Answers to Your Wine Questions

From ageing to breathing wines


After my earlier article reviewing 10 common wine questions, I received a ton of e-mails asking several follow-up questions. Some were a little too silly to spend time pondering, but many of you came with some questions worth asking, and answering.

Many of my answers here are necessarily brief; either because the subject matter has been covered before in greater depth, or because the subject deserves more attention, in which case expect to see a more detailed article on it soon. But, for now, I leave you with 5 more common wine questions, asked and answered.

1) Why do some wines get better with age while others turn to vinegar?

Well, wines only turn to vinegar when they are fermented by acetic acid bacteria known as mycoderma aceti. Many wines have a bit of acetic acid in them, usually below the threshold of detection but not always.

What usually happens to wines as they age poorly is that they cook. This is not the fault of the wine, but rather the results of poor storage, say in a cupboard somewhere or a fancy rack in your kitchen. Sound familiar? OK, it may not be your fault, since a lot of wine retailers have equally crappy, if not crappier, storage but you get the idea.

That doesn’t explain why some wines get better with age. In general, that’s due to the wine’s structure: acid, tannins, and sugar, as well as the quality of fruit in the wine. 

It’s a result of many factors, such as the grape variety (some age well, others not so much), the terroir (some regions make more structured, and therefore more ageworthy, wines) and, of course, the winemaker. Some winemakers aim for an easy-to-drink, lush style of wine that may not improve in the bottle, while others may want a brutally tannic young wine that can last, and evolve for ages.

2) How long does wine last?
This is a very interesting question and one that deserves a more in-depth answer. The question is interesting not because of what it asks, but rather what it implies. Wine will last until the seal is broken and the wine is consumed or evaporates, but I assume that the question really is: How long does wine improve and then remain at that "plateau or maturity," as it can be called?

The answer is tricky, since virtually each wine has its own maturation curve, but the short answer is that most wine is ready to drink when it’s released, and may improve for a year or three.

The famous wines of collectors -- Grand Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo and the like -- tend to need time in the cellar, say 10 to 20 years, before hitting their plateaus. They then remain there, at or close to peak, for another 10 to 20 years. There are so many variables that it’s tough to supply a satisfactory answer, though when in doubt opt for drinking a wine younger, rather than older. If the wine seems too young, there is always the decanter.

3) What about the rights and wrongs about decanting wines?
Speaking about breathing, I received several questions that referred to the rights and wrongs of letting wine breathe, as well as the rights and wrongs of decanting, which are close to the same thing.

There are two reasons to decant a wine: removing off from its sediment, and allowing it to breathe by increasing the surface area of the wine exposed to air; not to mention adding air to the wine from the pouring process (the theory behind aerating funnels).

I decant older wines off their sediment since I don’t like my wines muddy and frequently have to bring them to a restaurant or friend’s house for dinner. As far as decanting for breathing, that is a tricky subject. There are several ways to decant a wine, each involving exposing the wine to more, or less, oxygen.

4) What are the benefits of allowing wine to breathe?
Fantastic things happen when a wine breathes, or is exposed to oxygen. Tannins can soften, aromatic volatize, and in general a wine can seem to blossom.

For reasons not exactly known to me, each grape variety seems to have its own ideal system of oxygenation. For example, the old Barolos I drink seem to benefit from what is known as slow oxygenation, or Slow O.

Slow O simply means pulling the cork, and perhaps pouring off a bit of wine to increase the surface area and then letting the wine oxygenate very slowly. If the wine is middle-aged, a decant off the sediment can frequently wake the wine up and reveal the benefits of the Slow O process. I’m going to follow this up with a broader article on allowing your wines to breathe, but as a general rule, young wines can only benefit from it, and it seems to help many older wines, though the window during which they drink well might be significantly compressed by decanting.

5)  What wine will get me the most screwed-up the fastest?
I have gotten this question more often than you might think and the answer might be surprising. One’s first reaction is to answer, the wine with the highest alcohol content, right? After all, it’s the alcohol that gets you drunk, so more would be better.

Well, actually it’s the rate at which your consumption of alcohol exceeds your body’s ability to metabolize it that makes you drunk. So, it stands to reason then that the combination of alcohol plus drinkability yields the answer. No matter what the alcohol, if a wine is tough to drink, you’re not going to get drunk quickly.

Of course, Champagne, or sparkling wine, is the best answer here. Not because it’s particularly high in alcohol (most average around 12.5%), nor because of its drinkability (I find the bubbles slow me down), but rather because of those bubbles! Studies have shown that the CO2 in sparkling wine speeds up the absorption of alcohol into one's blood stream. Maybe it’s the pressure created in the stomach and intestines. I’m not sure, but repeated studies have verified this.

To view the photos for this article, go to 5 More Frequently Asked Questions.

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  • Thanks...great info. No comment, but another question: Does wine sealed with a cork (cork/synthetic/glass) age better/longer than wine with a screw-top? Corollary question...If I have two wines of same vintage, one w/cork seal and 2nd w/screw-top, if I have no preference at the time, would I be better advised to drink one before the other on the premise that one might keep longer than the other? (I heavily favor Pinot Noirs, w/ a few Malbecs and Tuscans).

    Jan 05, 2011 at 12:08 PM

  • Snooth User: sparks1093
    876138 121

    Thanks for the informational article. My wife and I have recently started exploring the world of wine so of course we have a ton of questions. Thank goodness for Snooth!

    Jul 02, 2011 at 7:31 PM

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