What Does a Wine Aerator Do?

If you have ever been served wine from a bottle with an aerator on it, you many wonder what that funny looking contraption is. Or, if you are researching how to let a wine breathe, you may have seen a wine aerator recommended as an alternative to decanting. 

What does a wine aerator do? A wine aerator helps to introduce oxygen into the wine as it’s poured to help expedite how quickly you can drink a wine that needs to breathe. It can also help get rid of bottle aromas. 

We’ll explain more about how aerators work and why you might use one. 

Breathing Wine

Young wines that are high in tannins tend to be harsh, bitter, or cause a puckering sensation when tasted. Tannins are naturally found in all varieties of grapes that are used to make wine. Letting a wine breath, or aerating, the wine introduces oxygen into the wine. The tannins can bind with the oxygen in the air, improving their flavor.

Tannins are technically a phenolic, which is a chemical that can cause a dry or astringent feeling in the mouth. Tannins can also be imparted into the wine from the barrels where the wine ages. Some grape varieties have more tannins than others, and more tannins will be imparted into wine the longer it sits on the seeds and skins, or in the barrel.

Wines that are high in tannins improve with aging. The tannins will polymerize over time, meaning that they will bind together in long chains, making them taste less harsh. Young wines have not undergone a long enough aging process to soften their tannins.

Letting a wine breath, or aerating, the wine introduces oxygen into the wine. The tannins can bind with the oxygen in the air, improving their flavor.

Wines that are aged sometimes develop aromas from the bottle that might be undesirable. These aromas might be reminiscent of acetone, earthy vegetables, or even hard-boiled eggs. Decanting these wines and letting them breathe allow these aromas to evaporate before drinking, allowing the true flavor and aroma the wine to be expressed. 

Examples of young wine, typically less than 5-8 years old, that need to breathe include: 

  • Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Syrah
  • Sangiovese
  • Malbec
  • Tempranillo

Wines that have started to breathe should be consumed within twelve to eighteen hours. Oxygen will cause the alcohol in the wine to turn into acetic acid, which causes a vinegar-like taste. 

Simply opening a bottle is often not enough to properly oxidize the wine, as the surface area to volume of wine is fairly low. There are several options to aerate the wine, such as using an aerator, decanting, or pouring a glass and waiting. 

Using an aerator may have mixed results, as each aerator will have a different pouring pattern. The aerator attaches to the bottle of wine, and the wine is poured through the aerator into a glass similar to a showerhead, rather than a single stream. 

Using a Wine Aerator

Wine aerators force wine to come into contact with a lot of air very quickly. As the wine flows through the aerator, the wine is pushed through a funnel. By exposing wine to the oxygen in the air, various compounds in the wine go through chemical reactions that impact their flavor and aroma. While oxidizing wine for a brief time improves the flavor, allowing wine to be exposed to air for too long will actually ruin the wine. 

Aeration also helps evaporate other compounds in the wine, such as ethanol (the alcohol in wine) and sulfites. Aeration won’t get rid of all the alcohol, just a few extra molecules. 

There are several different types of wine aerators, handheld, bottle stopper/pourer, or an aerating decanter. Even these come in various forms. The idea is to increase the amount of surface area of wine that comes into contact with the area. Ideally, a drop of wine would have the most surface area, but separating the wine from one large stream into dozens or hundreds of small streams accomplishes similar results. 

A handheld aerator is placed over the wine glass and the wine is poured into the aerator, similar to pouring into a funnel. The aerated wine will trickle through the aeration chamber into the glass. Be careful not to pour so quickly that the wine overflows the aerator. 

A bottle stopper or bottle pourer is an aerator that attaches to the mouth of the wine bottle. As you pour the wine, the wine flows through the aeration chamber into your glass. This method is very easy to use. 

Using a cheap, easy to use aerator in a rush to drink your wine is better than not letting your wine breathe at all. However, not all aerators are made equally. Some will perform better than others. Some aerators are inexpensive stoppers that can be picked up for just $10-$20. Other versions are electric aerators and pourers that might range from $25-50. Fancy aerators with tons of features may range $25-50. 

Be careful not to use an aerator on any wines that do not need to breathe. In fact, by aerating some wines, the drinking experience may even degrade. For example, letting a sparkling wine breathe will reduce the bubbles in the wine, similar to how a soda goes flat over time. Aerating a bottle of sparkling wine would eliminate many of the bubbles and cause the wine to lose it’s “sparkle.” 

Aeration can also expose bad or off-flavors in a wine, or degrade delicate flavors. For example, tannins in a Pinot Noir are usually low and through aerating the wine, these tannins may become imperceptible to a new wine drinker. 

Examples of wines that don’t need to breathe include: 

  • Pinot Noir
  • Beaujolais
  • Light Chiantis
  • Most white wines
  • Sparkling Wines
  • Ports
  • Full-bodied red wines older than 8-10 years

Wine aerators are a great additional to your wine tool chest. If you don’t have one, be sure to pick one up next time you’re at the liquor store, or grab one for a low price from an online retailer.