What Does Aerating Wine Even Do?

people reaching for three glasses of red wine

Aerating? Decanting? English, please!! All these wine terms can be hard to keep straight, and even harder to understand. So what does it mean when you aerate your wine? This is basically just a fancy word that wine connoisseurs use to explain letting your wine breathe, which can seem like a weird concept since wine isn’t alive. And even that’s a simplified version.

Aeration really means taking the time for your wine to oxidize and evaporate. When choosing which wines to aerate, a good rule of thumb is to only aerate and decant (don’t worry, we’ll explain decanting in a hot sec) reds, not whites. Reds have more tannins, which is better for aeration as it smooths out the flavors. #Science. 

The science behind aeration

Little did you know, every time you open a bottle, you’re aerating it! Even as you’re pouring your wine into glasses and swirling it around to let out all the aromas, you’re aerating it the whole time. There are two parts to the aeration equation. When wine is exposed to air, it triggers the process of oxidation and evaporation.

Wine oxidation

Oxidation is the result of a chemical reaction when something is exposed to oxygen (think apple slices browning when left out too long). 

Now don’t panic. Your precious wine isn’t going to spoil before your eyes if you don’t drink it quick enough. Oxidation can be very beneficial to wine in controlled settings like aerating a wine before you drink. Some winemakers will actually incorporate a level of oxidation into the winemaking process to create certain flavors like honey or coffee. Wine also oxidizes slowly as it ages in oak barrels. The barrels are watertight but not airtight, so air seeps slowly into the wine and mellows tannins and creates woody, spicy flavor.

The only time you have to worry about oxidation is if you left a bottle of wine open overnight. That level of over-oxidation would in fact be harmful to the wine.

Wine evaporation

When oxidation and evaporation get together, good things happen. Evaporation is when liquid turns into vapor and escapes into the air, as you’re probably all too well aware from your third-grade science classes.

Again, your wine won’t magically evaporate into thin air. This form of evaporation refers to the undesirable components of wine evaporating, leaving behind the good stuff. The dynamic duo of oxidation and evaporation that makes up aeration will eliminate certain elements in your wine while enhancing others at the same time. As a result, your wine will smell and taste a lot better. And I don’t know about you, but I’m all in for better tasting wine.  

Which wines should I aerate?

By now you’re probably wondering what wines will benefit from aerating. I mean if it makes wines taste and smell better, why wouldn’t you aerate all wines? Valid question. Not all wines do well with aeration though, especially white as we mentioned earlier. Dense red wines that are full-bodied will do better with some air. The reason being that these wines can go a longer period of time exposed to oxygen without (gasp) losing flavor. 

What is decanting?

So then what’s decanting? It might sound like the opposite of aerating, but it’s actually a typical step in the process of aerating a wine. Simply stated, decanting is transferring (decanting) the contents of a wine bottle into another container (the decanter) before serving. Confused? Basically, you can use a decanter to help aerate your wine.

One of the oldest methods to aerating wine is to use a decanter. A decanter is that funky-looking, large bottomed pitcher that almost resembles a vase. The science behind its shape is that the increased surface area at the bottom of the decanter allows your tannin-filled red wine to be exposed to as much oxygen as it can. So while you can let your wine breathe from the bottle itself, the narrow neck really won’t allow much air to get in. We recommend pouring that bottle into a decanter so that your wine will be ready ASAP.

Another plus to a decanter is that it looks elegant AF (and like you know what you’re doing, because let’s face it, you do!). Don’t have a decanter around? Don’t worry. Instead, pour your wine into large wine glasses and let them breathe for 10 to 20 minutes. We know, that seems like forever to wait for your wine. We feel your pain. So while you’re waiting, you can educate your guests on all your newfound knowledge about how essential it is to let their wine breathe. Or you can look up funny memes (like this one) about aerating wine. [/vc_column_text]

In Vino Finito

Now that you have the answer to the question, “what does an aerator do?” what would you like to learn next? Let us know in the comments!

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Bright Cellars

Our staff is full of passionate wine lovers. With our amazing sommeliers at the helm, we’ve been schooled on all things wine. We came together to write this article, in hopes of spreading a little wine-ducation with you.

3 Comments
  1. I knew most of this but, if you’re not drinking all your red wine in one sitting how do you keep the wine fresh and not allow undesirable stuff out with normal decanters? The ones I’ve seen don’t have any tops/lids as in whiskey/brandy decanters.

  2. If you don’t have a “Captain’s” decanter, simply put in a whiskey, etc. decanter with cork or other top. Will be fine! Just remember to remove un-cork closures to allow wine to re-breathe prior to serving. Or, top bottle with an aerator! Assuming this is a full-bodied red.

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