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Letting wine breathe

A friend asked me about the bottle of Cinq Cépages she had purchased. The first and only piece of advice I gave her was that it should be opened in the morning to be drunk in the evening. Wine changes when it is exposed to air. For most bottles of wine, oxidation slowly steals its fruit flavors. However, for a few bottles of wine the interaction with air is a catalyst to a delightful experience.

As most of you know, your average bottle of $9.99 wine does not need decanting and usually does not improve by being open for a day. Many bottles of mass produced, inexpensive wines are less appealing the next day. The more a vine produces, the less complex the subsequent juice and the faster its flavors deteriorate when exposed to air

Price is not always a factor for gauging when a bottle's flavor will hit an apex. A bottle of Big Moose Red, the $9 wine with a Stelvin closure on its business end, was astounding two days after having a glass poured from it. A friend told me he had a similar experience after it had been opened four days earlier.

For every successfully oxidized bottle of wine there are ten times as many bottles that get drank too soon. Knowing how long to allow a wine to breathe can be the difference between blowing money on a bottle of wine and experiencing a masterpiece. One of the best ways to know if a wine needs to breathe is to ask your favorite wine merchant. Sampling wine is an everyday task for well trained wine-floor staffers. Wine distributors are always schlepping around bottles of wine that have been opened for hours and sometimes days. I never assume a bottle is defunct even if it has been open a week or more, with the cork securely in place of course. I recall one previously opened bottle of wine being left in the trunk of my car. When I tried to retrieve the Michael Pozzan Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon, I found my car behind a locked gate. The car and the bottle of wine remained there for two days before the gate was finally open again. The bottle, which had by then been sampled out of four days earlier, was still extremely enjoyable.

You can gauge how long to allow some wines to breathe by their composition or by their style. The more cabernet sauvignon in the bottle the longer it will take to 'open up,' especially if its yields are low. Bordeaux from the Médoc is primarily cabernet sauvignon and usually needs to breathe. A bottle may taste great as soon as it is opened, but two hours later it might be a superstar. On the other hand Bordeaux from Saint Émilion is usually merlot based and can be enjoyed without as much exposure to air. One particular bottle from Napa Valley, made by a Bordeaux trained winemaker, Ruston's Cuvée Simon, needs to be opened at least twelve hours ahead of time, otherwise you'll not experience the dark chocolate nuances that compliment the black cherry flavors.

Other varietals that might need some air are sangiovese, as in Chianti, nebbiolo, as in Barolo and Barbaresco, syrah and mourvèdre, as in wines from the Rhône Valley. Take note that these varietals have high levels of tannic acid. Also consider that 'old vine' juice and low yielding vines can have a 'tight' flavor profile when first opened.

So how did I know that Cinq Cepages needs to sit open all day? I have had two memorable experiences with this wine. Each time I tried it when it was first opened and then after six and eight hours. The advancement of flavor was remarkable over eight hours. My initial impression on both occasions was that the wine was too tight to drink.

For those of you that are a little intimidated by decanting a bottle of wine over night, try just uncorking it. Decanters are a great way to speed up the process, but removing the cork before you leave for work in the morning will create a much more enjoyable bottle of wine in the evening. This will not work with all wines, so ask your wine merchant when making your purchases if opening the bottle ahead of time will improve its flavor.

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