There are a lot of misconceptions people have when it comes to drinking wine. One of them is that wines need to "breathe" before they are served. Many people are not even sure what this means, and instead of risking looking foolish, they simply avoid wine all together. It is a simple misunderstanding that can be easily cleared up and help more people learn to enjoy wine.
Letting wine breathe means almost exactly what it sounds like. Allowing air to mix with the wine releases more of the flavors and aromas, so the wine becomes more enjoyable. It is similar to when people say that a wine needs to "open up." While it is true that there are an exceptionally small number of wines that do not benefit from breathing - mostly dessert wines and fortified wines like ports and sherries - it is just as true that, for the majority of wines, the most breathing that they need is simply to pour a glass of it and allow it to sit for a minute or two.
If you have ever seen a person conducting a wine tasting, the process of when they swirl the glass accelerates the breathing process. Technically, as soon as a bottle of wine is opened it starts to breathe, but since the surface area of the wine is constricted by the neck of the bottle, only a very small amount of the wine mixes with the oxygen. Pouring it into a glass increases that surface area and lets more of the wine breathe.
A process that some people engage in, especially with red wines, that also speeds the process is decanting the wine. This is the process of pouring a full bottle of wine into a separate container to serve it from. The main reason for this is that some red wines, especially older vintages, will have sediment in them from the wine making process. Decanting the wine allows these sediments to remain in the bottle and not end up in the glass. As the wine is poured, it opens all of it up to the air and helps release the full body of the wine as well.
As long as the wine you have has been stored properly - a cool dry place away from direct light - it should remain drinkable for years. If you come across an old bottle and wonder if it is still good, be sure to open it up and let it breathe a while before tasting it. Many times, the first taste will not be the true flavor of the wine. By taking the time for this extra step, you will find your wine far more enjoyable than ever before.
Jack Terry has been pouring, serving, writing about and drinking wine for twenty years. http://www.wineclubworld.com