As I point out in one of our standard "Frequently Asked Questions," I usually consider the practice of allowing a wine to "breathe" before serving to be distinctly overrated.
This is particularly true of the practice of simply extracting the cork and allowing the full bottle of wine to sit open for a while before serving: The amount of oxygen that the wine will receive by exposing a dime-sized circle of wine in the bottle neck to the air for a few minutes is so small as to be negligible. Mark this one down as one of those persistent wine myths that's best discarded.
Most wines, especially fresh and fruity whites and lighter reds, are ready to drink when they're put in the bottle, and they don't need "breathing" to bring them around. With older wines, fully mature or even past their peak, "breathing" may be an actively bad idea, allowing the wine's fragile life to flee before you get around to tasting it.
But before we throw out the idea entirely, there are times when exposing wine to air is a good thing. Young wines that actually need aging may be shy on aroma and flavor, a quality sometimes described as "closed" or "tight." Give them a quick shot of air before serving, and you're providing a rough-and-ready (if somewhat less graceful) substitute for the more gentle oxidation that occurs as wines age in the cellar.
If you're going to do it, do it right. As noted above, don't just pull the cork and expect something to happen. Rather, pour out a glass, and do it briskly to mix in plenty of air. Then leave the glass, and the rest of the bottle, sitting open for an hour or two before dinner.
If you're like me, you rarely plan this far ahead. But if you uncork a sturdy red and find it shy and closed, there's still hope. Match your young reds with rare red meat or robust cheese, and you'll find that these "tannin-wiping" accompaniments often help immature reds find their balance. Or push your glass back during dinner and then enjoy a glass of it afterward, hoping that an hour's breathing time has helped.
Perhaps the best approach of all is to enjoy your glass, shrug off its youthful awkwardness, then stick the cork back in the bottle. Leave it just like that, unrefrigerated overnight, and try it again after 24 hours or even two or three days. Although wines don't last forever in an open bottle and soon start developing objectionable "Sherry-like" qualities, I've often found that immature but ageworthy reds actually benefit from a day or two in the open bottle, offering more open, generous and enjoyable aromas and flavors after 24 hours than they did on the first night.
As good as it was on the first try, the Edmund St. Johns 2001 Rocks and Gravel reported Friday was just such a wine, showing more dimension and rounded flavors on the second evening. Today I feature notes on two more wines that really needed an overnight rest, being almost too immature to enjoy at first but opening up to greater fruit, balance and accessibility 24 hours later.
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Mas Neuf 2001 "Compostelle" Costieres de Nimes ($9.99)
A blend of Syrah and Grenache in roughly 2-to-1 proportions, this robust red from Nimes, where the Languedoc meets the Rhone, is very dark garnet in color. It breathes shy but intriguing aromas of black cherries with hints of herbs (fennel) and spice (cloves and pepper). There's a lot of depth here, but it's tight and closed at first, needing swirling and coaxing to bring out ripe black fruit flavors from behind a wall of warm tannins and sharp acidity. Should benefit from a cellar stay; if you want to drink it now, sear a ration of red meat to accompany it, and allow plenty of breathing time. U.S. importer: Kysela Pere et Fils Ltd., Winchester, Va. (Nov. 2, 2003)
FOOD MATCH: Red meat is called for, or possibly sharp Cheddar. Juicy medium-rare lamb burgers with plenty of onions and spiced with black pepper and cumin helped bring it around for us.
VALUE: Excellent value at this under-$10 price.
WHEN TO DRINK: Really too young to enjoy now, although food and air exposure may help. The label suggests cellaring for five to seven years, and I can't quibble with that.
WEB LINK: The importer's short fact sheet on Mas Neuf could stand updating; it still refers to the 1999 vintage. It's online at
Tamarack Cellars 2000 Columbia Valley "Firehouse Red" ($15.99)
This inky-dark reddish-purple wine from Washington State, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, offers light blackcurrant aromas with a hint of licorice. Black fruit flavors are tart and tannic and quite closed at first, but its fruit and balance hint at aging potential, and it does gain dimension with red meat. Better after 24 hours in the partially consumed bottle, its fruit opens up to meet the wine's acidic structure. (Oct. 25, 2003)
FOOD MATCH: Fine with the "tannin-wiping" effect of medium-rare lamb chops.
VALUE: More than competitive with other cellar-worthy reds at this mid-teens price point.
WHEN TO DRINK: Immature, needing an appropriate food match or extended airing to show well now. Two or three years in the cellar should serve it well.
WEB LINK: You'll find the winery Website here:
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This week on WineLoversPage.com
Here are links to some of our recently published articles and features that I hope you'll enjoy:
Wine Lovers' Voting Booth: Choose your capsule
Last Week's Wine Advisor Index
The Wine Advisor's daily edition is usually distributed on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (and, for those who subscribe, the FoodLetter on Thursdays). Here's the index to last week's columns:
Tasting the soil (Oct. 31, 2003) http://www.wineloverspage.com/wineadvisor1/tswa031031.phtml
The lure of New Zealand (Oct. 29, 2003) http://www.wineloverspage.com/wineadvisor1/tswa031029.phtml
Choose your capsule (Oct. 27, 2003) http://www.wineloverspage.com/wineadvisor1/tswa031027.phtml
Complete 30 Second Wine Advisor archive:
Wine Advisor FoodLetter: "Baloney and cheese" pasta (Oct. 30, 2003)
Wine Advisor Foodletter archive:
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Monday, Nov. 3, 2003