Ever opened up a bottle of wine, poured a glass, and tasted notes of … wine? Unless you’ve spent time in sommelier courses training in deductive tasting and are intimately familiar with tannins in wine, it can be difficult to isolate and identify the sensory characteristics of wine. And it’s frustrating when the tasting notes you’re reading don’t seem to apply to you.
Enter aeration. The simple act of aerating a wine brings its flavors to life. It is, without exaggeration, as if the hand of Bacchus himself reaches out through the garnet-colored obscurity and personally presents to you only the most desirable scents and flavors. I mean, for just a few bucks, you can summon the god of wine.
Alright, maybe not totally without exaggeration.
We’re just excited, is all. Because aeration will seriously enhance your experience with certain wines, which is why restaurants offer to aerate wine for you as part of the corkage fee. It's not just more wine lingo. And aerators are not very expensive. Check out our list of the best wine aerators out there and see for yourself. It’s an easy thing to get excited about. So let’s get you familiar with aerators so you can reap the benefits. First, we’ll define what a wine aerator is. Then we’ll take a look at what a wine aerator does, how to aerate wine, and why you should aerate wine.
What is a Wine Aerator?
A wine aerator is a device that exposes wine to more air than it would otherwise be exposed to through the normal process of opening a wine bottle, pouring a standard wine pour, and letting it breath.
To best understand what an aerator for wine is, it’s helpful to know exactly what wine aeration is. Wine is a collection of chemical compounds. When wine is uncorked and poured into glassware, those compounds undergo two chemical processes: oxidation and evaporation. Both of these processes help minimize unwanted flavors in wine. That’s why people let their glass of wine “breath” or use decanters. Sometimes for hours and after great ceremony. If that appeals to you, check out our list of the best wine decanters and this resource about wine aerators vs decanters. But a wine aerator makes the process of aeration instantaneous.
What Does a Wine Aerator Do?
In the simplest terms, the purpose of a wine aerator is to force wine to interact with air to accelerate oxidation and evaporation. It does this by sending the wine through a funnel of pressurized oxygen.
By exposing the wine to unnatural levels of oxygen, the compounds within the wine that are susceptible to oxidation undergo a chemical reaction. It’s the same chemical reaction that takes place when fruit turns from young to overly ripe. One of those compounds susceptible to oxidation is ethanol, or alcohol. Some of the ethanol is converted to acetaldehyde and acetic acid, which reduces the strong, medicinal, or vegetal characteristic that’s mostly noticeable in the wine’s bouquet.
Evaporation is the second important chemical reaction that wine aerators accelerate. Two of the unstable compounds within wine, ethanol and sulfites, are the first to evaporate. Ethanol is, of course, in wine because of the alcohol content. And sulfites are purposefully put in wine to control microbes and prevent overoxidation in the winemaking process. While both are crucial to the production of wine, there are always extra molecules of them that float freely and can be removed.
Think of it not as changing the wine’s character but as grooming the wine. Taking what’s already there and making it as pleasant and organized as possible. By speeding evaporation up, ethanol and sulfites head to the skies and reduce the medicinal and sulfuric aspects of a wine’s flavor and aroma.
Do Wine Aerators Work?
Yes, wine aerators absolutely work. They’re not just another kitchen gadget that’ll gather dust. At least they don’t deserve to be. Wine aerators work because the science behind them is simple and undeniable. When wine is exposed to air, the surplus ethanol and sulfites—among other compounds susceptible to oxidation and evaporation—mellow and evaporate.
That leaves the wine with an ideal ratio of compounds that emphasizes its more desirable characteristics. It’s not uncommon to pour a $15 bottle of wine through an aerator and end up with a wine with qualities closer to a $25 or $30 bottle.
How to Use a Wine Aerator
There are three primary ways to aerate wine. The first is as simple as swirling it around in the glass a few times. That increases the surface area of the wine and encourages both oxidation and evaporation. The second is to learn how to decant wine using a decanter, which is a glass vessel designed specifically to increase a wine’s surface area and activate oxidation and evaporation. Lastly, you can use an aerator for wine, which does the same thing but speeds up the process by using pressurized oxygen. How you use a wine aerator depends on the type of aerator you have.
Handheld Wine Aerator
A handheld wine aerator is a small vessel either held or placed on top of a wine glass (or a wine glass with pour lines, if you're feeling august). The wine is poured into the vessel where it runs through an aerating chamber and out into the glass. To use one, you just pour the wine into it, taking care not to pour too much at once. Wine typically flows out of the aerator slower than the average person pours, so make sure there’s no overflow.
Bottle Stopper or Wine Pourer Aerator
A bottle stopper or wine pourer aerator is a wine aerator that’s fitted onto an open bottle of wine, like a speed pourer on a liquor bottle. When the stopper is fitted into the open wine bottle and wine is poured, it runs through the aerator and out into the glass. Using it is as easy as putting the stopper on the bottle and pouring wine.
Why Aerate Wine?
You should aerate wine because it gives wine a more multi-dimensional bouquet, a rounder, more complete flavor profile, and it saves money. All compelling reasons why you should aerate wine. Let’s explore each one a bit more in depth.
Benefits of Aerating Wine
Enhances a Wine’s Bouquet
Two very common reasons for a wine’s smell to become overpowering is because of the presence of volatile ethanol and sulfites. The former has a stinging, medicinal scent while the latter brings to mind lit matches and old eggs. Aeration affects both ethanol and sulfites and tempers both of these sensations. The result is a bouquet that’s not obscured by free-floating, rogue compounds.
Elevates a Wine’s Flavor Profile
Many researchers say that up to 80% of taste is smell. In much the same way a wine’s bouquet is enhanced by aeration, a wine’s flavor profile is likewise elevated by the moderation of ethanol and sulfites.
Aerating a $10 bottle of wine can make its characteristics shine like an un-aerated $20 bottle. So too an aerated $20 bottle can show the complexity of a $30 or $40 bottle.
If you don’t think that’s a big difference, think about how these bottles would be marked up at a restaurant. Imagine paying $30 for a bottle of wine that tastes like it’s $60. Or paying $40 for a wine that tastes like a $90 bottle. If you’re prepared to pay for wine quality, then using an aerator will save you money.
Which Wines Benefit from Aeration?
Which Red Wines Should Be Aerated?
Most red wines will benefit from aeration. But there are two red wines that will particularly benefit. The first are young red wines. These wines have higher tannins in part because they weren’t aged very long and didn’t give their tannins time to resolve. By aerating them, some of the unwanted chemicals that weren’t released during a longer aging process are released.
The second type of wine that aeration is especially helpful for is old red wine with sediment. The sediment in aged wine is, in large part, tannins that have bound together through age and are no longer suspended. This surplus of tannins, even if on the bottom of the bottle, can cause old reds to grow bitter. And aeration is a great antidote to that. However, older wines, especially red ones, can be fragile and do better in decanters than mechanized aerators.
Do You Aerate White Wine?
Yes, you can aerate white wine. But only some white wines benefit from aeration. Those are the heavier, full-bodied whites from Bordeaux, Alsace, Burgundy, and some chardonnays. The rule of thumb is that, the heavier and more red-like a white, in terms of complexity and body, the more it will benefit from aeration.
The reason why the majority of white wines don’t need aeration is because they’re typically young wines. They don’t have the tannins or the age that require their bouquet or flavor profile be tempered.
That’s What Wine Aerators Do, and It’s Fantastic
Oxidation gets a bad rap in the wine world because it’s associated with the worst case scenario: wines that have been left out in the open too long and become flat, vinegary messes. But oxidation isn’t inherently a bad thing. And when oxygen is applied rapidly and strategically to wine, it applies lots of benefits and none of the bad stuff. And that’s the wine aerator’s purpose. And becoming a sommelier is not a prerequisite. Though, you could be forgiven wanting to given some of the sommelier salaries out there.
The first benefit of using a wine aerator is, of course, oxidation. And the second is evaporation. Both work in tandem to purge wines of free-floating, volatile compounds that served a purpose in the winemaking process but are no longer necessary. If you're putting effort into wine storage, you owe it to your wine to see that commitment to quality through the serving process.
And figuring out how to use a wine aerator is easy! It’s pretty much just literally pouring. You either pour into a handheld aerator or through a bottle-stopper aerator. Either way, it’s not a radically different process you were going to engage in without the aerator. But the results are radically different. Your bottle of wine, with a little aeration, lets down its hair and become the wine it was born to be.