After publishing the first of these columns, I became stricken with guilt toward wine that might be opened on my recommendation, yet unloved. Or perhaps it was enjoyed, even intensely, but by someone who lives alone, with a light-drinking partner, and/or minor(s). Here’s another scenario: a recommended wine was enjoyed so much that a second (or third etc.) was opened, but everyone passed out before finishing it. What to do with the rest of the bottle?
There are gadgets for this situation – superstitions – traditions – and binges. Let’s explore each in turn before going any further. My conscience demands it.
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The issue with opened wine is oxidation. Once wine is exposed to air, it changes. Gadgets to keep wine longer deprive it of oxygen; for example, the popular “Wine Saver” pump from Vacu Vin, a company founded in that eminently practical country, Holland.
But wait, doesn’t exposing wine to air improve its aroma and taste, and isn’t that in fact the origin of many of the ridiculous arm and mouth movements associated with “connoisseurship”? Yes; and yes. Ergo: depriving the wine of air may well be denying something both it, and we, need. (This might be a good moment to mention politely that they make wonderful gin in Holland.)
Another way to create a barrier between open wine and oxygen is to spray a gas heavier than air (carbon dioxide, nitrogen, argon) into the bottle, on top of the wine. This is the theory behind products such as “Private Preserve” from California, land of wine progress. Call me a Luddite, but this just seems disgusting to me.
Prejudices aside, will the Vacu Vin system, Private Preserve spray, or any other gadget that fools with the natural contact between air and wine help or hurt its preservation? If you research it, you will find ample testimony to both. For every oenophile that recommends one of these systems, there is at least another that swears you are ruining the wine even faster.
Fortunately, there is one simple and effective way to slow the process of oxidation: refrigeration. I use it liberally for open bottles of all types of wine; you just have to remember to take the wine out early enough before drinking to bring it back to a temperature you prefer.
Conclusion: Gadgets never really work well for anything, do they? If they did we wouldn’t call them gadgets.
Religion and wine are intertwined: the Passover Seder’s four cups (plus one for Elijah), the Christian Eucharist’s mysterious identification of wine with blood, the Quranic strictures against alcohol… Local folkways abound regarding wine as well – don’t spill it in Rome, but please do in Romania – as do myriad customs for pouring and drinking. Many or perhaps even all of these practices might be interpreted as strategies for avoiding the problem of leftover wine altogether.
But here’s a superstition that applies specifically to preserving sparkling wine: dangle a silver spoon, handle down, in an open bottle of Champagne and the bubbles will keep longer. (This was first told to me by a Dutchman – those practical people again – but seems to be a more generally European practice.)
Does it work? Not according to Stanford University, where they study such things (after hours). The same study did turn up this more unexpected conclusion, however: re-corking an open bottle of sparkling wine doesn’t help, either. There goes another gadget!
Conclusion: Superstitions (like religions) cancel each other out. Steer clear of the fray.
Traditional uses of leftover wine include innumerable recipes for cooking – all those marinades and sauces weren’t invented for treasured unopened bottles. So should you find yourself with extra, try a dish you hadn’t wanted to invest so much wine in before.
Another extremely practical use in the kitchen is to let leftover wine oxidize completely, at which point it becomes…vinegar. There are jugs and vats sold specifically for this purpose, but you can also simply use the open bottle before you: add a healthy dose of a wine vinegar you like (purchased, or – in the future – from one you have already made in this fashion); leave room for air at the top, to encourage continuing oxidation; cover with cheesecloth to keep out dust and bugs, especially if you’re squeamish; and put away in a cool dark place (back of the cupboard) until it’s all turned to vinegar you like. This should only take a few weeks, though bottles I’ve ended up keeping longer can turn out even more mellow and interesting.
Of course there are non-culinary uses for leftover wine, as well. Prince Charles, for example, turns it into biofuel for his vintage Aston Martin. I am not making this up.
Conclusion: That’s not a half-empty bottle of wine, it’s a half-full pricey ingredient from a gourmet shop (or, if you are royalty, automotive store).
You wouldn’t be the first. If you do, I recommend water and Advil.