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Dear Dr. Vinny,

Does Pinot Noir need to be decanted? What's a good rule of thumb for when to let a wine breathe?

—Patrick, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Dear Patrick,

The concept of “letting a wine breathe” is a way to describe exposing a wine to air as a way to make it more expressive. I know it’s strange to think of this as an event—oxygen is everywhere and we don’t have to consciously think about breathing to do it. But for wine, as soon as a bottle is opened, the “breathing” begins.

What happens next can vary. You can simply pour it in a glass and start drinking it—the very act of pouring the wine exposes it to more oxygen, and it continues to "breathe" in your wineglass. Many wine lovers, including yours truly, instinctively also swirl the wine in their glass to release the aromatics—that exposes it to even more air. Decanting the wine takes it a step further—more surface area, more air, let alone the pouring. There are also some wine lovers that will go the extra step and put a wine through a blender for some “hyperdecanting.”

Young wines, particularly robust reds will show the most difference from oxygen exposure, but practically all wines will show some difference from glass-swirling. I usually can start to notice the affects of aeration right away—and those changes can continue to evolve for an hour or more as I drink the bottle.

I think that a wine’s age has a lot to do with how much air it needs. The same aeration that can make a younger wine expressive can make the flavors of older, delicate wines start to fade quickly—sometimes as quickly as within an hour. Most wines will be fine breathing for a couple of hours after you’ve opened them, but too much oxygen (like overnight) and the wines will start to fade, even the young ones. Breathing can also expose a wine’s flaws, and diminish a sparkling wine’s effervescence.

So yes, your Pinot Noir will probably benefit from breathing. How much will depend on how old it is, and your own preferences.

—Dr. Vinny

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