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Breathing room

Do devices designed to aerate wine have discernible flavour benefits?

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A reader recently emailed me asking about aerators -- devices designed to help a red wine "breathe" more quickly than, say, regular decanting or swirling in a glass might accomplish.

You pour your red wine through an aerator, which agitates the wine, exposing it to more oxygen on the way to your glass.

Decanting a red wine typically exposes the surface of a wine to oxygen, which softens the tannin after a few hours. Tannin is that dry component of red wine that comes from the skins, seeds and stems of grapes. It produces that mouth-drying sensation on your teeth and gums. Aerators purport to soften the tannin more quickly than decanting, swishing the wine around en route to your glass and accomplishing in moments what a decanter does in hours.

The reader was interested in whether these devices actually make a difference in a wine's smell and taste. There was only one way to find out -- a taste test.

I picked up two reds for this experiment -- the Anakena 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon (Rapel Valley, Chile -- $11.49, Liquor Marts and beyond) and the 2009 Ch¢teau le Monteil d'Arsac (Haut-Médoc, France -- around $29, private wine stores). I wanted to see if entry-level (read: cheaper) wines would benefit from aeration any more or less than bigger, more tannic mid-range reds.

I poured the Anakena into two identical glasses -- one straight from the bottle and the other through the Vinturi aerator. The Vinturi is the most popular aerator on the market today, and at $54.99 (at Banville & Jones -- others may sell for more or less) it's not cheap. Poured straight from bottle to glass, the Anakena is quite a good red -- cassis and milk chocolate notes shine on the nose, with some lighter spice and vanilla notes emerging on the palate. In the Vinturi-poured glass, the aromas got softer, highlighting riper, lush fruit and spice.

The Ch¢teau le Monteil d'Arsac is a 50-50 blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Poured straight into the glass, it showed blackberry, earth, light barnyard, spice, and cassis aromas. It's full-bodied, with dry, light black tea tannin on the medium finish -- a fantastic wine for the price. Again, the Vinturi emphasized the soft, plush fruit in the glass. So yes, there was a difference in both; I'd say it helped the Ch¢teau le Monteil d'Arsac slightly but didn't improve the Anakena per se -- it just made it different.

This same reader was also interested in stemware producer Eisch's so-called "breathable" glasses. These glasses are said to aerate wine in the glass -- again, they purport to achieve the same result in minutes what takes hours in a decanter. Again, at around $29.99 each (again, at Banville & Jones but also available in other select stores) they're not cheap.

For this experiment I poured some of each wine into the Riedel Vinum Bordeaux glass, as well as into the Eisch breathable Bordeaux glass. The former glass is typically in the $35-ish price range, and can be found at private wine stores, kitchen stores and places like The Bay or HomeSense (often on sale).

In the Riedel glass, the Anakena showed more complexity than either of the first two pours, with peppery notes and heightened blackberry/cassis flavours. In the Eisch "breathable" glass the wine developed darker fruit flavours as well as spice/root notes like anise and black licorice that I hadn't picked up before. It tasted far more complex (regardless of how you drink this, it's a very good Cabernet for the price).

The Ch¢teau le Monteil d'Arsac seemed to retreat a bit in the Riedel glass relative to the first two pours -- the same aromas and flavours were detectable, but very subtly. In the Eisch glass it seemed to come alive, with pronounced, sophisticated balance, lifting and integrating the fruit and tannin in a way that none of the other pours managed.

So yes, the Vinturi aerator changes the wine -- specifically, it softens the tannins. But I honestly didn't find it added any complexity that would make it a must-have. It certainly made the Ch¢teau le Monteil d'Arsac more immediately drinkable, but the Anakena actually lost the little complexity and structure it had coming from the bottle. If you're considering one of these for your wine-loving dad for Father's Day, go for a less expensive competitors' model.

The Eisch "breathable" glasses, on the other hand, dramatically improved both wines relative to pours straight from the bottle, through an aerator, or in competitors' similar stemware. In the case of the Anakena, it added sophistication where it lacked in the other glasses -- it made a $12 red taste more expensive. The Ch¢teau le Monteil d'Arsac already had great complexity, and the glass brought everything into balance. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend these glasses -- heck, I'd pick up a couple for Dad instead of an aerator.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 2, 2012 E4

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