Sometimes aeration improves a wine's aroma and flavor, and sometimes it interferes with the full expression of the wine.

By Randi Gollin
October 06, 2020
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Two glasses of red wine on wooden surface with wine aerator
Credit: Courtesy of Üllo

Whatever your level of wine expertise, chances are you've heard the age-old advice to let a bottle of wine breathe when opened. Or that you should swirl the wine around in your glass. Both bring more oxygen in contact with the wine, which is known as aeration.

Decanting is another aeration option, and should be done 15 minutes to an hour before drinking, while wine aerators, like the Corkas wine aerator ($12.46, amazon.com) or electric Aervana Essential ($59.95, amazon.com), allow you to quickly introduce a bigger dose of oxygen to the wine. Once dissolved, oxygen can cause or accelerate reactions with components of the wine, eventually hitting the sweet spot where wine is at its most enjoyable. That's when aeration brings a bottle into more balance. But is it necessary to aerate every type of wine, every time you uncork a bottle?

Bigger Boost for Reds

"Like most ideas concerning wine, aeration should not be dogmatic; there's no one-size-fits-all approach," says Joe Radosevich, chief technology office at Üllo, a Chicago-based company that's known for its Üllo Wine Purifier ($64.99, amazon.com), which aerates wine with an adjustable aerator after filtering out sulfites and their bitter taste using proprietary polymer technology. "I prefer to think of aeration as not impacting flavors so much as it is accelerating the aging of those flavors," he explains. "The right amount of oxygen and aromas can come alive since oxygen can affect esters, one of the larger classes of compounds responsible for aromas."

Some types of wines get a bigger boost from adding oxygen to break down the wine. Red wines, for instance, typically benefit more from aeration than whites or rosés since they have more tannins, phenolics, and compounds from grape skins. And older reds can become more approachable after aeration. Even those who typically skip the aeration step acknowledge that there are occasions when it may make a difference. "Honestly, most of the time I don't feel it necessary to aerate wine," says Kilolo Strobert, assistant manager of Fresh Direct Wines & Spirits. "If I'm opening an older vintage of Bordeaux, an Imperial Rioja, or a California cabernet sauvignon of 12-15 years or older, that is when I automatically consider decanting as a necessary part of the experience."  

Older wines, which can be more fragile, may fall apart if left for too long. "If you’re lucky enough to have a 1964 Barolo, you may want to decant it because of the sediment, however you wouldn't want something with that amount of age sitting on the table for hours before dinner or you may find yourself missing out an all of the stunning aromatics," says Stacey Gibson, partner of Park Avenue Fine Wines in Portland, Oregon.

Can Aeration Work Miracles?

Some wines, says Radosevich, will do a 180-degree turn following aeration, while others will taste just as they did before pulling the cork. And what about cheap wines? Can an aerator make that $10 bottle taste like a wine twice its cost? "It's important to remember that aeration isn't a magic bullet," says Gibson. "If a wine is of low quality, no amount of air will help it and it may lose its exuberance well before the last drop is poured."  

And she worries that consumers obsess too much over gadgets, overlooking the beauty of the wine right in front of them. While aeration can certainly improve a wine's aromas and flavors, for the most part, both Stobert and Gibson prefer not to control the wine, but to embrace its complexity and let the wine’s story unfold on its own. "I enjoy the journey of tasting wine over a number of hours or days, to see how it develops over time and the subtle expression of initial, secondary and tertiary characteristics that express the terroir, winemaking, and characteristics of the journey from fruit to wine,” says Strobert. "Aeration shortens that process and most of the time it is the opposite of my personal goal."

To aerate or not may be the question, but in the end, it’s about something greater: "Ultimately, the goal is to enjoy the wine," says Radosevich. "If aeration helps you do that, great. If not, that’s great, too."

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