Vol. 26 No. 11 Wine

A Little Bit of Oxygen is a Good Thing

Oxygen; wine's friend and foe.

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When we breathe in oxygen, the air enters our lungs and travels throughout our body by way of blood. This allows your organs and tissues to function. But too much oxygen can harm the lung tissues and deteriorate their functions. Wine is a living thing, and just like a human, oxygen is beneficial, but it can also be too much of a good thing. 

During the winemaking process, winemakers often limit the amount of oxygen that enters the system as it can spoil the wine. The amount of oxygen impacts the profile of the wine either positively or negatively. Too little (reductive ) and the wine can smell like green onions; too much (oxidative) and it is nutty. It is a balancing act that winemakers walk throughout the entire process. They have taken good care of the wine from vineyard to bottle to allow you to enjoy it at its best. You then take the wine home and open the bottle when it is time to drink it. The second you pull the cork out of the bottle or unscrew the cap, oxygen rushes in and begins its magic, breaking down the compounds and allowing the aromas and flavors to intensify. 

Oxygen and wine can be thought of as a race. At first, the wine becomes more expressive, like a runner leaving the start line. At this point, they are full of energy and running with full intensity. However, if they keep that initial pace up, they may not be able to complete the race. They would have burned up all their energy and not had enough to make it past the finish line. 

When the cork is pulled, oxygen immediately begins to sprint toward the finish line while you are sipping your first glass. As time passes, oxygen does its thing, and the aromatics and flavors improve. If your wine is high in tannins, the addition of oxygen can soften them, allowing for a more pleasant tasting experience. And, if there is an off smell, such as sulfur or barnyard, oxygen can help burn that off. The problem is that those flavors and aromatics will ultimately peak, and then they begin to mute, and you may miss the opportune time to enjoy the wine.

The amount of time to decant is dependent on the wine. Every wine is different, although there are some basic guidelines. Depending on age and style, red wines are generally decanted between 30 minutes and two hours. Older red wines need careful consideration when decanting. The tannins are likely already softened, and the addition of oxygen can ruin the wine. Be sure to check its status regularly and assume no more than 20 minutes before it begins to devolve. White and rosé wines are not often thought of when it comes to decanting, but they can be. It is important to note that white wines tend to be more susceptible to oxygen’s negative effects, so again, stay vigilant in checking its status once decanted and assume no more than a half hour in the decanter. 

Decanters come in various sizes and styles and will add more oxygen than just opening the bottle. The larger the base and neck of the decanter, the more oxygen is allowed to contact the wine. The more surface area in contact with oxygen, the faster the evolution will occur. Decanters can be the perfect conversation piece at the dinner table. They are beautiful and functional at the same time. 

Not every situation calls for an entire bottle of wine. In this case, decanting may not be the best option. If you are planning on only enjoying a glass or two, then aerators are what you are looking for. Aerators, similar to decanters, add oxygen to the wine. The difference is time. While a decanter occurs over an extended period, aerators add oxygen instantaneously. You simply pour the wine into the aerator and then into your glass. You can immediately return the cork to the bottle and limit the amount of oxygen in the bottle. 

Remember that everything is good in moderation. A little bit is always good, whether it’s chocolate, candy, or oxygen in wine. Choose what works best for you in a given situation. One night it may be a decanter; the next time, the aerator may be a better option. In the end, it all comes down to enjoying the wine. 

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About Lori Budd

I began my career as a microbiologist, but my need for excitement led me to Adventure Ed. I taught students how to rock climb, zip line and tie those all important survival knots. Along the way, I fell in love with wine. I am consumed by the stories that unfold as each glass is poured. I am a UC Davis enology program graduate. I hold WSET L2 w/ distinction, Champagne specialist, Côte du Rhône and Somm Day Service certificates. My husband and I own Dracaena Wines in Paso Robles. I write an award winning blog, produce a top ranked podcast and am always on the lookout for my next great wine adventure. I’ll never tell you what to drink, but I’ll always share what’s in my glass.

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