The Importance of Taking a Break: Why You Need a Breather

By | 21 May 2024

Is it worth opening a bottle of sparkling wine a few hours, or days, before drinking it?


Tom Stevenson

Tom Stevenson asks if we should let sparkling wines breathe.

The benefit of allowing a wine to breathe is inevitably discussed in the context of a still wine and almost always it will be a red wine—but what about sparkling? Should we let sparkling wines breathe?

It has recently dawned on me that I’ve spent a lifetime studying the effect of air exposure on sparkling wines. In my wine fridge, almost every day, you’d discover an uncorked magnum of exquisite bubbly. Ordinarily, I’d reseal it using a temporary stopper although I wonder why I bother doing so. When enquired, I advise people to use a stopper, not to retain the bubbles, but to avoid tainting the wine with unwanted food fragrances. Even though I use a wine fridge rather than a regular fridge, that’s no justification. The fridge temperature minimises the release of CO2, yet the use of a stopper doesn’t halt this until the pressure above and below the wine balances. Achieving the balance for a visibly ullaged wine would take time surpassing any normal period a person would consider leaving it in the fridge. As a result, my habit of resealing opened magnums can only be described as instictual; forgetting to reseal a magnum hasn’t presented any noticeable influence on the effervescence or quality of the wine, unless the wine was initially undesirable.

What insights have I gained from years of letting sparkling wine air in a fridge for two to five days? Foremost, I don’t recall even one instance when a previously delightful wine hasn’t been even more delightful the next, or the following days. As already declared, if a wine is initially unsavoury, its quality will generally worsen; if it is a flawed wine, it will always aggravate.

Allowing a red wine to breathe may take between 30 minutes and four hours. The red wine would be at an ideal drinking temperature and may even be decanted. The subject of decanting a sparkling wine is a completely separate discussion, but it’s worth mentioning that the process itself expels CO2 through mechanical action, which is ideally avoided unless, of course, that was the specific aim of the decanting process. Given that a sparkling wine is considerably cooler in temperature, it requires a substantially longer air exposure to achieve an equivalent effect. Based on my observations, I suggest that the effect of one hour’s air exposure for a red wine is roughly similar to one day’s “fridge-breathing” for a sparkling wine.

What does breathing achieve for sparkling wine? First, it makes the mousse so much softer and silkier. This is not to say that it has a significantly different mouthfeel to a fully sparkling wine. For example, if you were poured a glass after five days of fridge-breathing in a restaurant, the mousse would still froth up in the glass, and the wine would taste as you might expect it to taste.

On the palate of a sparkling wine, breathing can have different effects, but generally it adds creaminess to the texture, appears to magnify various facets of flavor, and subtly shows more evolved fruit and aroma. I have used fridge-breathing over considerably longer than five days to mimic aging. I call this glimpse into the future development of a wine “fast-forwarding,” and whereas one hour of red wine breathing equates to roughly one day of fridge-breathing, it seems that one day of fridge-breathing roughly corresponds to one year of cellaring under ideal conditions.

There have been rare occasions when a wine that was not particularly pleasant has surprised me after a few days in a fridge, and if you can track the relevant lot numbers down, I can give you an actual example to try yourself.

The wine in question is Fratelli Berlucchi Brut 25 in magnum. This beautiful sparkling wine won a gold medal at the CSWWC 2023 and the Best Franciacorta Trophy. Pleased with the result, Fratelli Berlucchi kindly sent me a magnum before Christmas. For transparency—because I am just one judge, and all three judges have to be in agreement under strictly blind conditions, where none of us knows who the producer of any wine is, let alone what the specific wine is—I feel it is only courteous to accept such gifts.

But when I savored the presented Fratelli Berlucchi Brut 25 in a large format, I not only failed to associate it with the award-winning wine, I must admit that it did not appeal to me due to its overly reductive, green-fruit character. By nature, sparkling wines are reductive and should never lean towards the oxidative side; but in this instance, the reductive profile was just too overpowering. It wasn’t a relative flaw—it was solely “too reductive”. As I am quite familiar with otherwise pristine wines that overly express reductive profiles, I decided to seal the large bottle back and leave it for a day. Upon revisiting it, the Fratelli Berlucchi Brut 25 was on-point. I enjoyed a glass with my meal, resealed the large format, and gave it another day. When I reopened it two days later, allowing for more ullage, it exceeded perfection! It was even more delightful than my memory of it as the champion of Best Franciacorta Trophy.

For those amongst you, the fizzy aficionados, who are keen on experiencing it first-hand and if you manage to locate well-stored large formats from the right lot, the one presented to CSWWC bore the code LMB 182242, whilst the “overly reductive” gifted one was labeled LMB 182311. Best of luck in your quest and have a blast tasting!

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