Wine is one of life’s many pleasures and the pure enjoyment of wine can be enhanced with a few simple techniques. One of these techniques is known as aeration which is a fancy word to describe giving oxygen, or air, to wine to bring out more of the flavor profile. Aerators are devices designed to assist in this process. While many people seek the latest aerating devices for a new kind of wizardry that enhances the flavor of wine, it's important to know the ins-and-outs of aerators, the different forms, and the various situations and circumstances in which they can be helpful.
It's also important to remember that not all wines need to be aerated. Red wines are the only wines that require aeration. White wines can be poured into a decanter if you wish, but there’s no need to aerate them. Furthermore, aerating certain wines can actually ruin their complexity and destroy their flavor profile entirely. Young reds with a heavy tannin base or complex and bold structure, or old aged wines, especially those with sediment, are perfect for decanting. However, lighter bodied reds like Pinot Noir or Chianti do not need aeration. Similarly, many less expensive wines are created for quick consumption and are not meant to be aerated and most white wines do not need aeration. And so, the question remains, when is it best to aerate wine, what wines need aeration, and what exactly is aeration?
The most classic variation of an aerator is the decanter. It is the oldest and most frequently used aerator. Decanting wine simply means pouring the wine from one bottle into a second bottle fashioned specifically for this process. Mostly made from glass, decanters come in a variety of sizes and shapes based on preference and style. Decanting and aerating have similar purposes. Decanting allows the wine to mix with oxygen and come alive. Wine “wakes up” outside its original vessel. Be careful when decanting and aerating old red wines, though. Older red wines tend to have more sediment and decanting can harm the overall flavor of the wine.
The 'aerator' gadgets that are available with various patented designs basically forces air through a funnel that enables a pressurized force of oxygen to interact with the wine. These smaller, hand-held aerators result in instant aeration.
When you aerate a wine two major chemical reactions take place as a result. These are called oxidation and evaporation. Oxidation takes place when something is exposed to oxygen. Consider an apple and how it turns brown when left out for too long. Wine is affected in a similar way. Evaporation is the process of a liquid turning into a vapor and escaping into the air which is another essential component to the aerating process.
Wine is a collection of compounds in a bottle. Some of those compounds are full of juicy flavors and aromas and others are not as pleasant but are still essential to the winemaking process. The undesirable compounds such as ethanol or sulfites evaporate a lot quicker when wine is aerated. Ethanol is the powerful alcohol smell and sulfites are added to stop microbial activity and premature oxidation but can often smell like sulfur. Aeration and the combination of oxidation and evaporation releases these compounds while enhancing others which allows for a more vibrant representation of the wine.
There is a talent to aerating wine, however, because a wine will only peak for a period of time before it begins to flatten out and the flavors may be lost. Wines attaining a higher concentration and density will gain from aeration, while also taking longer to fade. Some fragile wines, however, especially older wines, take mere minutes before their unique and delicate flavors begin to wane. Most wines will get more expressive and aromatic with some exposure to air, especially younger, more robust wines.
And remember: simply by allowing wine to sit in a glass for several minutes or by opening a bottle you are giving air to the wine. Some wines can benefit from more breathe. And some are fine just as they are. But, too much oxygen will work against any wine. Anyone who’s sipped a wine left in a glass overnight understands the taste of too much oxidation. And so, here’s to going with the flow and breathing through the process of a good glass of wine!