To aerate or not to aerate, that is the question! In all of my years in ‘the business’ as a premium restaurant bartender, manager and wine consultant, I’ve been asked a lot of questions about wine but none as often as, ‘Am I supposed to aerate red wine?’ Like many questions these days the answer can be a bit complicated.
When wine goes into the bottle the chemical processes don’t stop, and it is these processes that allow for wine to evolve and age into something well beyond what it was in its youth. Kind of like me! (Haha!) Phenolic compounds are a large group of chemical compounds that affect the color, taste and texture of wine. Resveratrol, tannin and anthocyanins are a few examples. Tannins are a big component of a wine’s texture and anthocyanin color. In the absence of oxygen, these compounds join together to form long chains. When a bottle of wine is opened and oxygen is able to interact – this is when things really start to happen. That long protein chain starts to break apart and release aldehydes and esters which are responsible in part for the aroma of wine. Sulfur dioxide is also released; this is the actual process that occurs when wine is said to ‘breathe.’
Oxygen exposure or oxidation is good for wine when it is ready to be consumed but detrimental if it occurs because of a faulty cork or some other bottle breech. This is why most wines smell better and taste more balanced after they have had time to breathe or open up. This process happens organically, all on its own.
So what is aeration? Aeration is the process by which air is circulated through, mixed with or dissolved in a liquid. Aeration is a way to speed up the process of wine ‘opening up.’ The reality is that swirling your glass or decanting or simply opening a bottle and pouring a glass provides aeration, in a natural way. In addition, aerated wines tend to over-oxidize and flatten out rather quickly. Think about this, by decanting, this process happens naturally. But when you aerate, you are forcing the protein chains apart and losing all of the slight nuances the winemaker imparted.
There are a few cases when aeration could help, like when you have a young, inexpensive wine that is a bit unruly – aerate to your heart’s content. The best method to enjoying bigger red wines is decanting. They aren’t terribly expensive and definitely bring a bit of sophistication to my Tuesday night mac & cheese.
Heather Burton, Wine & Spirits Supervisor
Follow me on Twitter @abcwineheatherb