By Bill St. John, Special to Tribune Newspapers
August 7, 2013
Perhaps it is a sign of waste-not-want-not times, but I get asked a lot, "How do I keep a half bottle of wine from going bad?"
The answer is easy — keep leftover wine away from air — but the ways to do that are many, some more effective than others.
To stave off spoilage in a bottle of wine that's been opened, the most important goal is to give any leftover wine a wide berth from oxygen.
The amount of wine doesn't matter; once the cork is pulled or the screw cap twisted off, all the wine in a bottle is laid siege by oxygen.
As it oxidizes, wine loses its fruit aromas and flavors, turns darker or browner in hue and, eventually, tastes pretty awful. When I first smelled and tasted kombucha, a fermented, acetic tea, I said to myself, "Ugh, just like old wine."
For purposes of illustration, let's consider a bottle half full, the most common example. In my years of experience, the wine in a half-filled bottle of everyday white wine, if kept in a refrigerator, will taste OK for about four or five days. Red wines, the same, perhaps a bit longer, although they need to be brought up close to room temperature to be best enjoyed.
Refrigeration slows oxidation, but it does not prevent it. You can chart deterioration in that half bottle of wine from day one. It merely and surely travels beyond any sort of enjoyment after a week.
To prevent damaging oxidation, you need to keep as much air as possible away from the wine, right from the moment you first open the bottle and pour out whatever amount it is that you initially consume.
There are many ways to do that. Several devices, mechanisms or thingamajigs exist to assist you. Even more of my experience shows me that a few of these work, while others do not.
Frankly, the best you can do — it's also the simplest and least aesthetic — is to pour leftover wine into a smaller container so that no or very little air remains between the top of it and the bottom of the closure. That's how the wine lasted so long in its original, larger container.
I use small empty plastic water or juice bottles, or sometimes glass wine half bottles (375 milliliter ex-sherry bottles, for example). There is absolutely no better everyday alternative.
A couple of expensive oxygen-replacement schemes push out the air in the half-filled bottle and replace it with either an inflated latex balloon or inert gas such as argon. These are the ultimate wine geek gewgaws.
One air replacement mechanism, Private Preserve, is effective and reasonably priced (privatepreserve.com; anywhere from $10 up). Using a canister filled with neutral gases, something like a desktop gas duster, you blanket the leftover wine and push out the bad air. It works and can hold the wine for days, as long as the closure on the bottle top is a solid seal.
Another wine saver device purports to remove the oxygen from the half-filled bottle, creating a vacuum. This popular pump and valve isn't any better than replacing the cork and putting the bottle in the refrigerator. It "works" the same way; it merely delays the inevitable. It cannot remove all the oxygen molecules from the space in the bottle. Such a vacuum is impossible to achieve, at least in this context.
Finally, one new method to save wine is on the market, appropriately named Savino (savinowine.com; $60). It's a decanter of sorts, into which you pour the wine that you wish to keep. A silicone-ringed floater rides atop the wine, keeping the air and oxygen above from tarnishing the wine below.
It works. I tested it rigorously, using three different types of wines and for lengthy periods of time. The wines were all American, a high-acid riesling, a moderately acidic pinot noir and a low-acid zinfandel. The acid levels were important because healthy acidity in wine is itself a preservative against oxidation.
For each wine, I placed the contents of one-half of the bottle in a 375-milliliter glass bottle, and one-fourth each in the Savino decanter and a large, open-topped wine glass. I repeatedly tasted each wine, from all three containers, over six days' time, topping off only the 375-milliliter bottle with wine from freshly opened wines of exact type. The idea was to keep the half bottle as full as it was on day one.
No surprise, but wines in the open glass quickly soured, the riesling lasting the longest before kombucha-ing. Wines in the Savino system kept their freshness and vivacity, with little or no noticeable development of off odors or deterioration, for as long as seven days (riesling) to as short as five (zinfandel). Note that the deterioration was slight.
The wines in the full 375-milliliter bottle showed hardly any change at all.
A floater in the Savino decanter keeps oxygen from the wine.
Pour wine into plastic bottles leaving no air pocket.
Bill St. John has been writing and teaching about wine for more than 40 years.
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