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 Readers talk back: Breathing The mailbag is full of your questions about "breathing" wine.
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Readers talk back: Breathing

The old mailbag - the E-mail bag, that is - filled up again this week with more of your questions and comments about "breathing" wine.

As discussed in Monday's edition, opening and vigorously aerating an ageworthy but immature and tannic wine can very roughly emulate cellar time, the quick exposure to oxygen at least poorly approximating the more subtle effects of long-term aging.

Let's go with the flow and turn directly to some of your questions.

Q: "This is a fascinating and often controversial subject. Some people swear by it, others totally dismiss it as being detrimental to the drinkability of a wine. My question is simply, when you do let wine sit and air for a few days, do you decant it first or let it sit out in the bottle with the cork out or in the bottle, set it in the fridge with the cork in or out, or a combination of any of these?"

A: For quicker effects, splashing the wine into a decanter is best, as it mixes the air with as much oxygen as possible, as quickly as possible. For a longer breathing period of two or three days, I'll pour the first glass or two with plenty of aeration to enjoy on the first evening, then put back the cork (to keep out fruit flies and dust, mostly) and leave the bottle at room temperature. Don't refrigerate. The cold temperatures slow down the evolution process.

Q: "I would like to know in detail how you did it. Given that wine like coffee is somewhat hygroscopic the refrigerator seems a nasty jungle for young infants to go uncorked. Or did you just open in and leave it on the counter?"

A: Thanks for making me go look up "hygroscopic," which my dictionary describes as "Readily absorbing moisture, as from the atmosphere." In other words, if I put the wine in the fridge uncorked, won't it pick up food odors? Perhaps this would be a good experiment to try some day. In this case, however, as noted above, when I'm allowing a wine to breathe for two or three days, I'll put the cork back in a bottle from which a glass or two has been removed, so it "breathes" only the air in its headspace; and I don't recommend refrigerating during this process.

Q: Finally, from reader Barbara N.: "At a recent Cabernet tasting I attended, the sommelier recommended the following: On Day One, open the wine and pour yourself a glass. Recork the bottle and set it on the kitchen counter. On Day Two, pour yourself another glass. If the wine tastes as good or better than the day before, you can safely cellar it for five years. Recork it. On Day Three, pour yourself yet another glass. If it's even better, then add another five years to its aging. Is this a reliable test? And, if so, for how many days could you continue the process (assuming you still have wine left in the bottle)?"

A: I'm going to play the skeptic on this one. There are simply too many variables for this kind of precision, and remember also that the breathing method only poorly approximates proper cellaring. A wine that takes two or three days (or more) to open up in the bottle is certainly tough and tight right now. But the aging profile of a Vintage Port, for example, is so different from that of a Chateauneuf-du-Paper or, say, a tannic Napa Cabernet, that I don't see a simple, one-size-fits-all rule of thumb like this as being reasonable.

As always, keep those E-cards and letters coming in; or better yet, drop by our online forum and participate in a group discussion among wine enthusiasts there.

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Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2007
Copyright 2007 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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