It's flowering in Napa vineyards.

It's flowering in Napa vineyards.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Aerating wines - too much of a good thing?

We dined at a local restaurant recently, and the food server asked if he should uncork the bottle of red so it could “breathe” before the main course arrived. That seems to be a standard restaurant ritual, and I’m sure that virtually every patron will go along with the proposal. It is generally accepted that letting a wine breathe or aerate, particularly for young red wines, seems to soften astringent tannins and awaken the fruity aromas of the wine’s underlying grapes. The larger question, however, is how to aerate and for how long?

When your food server uncorks the bottle and gives you several minutes to agonize over menu options, little or no transformation will take place within the wine—there is only a dime-size surface area in the bottleneck that will come into contact with air. It would take countless hours for a full bottle to be altered when left uncorked. Because of the greater exposure area, you’re better off having the wine poured and letting it sit in your stemware until you finish your aperitif with the first course. Better yet, a few swirls of the glass, which is the most commonly accepted aeration method, would be in order during the first course to encourage all those restrained olfactory delights to start blossoming and reveal themselves.

Aeration also occurs when you decant a bottle of wine. Decanting is more commonly used with well stored, older wines to separate gritty sediments that have accumulated on the sides and bottom of the bottle. As a tooth-stained wine enthusiast from the “old school,” I often rely on decanters to make the evening a bit more special when hosting dinner guests. As such, I not only use them to make Bordeaux and other age-worthy red wines more palatable, I also bring them out when I serve young Riojas, Chiantis, Cote du Rhones and other vibrant reds that are desperately seeking relief from the confining strictures of cork and bottle.

However, after browsing a few of the Internet wine forums—where tweeting wine geeks clamor for cyberspace visibility—it appears that decanters have been replaced or otherwise upstaged by more modern, fashionable wine aerating gizmos. Most of them have one kind or another (they come in various designs, some being quite unimaginable), and they speak in glowing terms of their effectiveness, except for one dissenter who spoke of their foremost ability, which is to “aerate your wallet.”

The Vinturi and its copycat competitors were the first out of the marketing gate. In close pursuit came the following: battery operated, vibrating air-infusion rods; combo (all in one) stopper, pourer, aerators; special wine breather carafes: curlicue, twisted, funnels and screens; stemware with etched and/or rippled interiors; “wine-aging,” catalyst-like metal dipping tools with special alloys; small wire whisks and blenders (I kid you not); and magical, magnetic pourers just to name a few that I found while surfing the web! The goal of these aerators is to deliver “a better bouquet, enhanced flavors and smoother finish” than the “time consuming, cumbersome, and inconvenient” decanters.

There was a time in the not to distant past when observing how a wine evolved in the stemware was one of the more engaging and satisfying subsets of informal dinner time wine tasting and drinking. For a wine with a few years of age, decanting typically would initiate the process, while some gentle swirling would further nudge the wine from its slumber. And little by little, the aromas and flavors would unfurl and develop into something more than their original and primary fruit aspects.

However, we now seem to be in the era of gratification non-delayed; when a wine must deliver from the get-go; when it should spontaneously reveal what its future prospects will be; and when it is asked to survive a structural reconfiguration and still end up tasting something like the winemaker originally intended. Of course, wine enthusiasts are free to do whatever they choose including, if they must, a full throttle surgical attack of a food blender.

Maybe what we have here is step back in history. The ancient Greeks had their own version of aerated wines—not by design mind you. Their oar-driven, amphorae-laden cargo ships that delivered wine throughout the Mediterranean were constantly at the mercy of the sea god Poseidon, whose unpredictable weather whims could vary from gentle, white-capped waves to raging, boat-sinking storms. To be sure, those sea-going wines experienced some degree of vibration and aeration which affected and/or modified their original composition. We will never know, however, if the ancient wine enthusiasts were aware of, or even cared about, those effects. All we know is they drank one helluva lot of it.

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