Lean Times and Leftover Wines
© Donald A. Dibbern, Jr.
As the economy sputters and continues to stumble, all of us are looking for ways to try to preserve at least a few affordable luxuries, by doing more with less. In this month’s column, I plan to address the contentious issue of what to do with wine “leftovers.” See, there are lots of wine drinkers that enjoy having wine regularly with dinner, but don’t plan to finish a whole bottle. Unfortunately, apart from the standard 750ml package size, the selection of wines bottled in smaller 375’s or 500’s is extremely limited. For that matter, even the larger one-liter bottles or 1500ml magnums are quite a bit less common than the ubiquitous “fifth” (of a gallon).
As useful as the smaller sizes may be for individuals dining alone, or for a couple, or for those dining with non-wine-drinking companions, or for those who might like to open a white with one course and a red with another, there are many reasons why producers are not keen to make this widely available. First of all, one cannot ignore the obvious financial impact of the costs of packaging. Even small bottles each still have a cork, a foil capsule, and a label. Less obviously perhaps, there is the cost of bottling itself, and thus putting the same total quantity of wine into more bottles simply costs more. Additionally, using non-standard sizes may be more expensive throughout processing, since most everything is set up to work with 750s by default. So, for things such as equipment, packing boxes, and so forth, these may be less readily available and even though the bottles may be smaller, they may be more costly without the economies of scale available for the standard sizes.
This can partly account for the fact that even larger bottle sizes are usually sold at a premium, compared with their expected bottle-multiple. Most producers charge more than double for a magnum, containing two bottles of wine, despite the fact that they are obviously saving on the expense of the second bottle, label, and cork. Their scarcity, too, also contributes to the value of the larger bottles, at least for collectors. Unfortunately, buying fine wine in bulk doesn’t help out consumers in the same way as buying olive oil by the gallon at the local warehouse club store might.
But another reason many wineries prefer to use only 750ml bottles, or larger, is the effect on cellaring. As wines age, they change, and generally the more slowly and gently this occurs, the better. As I discussed extensively in my March 2007 column, wine enthusiasts are well aware that wines age more slowly at colder temperatures, thus cellars are kept quite cool. What I did not mention in that article, however, is the effect of bottle size on aging. Presumably due to relative differences in surface area for a given volume, wine in splits (187ml) ages more quickly than in halves (375ml), which in turn ages faster than in 750’s. Magnums, and rare larger bottlings, of course age slowest of all, which is another reason they are highly sought by collectors. Producers of fine wine are thus often reluctant to provide wine in smaller sizes, due to concerns about the adverse effects of premature aging.
So, what is to be done with the remainder of the wine from a partially consumed bottle? For those whose cooking does not use wine as an ingredient often enough for this to provide a meaningful and satisfactory disposition, or whose quantity of excess surpasses any practical need for this supply, there inevitably remains the question of how best to preserve these leftovers for later drinking. A brief search of some popular wine web bulletin boards rapidly reveals this to be a surprisingly controversial topic. There are all manner of techniques and devices used for this purpose, but the main idea is to protect the remaining wine from oxygen and/or heat. The methods range from expensive and sophisticated tools, such as argon noble gas bottle-fillers, to the ultra-low-tech approach, namely “stick the cork back in, and put it in the refrigerator”.
Would it surprise you much that wine aficionados, myself included, might have strong opinions on obscure minutiae? Even given that, the dispute on vacuum-stoppering devices seems particularly contentious. These are the devices that use rubber seals with a one-way valve to extrude the air from a partially empty bottle, and thereby create a partial vacuum. Some use them faithfully and find them invaluable, while some think them worthless. Still others even feel that they accelerate a wine’s decline. The rationale for the latter claim was not initially obvious to me, but the explanation usually given is that the volatile aromas are “sucked out” of the wine by the vacuum pump and thereby lost, although some worry that the seals might not be effective over several days of storage.
My own personal experience with a VacuVin used for many years was that it did seem to help preserve a wine for at least a few days, to my mind. The aromas seemed to me to be much better than if just recorked and left to sit out, although of course not quite as good as those of the freshly-opened bottle. The nose was certainly not worse, however, than that of a wine simply left in contact with air for the same length of time. But, as I had to admit, I had never really done a blinded comparison either.
So, I decided to set up a quasi-rigorous test, as follows. I chose a few different wine-preservation options, took a single bottle of wine, and divided it equally among five otherwise similar clean empty bottles. Each bottle was Bordeaux-style with straight-shoulders, thereby equalizing the surface exposure of the partial fill. The wine was chosen to be a modest everyday drinker, since if someone were to open a $250 California Cab or a $500 Burg, I imagine that arrangements would have been made for that wine to be fully consumed and soon. I decided to use a robust red wine, since I would be looking to keep it up to a week, and more delicate reds or whites would presumably be poorer candidates for keeping. I also find that big heavy reds tend to be the wines most likely not finished in an evening, since those tasty 8 or 9% alcohol German Rieslings never seem to survive meals around the dining table with friends. A bottle of 2001 Las Rocas de San Alejandro Vinas Viejas Garnacha appeared to be perfect for this comparative challenge.
When choosing the methods to try, my primary criterion was that it be simple and easy. I would not be decanting through a funnel into previously emptied 375’s, then adding clean glass marbles to bring the wine level up to the very top, and gently pushing a cork into the liquid to exclude the air, but without wine spilling down the outside of the bottle onto my clothes, and so forth. That may well work, fantastic, but would be too much effort for me just to keep a daily drinker for a couple of extra days. Similarly, I found a surprising and fascinating discussion about freezing wine, from no less an authority than Mark Squires on The Wine Advocate website. But again, way too much trouble for me. I don’t need frozen bottles breaking in my freezer, let alone the problems of how to warm them back into liquid quickly, without many hours of the very air exposure that was trying to be avoided in the first place. And after taking a look at a few of the opinions on microwaving wine (after you freeze it, I guess you can nuke it, right?), I plan to steer very clear of that discussion, entertaining though it may be.
The methods I tested were as follows: Recorked and refrigerated, vacuum sealed at room temperature, vacuumed plus refrigeration, and an argon flush. Each was compared at 24 hours, 72 hours, and after one week. As a control, a fifth bottle was simply left open to the air without a cork and at room temperature, and also tasted at each time period. The argon system I used cost approximately $40, which included four small canisters of gas. The manufacturer recommended using a 10 second flush for best results with a nearly empty bottle. Over the course of the three uses during the trial, this emptied one entire canister, with a replacement cost of about $3 for the argon. In comparison, the price of the vacuum pump and seals was about $15, while the recork and refrigerate method is, of course, essentially free.
Each bottle was placed into an unlabeled bag, and the refrigerated ones were allowed to spontaneously warm to room temperature over two hours before each tasting. The order of tasting throughout was randomly determined by my research assistant, i.e. my wife, so that I wouldn’t know which one was which until afterwards.
Well, what happened? The 2001 Las Rocas VV was an intense and fairly young Grenache, with lots of fruit and good acidity, but still had pretty big and tough tannins, despite its age. Substantial alcohol was evident as well. In terms of price, for reference, recent releases of this wine have retailed for around $15. I used a modified form of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust tasting protocol to score the wines, adjusted slightly for me to be able to record what I expected to be the relatively small changes in tannin, acidity, and so forth, among the same wine held under these different conditions. When the wine was tasted from the freshly opened bottle, it was in good condition and without any evidence of oxidation, so all seemed perfect and the stage was set.
On day No. 1, after 24 hours of storage, the wine left open to room air and that which was simply corked and placed into the refrigerator, tasted best. In hindsight, this probably shouldn’t have been much of a shock, since tough and tannic reds can show better a day later, after the softening from exposure to oxygen. So, ironically, the methods with better exclusion of air from the wine may have been a bit too effective in this circumstance. Specifically, though, with regard to the nose of the wine (as distinct from the palate), I found that the vacuumed wine actually seemed best preserved, equivalent or possibly even slightly better than the argon system. It is undeniable that one smells the aromas of wine as the vacuum device is used on a partial bottle to remove the air. I am no wine chemist or expert on volatile organic compounds, but even after pumping out the wine-scented air, it appears to have plenty more from whence that came. The other curious finding was that the vacuum treated wine tasted perceptibly less acidic. Although I can’t specifically explain the reason for this, note that would be one point in favor of the argon.
Day No. 3, at 72 hours, revealed the same, but more so. Surprisingly consistent with the 24-hour mark, again the recorked refrigerated wine was showing nicely. Even the open air-exposed bottle had held up rather well, at least on the palate, although its nose had faded more than any of the preserved wines. To me, interestingly, the vacuumed wines still had the best aroma intensity, with the argon close behind. Among all of the wines, though, there was now clearly a loss of fruit and flavor across the board.
The final data were gathered at day No. 7, after one whole week of attempted preservation. Note that this is well beyond where I would usually attempt to drink a wine I’ve “saved.” Usually whatever is left at this point will be destined for the drain, although I might taste it first. Guess what? Nothing really worked too effectively, although the changes I did find proved informative. None of the methods were what I would call ideal, but the best of the rest was the wine under both vacuum and refrigeration. Of note, the seal held up just fine through this whole trial, without any re-pumping or refreshing the vacuum. Even though none of the stoppers I used were new, they still provided that satisfying whoosh when each bottle was opened just before randomization.
Regarding other methods at the one-week point, the recorked wine was toast by now, with color browning at the rim and a clearly oxidized sherry-like nose and taste. The argon preserved wine was better, though the fruit was still pretty much gone. This method remained curiously better at maintaining the wine’s acidity than the vacuum process, a factor I had not anticipated to change substantially, at least as compared with expected changes in aroma, fruit, and tannin.
To summarize, if you plan to drink up within a couple of days, any option works reasonably well, although each may have slightly different effects. If the wine is such that a bit of air might even be welcome, sticking the cork back in and keeping it cold is probably the way to go. If you expect to wait longer, vacuum with refrigeration versus argon are the two major choices, although at a week and beyond, results with anything may be pretty dicey. I feel that the vacuum might have the edge on preserving aromas, while the argon might better keep the wine’s acidity and balance, although there are also the not insignificant issues of cost and convenience of restocking the gas.
The other thing to keep in mind is that this is just my experience, based on my own palate, with a single wine. In other words, your mileage may vary. I expect that different wines such as, say, whites or more delicate reds, could give a bigger edge to the argon, especially with the importance acidity plays in those wines. Even with relatively modestly priced wine, however, if fifty cents’ or a dollar’s worth of argon enables you to enjoyably consume all of a fifteen or twenty-five dollar bottle of wine instead of pouring away half of it, that is something to consider. And if a vacuum system works for your palate, at an even lower cost, so much the better. As we try to stretch our wine dollars in these turbulent times, it only makes sense to get the most out of our wine leftovers.
© copyright 2009 by Donald A. Dibbern, Jr., all rights reserved
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