Saturday, November 3, 2012

Saving Your Leftovers (or, how Bear Dalton convinced me I'd been preserving my wine wrong for years!)

This week in the Rice continuing education class, Bear Dalton discussed wine preservation issues.  If having leftover wine seems strange and confusing to you, consider Bear’s approach:  “If you have leftover wine, I’m assuming you opened more than 1 bottle.”  I like that. 

Having taken a lot of other classes, I was familiar with the usual wine spoilage concepts and storage options for leftovers, but Bear took things a step further with some new information that convinced me I’ve been preserving my wine wrong for years!

Most wine drinkers know that if you don’t finish the bottle the night you open it, you need to do something to keep it fresh.  But why does wine spoil anyway, and what’s the best way to preserve it?  Let’s review why the wine spoils, some options for saving it, and then pick the best approach, with Bear’s help.   

Why does wine spoil?

In short, exposure to oxygen.  Wine is full of volatile gasses and compounds that oxidize when exposed to air.  Over time, this results in a loss of color, aroma, and flavor.  There are some benefits to exposing the wine to air when the bottle is first opened, but letting an open bottle sit around for days will definitely damage the wine.  It won’t spoil in the way that food spoils – that is, it won’t make you sick to drink it – but it won’t taste nearly as good as it should (or as it did when it was opened).  So how do you save an opened bottle so you can drink it later?  There are several options.

Wine Preservation Options

Freezing:  Let’s eliminate this one right away.  The wine will not taste the same after it’s been frozen.  I have frozen wine to cook with later, and that seems to work just fine, but I wouldn’t drink it again.

Refrigeration:  This is a good idea, since wine spoilage is a chemical reaction, and colder temperatures slow down these reactions.  But on its own, it doesn’t protect the wine from oxygen.

Transferring to a smaller bottle:  I’ve seen many suggestions to keep a few empty, screw capped, half-bottles around the house for wine preservations purposes.  The idea is that if you have a half-bottle left over, you pour it into the smaller bottle, and there’s no room for air.  I have 2 problems with this:  1) Where do you get half-bottles with screw caps?  Usually the half-bottles are the more expensive wines, and not likely to have a screw cap.  This isn’t a big deal though, since you could just use a cork or other stopper.  2) It’s too much work.  Saving small bottles, washing them, pouring the wine from 1 bottle to another, finding the funnel so I don’t make a huge mess.  This sounds like a pain, and I’m still not convinced it’ll work that well.  Too much wine, and it won’t fit into the half-bottle; too little and it’s still getting exposed to air. 

The pump:  Pump systems sell from $10 (for the very popular Vacu Vin) all the way up to $225 (for a Skybar).  The idea is that you get all (or most) of the oxygen out of the bottle, so the wine can’t be damaged.

The gas:  These systems inject harmless, inert gasses into the bottle.  The gasses, which are heavier than air, settle as a blanket on top of the wine, preventing it from coming into contact with oxygen.  Private Preserve is the most common of these systems, and costs around $10 or less.  Each can provides 120 uses before it needs to be replaced.

Which Is the Best?

The best wine preservation system should not only protect from oxygen, but also slow down the chemical reactions that are happening in the wine.  So it basically comes down to Vacu Vin vs. Private Preserve, with the addition of placing the wine in the fridge (you’ll just have to let your reds warm up for a while before drinking them).  I’ve used Vacu Vin for years, because everything I’d read said that either one works fine, and I didn’t want to bother replacing the cans of gas.  But I’ve been wrong!

Here’s where Bear’s insight comes in.  He pointed out that once you’ve pumped the air out of the bottle with a Vacu Vin, you have a vacuum.  But nature abhors a vacuum, and what is there to fill it?  The remaining wine is full of volatile aroma compounds that evaporate and fill that space.  So when you open the bottle again, you lose much of the wine’s aroma.  His logic makes sense, and he’s tried and compared all the options, so I trust his nose and palate to judge what works!

So the verdict is:  use a gas system like the Private Preserve (available from Amazon at the link or at Spec’s and other wine shops) and put the wine in the fridge, and you may even stretch out its life to a couple of weeks.  Goodbye Vacu Vin, hello Private Reserve!

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