 15 yrs) can be fragile and it's best to err on the safe side and not over aerate. Taste immediately and if it's not ready yet, then wait patiently. Also an old wine should have developed some bottle bouquet that you'll want to enjoy early on which will dissipate with too much air.

    b) Out-of-balance lower-priced wines can taste worse with more air. Aeration exposes their faults and they seem to almost disintegrate and fall apart to become bitter acid water. A few overoaked Chardonnays and Australian reds come to mind...

    2. If you want to save the second half of the bottle for the next day, best to pour out the first half, recork immediately and pop in the fridge. If you pour into one wine glass, the balance of the half should fit easily into a big coffee mug. Other make-do "decanters" I've used in a pinch include an empty wine bottle, water bottle, flower vase, coffee carafe, water pitcher, and Pyrex measuring cup.

    3. Here's where some wine geeks get into heated debate over aeration time. For a young red wine (except those noted in #1), 30 mins. unattended in the glass will probably be a big benefit. When you start talking about longer periods of time in a wine glass, some will say that you are missing the part of the total experience by not observing the evolution of the wine during that period. Sometimes the most interesting phase of a wine is the first hour, sometimes later, and there are a lot of variables at play here. Once a wine starts to degrade from too much air, you can't go back. Whereas, if it needs more air, you can give it that. I get around this by small pours for myself, less than 3 oz. at a time to allow a wine to aerate quickly.

    4. I assume you're asking because you don't have room in your refrigerator to stand up an opened bottle of wine, as that's the best solution. The insulated tubes are also good for maintaining bottle temperature at the table. Again, I take small pours for myself so that I can drink the wine at the right temperature. Today in fact, I was served some sparkling wine for a toast and I asked for a half-filled flute first. I don't drink fast enough to finish the second half before it's too flat and warm for my tastes.

    8 Replies
    1. re: Melanie Wong

      Your depth and breadth of information is remarkable. Thanks.

      How do you handle drinking, for instance, the second half of the bottle of red that you stored in the refrigerator? Let it come back to room temperature - in the bottle, in the glass? How do you know if the temperature is right? By the time one can determine that by sipping it probably would be practically finished. White is obviously more straight forward, its the red that puzzles me.

      1. re: Stefany B.

        Good question! I know some people who use thermometers specially designed to stick on the exterior of wine bottles to gauge temperature. But you're really measuring the temperature of the glass and not necessarily the temperature of the liquid inside. Pulling it out of the fridge about an hour before serving time (for reds) is about right.

        I think the best way is to warm up the wine quickly is to pour it into a glass. A small pour will reach the desired temperature sooner. Some of my friends are expert in the no. of seconds to microwave the glass of wine to bring it to perfect serving temperature. You might want to experiment with the power levels on your own equipment.

        1. re: Melanie Wong

          Thanks Melanie- great answer

      2. re: Melanie Wong

        Unfortunately I haven't been able to locate the link, but I remember clearly reading a report of a blind tasting conducted in England about fifteen years ago in which prominent oenophiles were presented with 4 variations: pull and pour, pull wait some period of time and pour, decant for a shorter and longer period. The tasters did not know which they were tasting. Pull and pour scored significantly higher than any of the other options and the longer the decanting the lower the score. This suggests that the real perception of wine improving with time is based on sensory adaptation by the drinker rather than actual improvement in the wine. The only case where the wine actually was perceived to improve with aeration was where there was a defect in the wine which lessened with time.

        What is your view?

        1. re: jason

          This is indeed a controversial topic. Also supporting the side you present is the esteemed Prof. Peynaud who did similar experiments about 20 years ago. He’s of the viewpoint that wine starts to degrade as soon as its exposed to air and should be consumed as quickly as possible after uncorking. I read a humorous piece by Karen McNeil Fife recently on her tasting trials on the same lines. Unfortunately, I can only remember that the participants got fairly blotto and don’t recall their conclusions! This would certainly support the view that sensory adaptation is a big part of the picture. (GG)

          Trying to not get too overly technical, this all boils down to the balance between reductive and oxidative reactions in a wine. A large part of a winemaker’s task is to control and use these reactions to render the wine in the desired style. The winemaking process attempts to exclude oxygen at critical stages to preserve freshness and flavor, and also exposes wine to oxygen to create softer, rounder mouthfeel, intensify flavor and smooth out tannins. In an ideal world, at the time that we choose to pull the cork, the wine in the bottle will have reached the optimal redox state to express fully the winemaker’s intentions. But we don’t always achieve this, and the right amount of aeration can complete the task if more oxygen is needed. On the other hand, if a wine has gone too far down the oxidation path, it will taste best right out of the bottle and will degrade quickly with time in the glass.

          Winemaking practices worldwide have shifted considerably over the last decade in favor of what’s called reductive winemaking. Processes which introduced air to a wine --- repeated racking (transferring from barrel to barrel), pumping over, primary fermentation in wooden open-topped vats --- are much less common and methods to protect wine from air --- improved bottling technology, CO2 blankets, stainless steel tanks --- have taken hold. Wines are bottled earlier and are younger when they’re released too, lessening the controlled oxidation in bottle before they reach the consumer. A wine that has become too reduced in the bottle will be stinky with flattened fruit character; exposure to oxygen will cure this. Consequently, red wines made in the modern style will often benefit from some aeration, imo.

          Aeration can lessen certain defects, especially off-aromas that will convert in the presence of oxygen or dissipate. It can remove some kinds of vegetal aromas and flavors associated with mass-produced wines. But it also releases all sorts of volatile compounds that add to complexity and enjoyment that aren’t always immediately apparent in a freshly opened bottle.

          A particular wine’s performance under a 1) pull and pour, 2) pull wait some period of time or, 3) pour, decant for a shorter and longer period will depend on the relative age and style of the wine. Older and less tannic wines will be further along on the oxidation path, whereas young tannic wines can suck up lots of air and blossom. I don’t think that #2 changes a wine considerably from #1, as the surface area of wine exposed to air in very small in relation to the total volume (unless the wine is sloshed around as it would be with each pour over a period of time).

          The issue of changes in sensory perception is a really interesting one. My own observation about my own palate acuity is that the first wine of the day tastes the best. In fact this is something that we try to control for in blind tasting panels by staggered starting points in a line-up of wines, e.g., 1/3 of the group starts from wine #4 of 12, 1/3 from #8, etc. I know that I get palate fatigue from extended tasting/drinking such that later wines don’t seem to be as flavorful, so I’d have a hard time believing that improvements in a wine over time weren’t real since the tendency is for things to not taste as good.

          1. re: Melanie Wong

            Melanie, thanks for your comprehensive analysis. I would like to take up your final points on sensory adaptation. I can easily imagine sensory fatigue setting in during a wine tasting where you taste many different wines. But, when drinking the same wine over a period of time I believe that you adapt to that wine and get to know it better and it often tastes better over time. I have believed that this was the phenomenon that led to the possibly false belief that aeration was improving the wine, although I do accept your analysis as more nuanced. The quality of the wine itself also seems to affect taste over time. As a serious collector of grand cru bordeaux and white burgundies I have come to the belief that the reason that California wines often perform better at wine tastings than my personal evaluation of their quality is that they have initial dramatic elements but lack underlying unity which becomes more apparent with each sip.

            1. re: jason
              Melanie Wong

              Jason, now I better understand your point. There is certainly truth in what you state about APPRECIATING a given wine more over time as we find new nuances previously unnoticed. Maybe this makes it taste better to us. There may be a physiological basis for this too. Some theorize that the taste sensors for the wine’s dominant initial flavor will become fatigued with time, allowing greater perception of the background flavors which contribute to complexity. On the other hand, some volatile components do require aeration before they come foreward. This is probably why Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo, two very fragrant varieties, seem to change so much in the glass. Also, I’ve attended many a meal with an array of wines poured and lined up before me where I’ll return to one wine several times over a couple hours to find it dramatically improved/or disintegrated. When my observations on that wine are confirmed by others, it would seem to indicate that it is the wine that has changed. If the difference were just my individual ability to sense its qualities, it is unlikely that others would be at exactly the same state of taste satiation.

              Yes, the quality of the wine does affect how well it holds up over time. Or maybe vice versa. But I don’t want to get into the conundrum of trying to define wine quality, GG) other than to say that one indicator of quality is the ability to last well and to improve in the glass. Sadly, few put their wines put to this test. Recently a wine importer friend asked for my opinion on his new releases. He handed me only one glass and said that he’d pull and pour immediately. He wanted my instant reaction so that I would judge them the same way the typical consumer does. When we got the final wine, a Cote Rotie, and the best of the bunch, I did insist on being able to give it a couple swirls before tasting!

              Calif. wines will often outperform Old World wines in wine tastings, Even in France where much of the winemaking tradition of the classic areas has been to prize the taste of the soil, structure and mouthfeel, flamboyant fruit-forward flavors will carry the day. The obvious wins out over the qualities that take more effort to discover. During my visit to Burgundy in March, several of the young generation of winemakers said that they now emphasize fruit in their wines while still wanting them to speak of their individual place. It’s hard not to be seduced by the silky and intense fruit in their wines. Packing more deliciousness into wine is a good thing, as long as there’s something behind it too.

              I like your term, "underlying unity", which I assume incorporates the notion of balance, harmony and integration. If you value this, would it be fair to say that you prefer 1989 over 1990 and 1995 over 1996 in Bordeaux? I had the opportunity to blind taste 5 of the top 1996 Bordeaux among a flight of both new and old world Cabernet Sauvignons in August, I continue to be stunned at how ripe and fleshy the 1996s are at this stage, whereas the 1995s were much more restrained at the same age.

              1. re: Melanie Wong

                Melanie, with regard to your question comparing the fruit forward character of certain bordeaux vintages, I don't own any vintages later than 1990 so I can't personally speak to 95 & 96, although I believe that 95 is considered the greater year. I do own quite a few 89s and 90s, but I consider them both to be extra-ripe fruit years and have never differentiated between them on that basis. Although both vintages are approachable, with the exception of some right bank wines such as the wonderful 90 Figeac, neither vintage in my opinion is really ready to drink, the 89 less so, particularly the cabernet sauvignon based wines. I just bought some 90 l'Evangile which I am looking forward to trying this weekend. I must admit that I am not really skilled at seeing through a young wine's tannic structure to perceive its long term quality. Over all, I believe that 90 will prove greater with the exception of Pomerol and a few Graves such as Haut Brion and La Mission Haut Brion. I have tasted these, and although I believe that I saw some of their promise, I'm not convinced as to what my reaction would have been in a blind tasting, however, Graves are not known in any case for being fruit forward, more like leather and tobacco. Now that I think about it, this is probably why these fine wines in general (though not for 89s) sell for only about two thirds of comparable quality wines from the Medoc. 86 is considered a great year, but is still impossibly backward. What I really do like and buy whenever I can are the 82s. These wines combine ripe fruit with structure and the super seconds, which in great years are at the limit of my price range, are at least in the early stages of maturity, whereas the top tier is still on the cusp and not quite there yet. I actually like both the 82 Pichon Lalande which is softish with a pronounced fruit flavor and the Leoville-Las-Cases which is more structured and complex, equally well. I do believe that you have correctly analyzed my personal inclinations which are best characterized by my special favorites: 78 Margaux which is complex, rigorous and highly structured with mineral scents, not fruit forward at all, and 70 Palmer which is concentrated and perfectly balanced. I would be very interested in your opinions of bordeaux wines and vintages.