I do not belong to the school that insists all wine must be allowed to breathe before serving. If the belief is rigid, I consider it a fetish.
To really recognize the benefit that comes from “breathing” of wine, one must look at the chemistry of wine, and the physics of the breathing process.
What we are really talking about is basically two phenomena. 1) Exposing a recently opened bottle of wine to some oxygen from the air. Very simply..a desirable chemical reaction called oxidation. 2) Allowing the wine to evaporate slightly, merely turning into vapor. A physical reaction which allows the volatile elements in the wine to exert their presence.
The better term, and maybe the correct one, is “aerating” the wine (despite the aquarium overtones of the word!).
And, the better way to aerate a wine, if it needs it, is to decant it into another empty bottle or a glass decanter (we are not concerned about sediment decanting, its whys and hows are the subject of a future article). The aerating occurs because of the pouring over of the wine. As it is leaving its bottle and dropping into the new container, it comes in contact with plenty of oxygen from the air, and does what it has to! Furthermore, this same process has some agitation or shaking to it, and some of the elements in the liquid wine tend to vaporize.
Everything that happens with a two or three hour breathing spell by opening a bottle and letting it stand will happen with a one minute exercise of decanting.
You see… with the traditionalists breathing ritual, the 3/4 inch exposure to the air in the neck of the bottle is minimal for the chemical reaction of oxidation. And with no “pouring over”, you have to do a heck of alot of swirling to achieve the second requirement of vaporizing.
My suggestion is to aerate, if the wines needs it, and not to tax ones patience with guessing how long does the wine need to breathe.
Now comes the question: Which wines need aerating?
Most wines will benefit from aerating. The degree of benefit is both for taste and aroma or bouquet.
Robust, big, bold, assertive red wines will benefit considerably from aerating (Cabernets, Syrahs, Pinot Noirs, Riojas, Zinfandels etc.).
Aged wines will benefit, but be careful not to over do it. Very old wines are delicate and their beauty of age is fleeting! (even while it is still in your glass).
Young and fruity red wines are low in benefiting. If they are “closed in” for aroma, a little aerating will help.
White wine likewise, will benefit little.
Certainly, no aerating of sparkling wines is advised!
If you use a glass decanter to transfer your wine to, it is best to have a stopper for it. This will prevent the volatile aromatics from dissipating fast. The surface of wine against air is now larger and this accelerates the action.
To sum up, breathing is best accomplished by aerating.