Grapevine: To Breathe or Not to Breathe

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Nick Antonaccio
Nick Antonaccio

Most wines on retail shelves should be drunk young; by that I mean as soon as you open the bottle. The reason: oxidation is as inevitable as climate change – whether or not we accept the scientific premise of each. Think of what happens to a sliced apple when exposed to air.

Shelf–or countertop–life is rarely more than 24 hours before the invasive and pervasive effects of oxygen begin to influence the taste and aroma of a young bottle of wine. Why? Most of the wine we consume on a regular basis is at, or near, its peak of maturity. It doesn’t have the battle armor (intense tannins and acid) to withstand the onslaught of the waves of H2O molecules invading its very core.

Of course, there are also bottles on a retailer’s shelf that will withstand the rigors of oxidation and storage time. These are the wines that are built to last.

A small number of wines are produced by artisanal winemakers or select European wineries that have engaged for multiple generations in creating age-worthy wines. These will not only meet the test of time, but will most likely flourish.

However, one problem with wines that are built to last is that they rarely have the opportunity to do so. Our 21st century collective personality of impatience and instant gratification tempts us to drink, rather than hold on to, a bottle of wine. But to develop its true character requires a protracted period in the bottle and on the shelf, not over the short span of time it passes over our palate and through our digestive tract. Fine wines may not begin their ascendancy to greatness for 10 years and not reach their prime for up to 40 years.

When drunk young, these wines may not be attractive to consumers. In order to fully develop over time, they will be highly tannic and acidic at release, lacking the fruit forwardness and balance preferred by many consumers. They may not be very approachable, tending to be more tart and overbearing. However, these are the very characteristics that are the influencing elements for building fine complex wines that will transform over time into unique representations of their underlying DNA.

A particular sore point with me is when these age-worthy wines are consumed in their infancy. I have dined with business associates (read large expense accounts) or affluent dining companions (with expense account size wallets) who order wines from restaurant wine lists based on the reputation, or worse, the price, of high-end wines, without considering the age of the wine. Ordering and consuming a young Bordeaux or Burgundy wine invariably draws comments such as “I don’t know why this wine is held in such high regard; it’s (fill in the blank: bitter, one-dimensional, overpowering).”  What a waste of a fine bottle of wine.

Exhortations to order an older, perhaps less prestigious, selection on the wine list go unheeded. Yet it is these lists at many fine restaurants that are ideal testing grounds for experiencing the ultimate potential and sensory satisfaction of fine wine. And, these wines respond to decanting and breathing before pouring.

If the budget permits, I will suggest ordering an older vintage of a lesser known fine wine, rather than a young, immature trophy label. The price of each may be similar; however, the gustatory experience will likely differ significantly. Many opportunities to experience the true pleasure of fine aged French and Italian wines result in disdain for, rather than appreciation of, these wines. Invariably, these consumers will revert to their comfort zone, thus remaining in their rut of familiarity rather than expanding their horizons.

When considering your selection of wines to pair with a meal, plan your wine list with the same forethought and pre-dinner preparedness as your main course. You and your guests will enjoy the ultimate in fine dining.

Nick Antonaccio is a 35-year Pleasantville resident. For over 15 years he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at or on Twitter @sharingwine.


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