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NorCal Wine Blog

Do Wine Aerators Work & Are They Worth the Money?

People like gadgets. I know I do. There’s always the hope for a better mousetrap; some way to make our lives easier, teeth whiter, recorded music sound like a live performance. There are plenty of wine gadgets on the market, many of which sell amazingly well. But do they work?

Among the most popular wine gadgets are those intended to aerate wine. Everybody wants their wine to taste as good as it possibly can. The idea of a device for making wine taste better or reach its peak faster is very attractive. I decided to test three of the most popular devices (Vinturi, Soirée and Respirer) to see if they deliver. First, let’s review the concept of aeration.

To aerate a wine is to expose it to oxygen. There are four main reasons people choose to aerate a wine that they have just opened:

  • Some wines when they are first opened offer very little aroma or flavor. It is said that these wines are “tight” or “closed.” Exposure of the wine to oxygen may help such wines  become more expressive.
  • Other wines may be very tannic or have a single, overbearing flavor. They may be unpleasant to drink until the tannins or strong flavor has softened. Many people believe aerating a wine can hasten this softening.
  • Wines continue to change after bottling. That’s the reason for aging wine. But those changes – chemical reactions – can produce off-putting gases as a by-product. Some wines, especially those with more than a little bottle age, are surrounded by funky or “off” aromas when the bottle is opened. Aerating such a wine can help separate the good, developed wine from the unattractive gases.
  • All wines change over time as they are exposed to oxygen. Some become substantially more complex and expressive. Actively aerating these wines brings out their potential.

There are three principal ways in which people aerate a wine:

  • Pour the wine directly from the bottle into a glass and then swirl the wine in the glass. Swirling both aerates the wine and volatizes it, releasing more aromatic molecules into the air. But swirling needs to be gentle unless you want to wear the wine. Therefore, oxidative changes brought about by swirling occur slowly.
  • Pour wine from the bottle into a decanter. This may aerate wine faster than swirling. Even more aeration can be achieved by using a funnel that makes the wine run in sheets down the inside wall of the decanter rather than just dropping to the bottom in a steady stream. The wine in the decanter has a large amount of surface area exposed to air and one can also swirl the decanter aggressively.
  • Some people who are in an even greater hurry, whether it be at a tasting event or rushed dinner, use aerating gadgets in an effort to accelerate oxidative changes even more. Most of these devices are designed to have the wine poured through them. During this process, the devices try to foster as much wine-air contact as possible.

Of course, these methods can be combined. You could pass the wine through an aerator into a funnel on a decanter, violently swirl the decanter and then pour into a glass only to start swirling again. I’ve not heard of anyone pouring wine onto a cookie sheet and blasting it with a blow-dryer, but I suspect it’s been done.

Do aerating devices actually “work?” Is using them worth the money and effort?
There is plenty of anecdotal evidence about aeration. Decanters are commonplace in restaurants and tasting rooms. Jada Vineyard of Paso Robles always uses a Soirée bottle-top “decanter” at their tastings. Other tasting rooms swear by the Vinturi for their “big reds.” None of this proves the efficacy of the devices. And, since both the pourers and tasters always see the device in use, perceptions of the treated wine are subject to bias due to the power of suggestion.

To try to establish a “scientific” finding on the matter, I tested five different wine “treatments” using four very different wines. I conducted the test with a panel of seven tasters with differing levels of wine experience. Only I knew what wines were being poured for the test and nobody, including myself, knew which treatment method was represented in which glass. Each flight was poured entirely from a single magnum of wine, so there would be no bottle variation.

The five treatment methods were:

  1. Pour from the bottle into a glass.
  2. Pour from the bottle into a decanter through a screen and funnel, then immediately from the decanter into a glass.
  3. Pour from the bottle into a glass through a Soirée.
  4. Pour from bottle into a glass through a red-wine Vinturi.
  5. Pour from bottle into a glass through a Respirer.

The four wines poured were (in order):

  1. 2006 Nikolaihof Riesling Vom Stein Federspiel Wachau
  2. 2003 Chateau Coufran (85% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon)
  3. 2006 Justin Syrah from Paso Robles
  4. 2006 Honig Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

Once presented with a full flight of glasses, tasters evaluated the wines over a 20 minute period. Each person wrote tasting notes on every wine in each flight. They also ranked each wine against the others in that flight.

Test Results:

 

Riesling

Bordeaux

Paso Robles Syrah

Napa Valley Cab

1st

Vinturi

Decanter

Bottle

Bottle

2nd

Respirer

Soirée

Vinturi

Decanter

3rd

Decanter

Respirer/Vinturi

Soirée

Soirée

4th

Soirée

Bottle

Decanter

Respirer

5th

Bottle

 

Respirer

Vinturi

Note: Regardless of aeration method the Honig Cabernet remained quite oaky. Since this was the last wine tested, we were able to watch it over 45 minutes in glass and even then it didn’t change much. It is possible that many successive treatments with one of the gadgets or a lot of angry sloshing in the decanter may have led to a glass that was preferred to the one poured straight from the bottle. But the fact remains that for immediate consumption we strongly preferred pouring straight to glass.

 

Overall Score

(total tasting points basis)

Overall Score

(based on average “place” in the tests)

1st

Bottle

Decanter

2nd

Decanter

Bottle

3rd

Soirée

Vinturi

4th

Vinturi

Soirée

5th

Respirer

Respirer

Analyses:
This test was not broad enough to allow conclusive decisions about the different aeration methods but the information is directional. It suggests that some skepticism toward the new gadgets is warranted.

In each red wine flight, the winning aeration method won by a landslide. The Riesling results were much tighter.

The Vinturi had an interest effect on the Riesling. Rather than opening up flavors, it had a distinct effect on the texture of the wine. The decanted and out-of-bottle glasses were perceived as being dull, even flabby, on the palate. The Vinturi accentuated the wine’s slight, inherent spritz. The Respirer took that a too far, resulting in comments such as “hard” and “aggressive.”

While Vinturi fared much better than the Respirer, their performance basically tracked with each other on every flight except that of the Syrah. They are birds of a feather.

The decanter and Soirée also tracked each other on almost every flight. The decanter was clearly more effective overall, but Soirée’s description of their device as a “bottle-top decanter” is not unjustified. It seems likely that the Soirée would have been even more similar to the decanter had decanter funnel not been used.

Two wines that one would almost always assume would “need” aeration, a Napa Valley Cabernet and California Syrah were very strongly preferred when just poured straight from the bottle.

Chateau Coufran wines are held at the winery in bottle for quite some time and the sample wine’s age reflects that. Furthermore, their wines are not “typical” soft and easy drinking Merlot. They have a lot of earthy, funky aromas, especially when first opened. I believe this explains the success of the decanter and Soiree for that wine. Those devices hastened the blowing off of bottle funk and made the wine more approachable  to most panelists than it was straight out of the glass.

Conclusions:
I consider the white wine test to be inconclusive. There was much less difference between glasses than with the red wine. In addition, there are so many different styles of Riesling, let alone other theoretically aerator-worthy white wines, that I think a broader, dedicated test for whites would be necessary before making recommendations. That said, I do think that this test lends support to the conventional wisdom that Rieslings can benefit from some sort of aeration.

For “fresh” red wines that do not have a lot of sediment, just pour the wine directly from the bottle into a glass. You may want to swirl it in your glass. Go ahead, swirl away. Aside from that, don’t mess with the wine. Enjoy its natural evolution over time.

For wines showing funky or reductive aromas, whether due to a bit of bottle age, residual sulfur or some other winemaking issue, decanting or running the wine through a Soiree will quickly make it much more pleasant. (This will not work for corked wine. Aeration will only make that problem worse.)

I think every frequent wine drinker should have a decanter. However, it should not be used reflexively with every wine.

The Soirée is inexpensive and similar but less intense in effect to a decanter with funnel. If you find yourself frequently drinking funky wines and don’t want to deal with a decanter, a Soirée bottle-top decanter can be helpful.

There were flights in which the Vinturi and Respirer had a positive effect. There were more cases in which they made the wine significantly less enjoyable. These devices are also expensive. While I don’t think this test alone justifies telling you not to buy them, I do feel comfortable suggesting your money might be better spent elsewhere.

The Justin Syrah was the overall favorite wine in the test. It’s not expensive. Go buy some. But don’t expect it to be full of black pepper, licorice and some of the other common hallmarks of Syrah. In fact, if you taste it blind, you may think it’s a very high quality Bordeaux. Go figure...

The Chateau Coufran is really interesting, if polarizing. I picked up three magnums the other day at KL Wines for about $29.99 each. That’s a substantial discount from the regular list price and a total steal. (For what it’s worth, Robert Parker gave the wine 89 points.)

The Honig Cabernet is a really nice wine, but needs bottle age. Swirling, decanting, and Vinturi-ing are not substitutes for bottle age. Oxidative chemical reactions don’t do the same thing as bottle aging. I recommend the wine, but cellar it for at least two years.

Test Methodology:
Each wine was opened at the time pouring was to begin and not before.

Red wines were served at about 63 degrees Fahrenheit and the Riesling at about 59.

Each participant had glasses that were perfectly identical for each wine in the flight. There was slight variation in glasses between participants, but not much. The glasses were all high-quality, large-bowl red wine glasses such as the Riedel Sommelier-series Bordeaux glasses.

Before the tasting, I divided the pouring area into five sections marked A - E. In a notebook, I assigned a pouring section to each treatment. The treatment/section assignment was different for each flight. Each taster was given a placemat with glass positions labeled 1 - 5. Once I filled all of the glasses for a flight, I left the pouring room. An assistant then entered the room, took glasses from one of the sections at random and put them all on the placemats on a numbered spot that he chose more or less randomly. He then returned to the pouring room and marked that number on the card identifying the relevant section. After all of the flights were concluded, I cross-referenced the numbers and sections for each flight with the treatment methods I’d recorded in the notebook. This method ensured that nobody knew what method was used for which glass during the test.

All of the wines were poured from bottles that were hidden in paper bags. Identifying the wines blind was not part of the test. However, I wanted to ensure that nobody’s tasting experience was colored by their expectation of what a given wine should smell or taste like rather than what was actually experienced from the glass. Nobody was spending time in the pouring room, so it was just an extra precaution.

The panel of tasters included a certified sommelier who works in a wine shop, three serious wine collectors, a new wine enthusiast with a good palate, a wine newbie with 20 years experience in artisanal beer making, and myself.

For the ethicists among you:

I bought all of the wine. I bought all of the apparatus, except for the Soiree which was given to me by that company more than a year ago, and the Respirer which was brought over by one of the tasters who had just bought it. I had not used the Soiree until the test was done. I don’t sell any of the devices, am not friends with the manufacturers, and have no vested interest in any of the companies. The same is true for may panel of tasters and none of them were compensated in any way for participating in the study.

This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2010 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

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