Why does wine need to 'breathe'?

Cathy looks at the good and bad effects of oxygen on wine.

by: Cathy Marston | 11 Aug 2011

Letting a wine ‘breathe’ is one of those confusing terms that winos like to throw at people - quite unnecessarily, because the process itself is actually very simple. What people are talking about is opening a bottle of wine in advance of when you drink it and either leaving it in the bottle with the cork out (or screwcap off), or decanting it into a decanter or jug and leaving it for about an hour or so.

Why do you want to do this?
If you think about what happens if you cut an apple in half and leave the cut pieces exposed to the air for half an hour – it turns brown and slightly sweet. This is the process of ‘oxidation’ where the oxygen in the air reacts with chemicals within the fruit and starts to cause it to rot. Exactly the same thing happens with grapes if they are split open at any time, both before they are crushed and during the crushing itself. To counteract this, most grapes are preserved with SO2  or dry ice and so oxygen is generally excluded, particularly in white winemaking, in order to keep the pure fruit flavours. This is referred to as ‘reductive winemaking.’

But oxygen can be good too.
Although oxygen at an early stage can be harmful to wine, it is incredibly useful when it comes to drinking it. By swirling the wine in the glass or sucking air in through your lips when holding a mouthful of the stuff, you are allowing the oxygen to mix with the flavour compounds and make them easier to identify and taste. Oxygen also accelerates the ageing process so if you are trying a young red wine, it can soften the tannins and make it easier to drink and a white wine can gain added complexity from being opened for a short while before being drunk.

MIKO Chardonnay 2009 – a perfect example.

Mont Rochelle Vineyards recently launched the second vintage of their flagship white wine, the MIKO Chardonnay. This is named in honour of their late owner, Miko Rwayitare, who loved the barrel-fermented Chardonnay. As you would expect from a premium range, it comes from the best vineyard sites, has had top-drawer oak treatment and really is made in a style to last. That being so, they decided to try and give us an idea of exactly how it will age when it was launched at the farm last week.

A four-course lunch was served and each course was accompanied by 4 glasses of the 2009 MIKO – one which was poured from a freshly-opened bottle and the other three which had been opened and decanted 1,2 and 3 hours ago respectively. The difference between the glasses was huge and easily distinguishable, with the one opened 3 hours ago showing the most complexity, interesting nut and marzipan flavours and much the best balance between fruit, oak and alcohol – a relief for the winemaking team no doubt, as this proves that there is still a lot of wine to come and it certainly will keep for a while longer!

The Mont Rochelle MIKO Chardonnay 2009 is released now and costs R250 from the farm. Only 4,200 bottles were made and I recommend you drink it now and over the next five years.

Read more on: cathy marston

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