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Docs Blow Cork Off 'Breathing'

The next time someone who fancies himself a wine connoisseur insists on opening the cabernet a couple of hours before drinking it to let it "breathe," tell him to put a cork in it.

Scientists say the bottle opening is so small that letting the wine stand uncorked doesn't make much difference.

The theory is that allowing a wine to "breathe" dissipates unsavory gases that may have formed and increases the wine's contact with oxygen, aging it a bit more.

Two researchers decided to put that theory to the test after getting into an argument on the subject over dinner.

Dr. Pier Giuseppe Agostoni, a cardiologist with the University of Milan, wanted to uncork the wine and let it breathe. Dr. Nirmal B. Charan of the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Boise, Idaho, said it wouldn't help.

So the two devised an experiment. They opened five bottles of cabernet sauvignon. They took samples of the wine and tested it. Then they let the bottles sit and took more samples two, four, six and 24 hours later.

The upshot? Charan was right.

Letting a bottle breathe - even for a whole day - made little difference.

The oxygen level in the wine went up, but the carbon dioxide level hardly changed, said Charan, whose study was presented in Chicago on Monday at the annual meeting of the American Lung Association and the American Thoracic Society.

The researchers' conclusions, however, didn't convince some wine experts.

"It's been experimentally and scientifically proven. The problem is they are wrong," said Randall Grahm, owner of the Bonny Doon winery in Bonny Doon, California. "Sometimes the wine will have a very hard character. A little bit of air will seemingly soften and mellow the wine."

Grahm recommends uncorking a bottle of red wine at least a half-hour before drinking it. But for the best results, he said, the wine should be poured into a glass or a carafe.

On this point, Charan's research backs the connoisseurs.

Just two minutes of swirling the wine in a glass brought the average oxygen partial pressure to the same level as in the air and reduced the carbon dioxide partial pressure by 90 percent.

And it tasted better, too.

"The theory of swirling isn't just to put stains on your shirt," said Sterling Pratt, wine director at Schaefer's Wines, Foods and Spirits in Skokie, Illinois. "It is to expand the surface area of the wine in the glass so that more wine comes into contact with the air."

By Alexandra Zavis.
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