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Dan Berger On Wine: Opened Bottles
On Wine

Dan Berger On Wine: Opened Bottles

From the Napa Valley Wine Insider Digest: Nov. 20, 2020 series
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We’ve all had smaller dinner groupings in the last year, one result of social distancing, so opening more than one bottle of wine in an evening has been less likely than with larger gatherings.

When it’s just two or three people, wouldn’t two bottles leave leftovers? That was true years ago, but today, fortunately, we have more open-bottle options than ever. How we treat opened bottles determines how much longer we have to enjoy them.

Today it’s possible to open a white or rosé for a pre-prandial sip, then a red for the meal without having to sacrifice any of either. But careful planning is in order.

Since oxygen is one of the worst enemies of opened bottles, two vital strategies are (a) keep oxygen away from the liquid and (b) refrigerate everything until later — especially red wines. There are many variations on this regime, some of which we’ll get to below.

Oxygen avoidance may be accomplished in several ways, like recorking or recapping opened bottles. But removing air from bottles is more effective. One way is to raise the liquid in the original bottle to the cork by replacing the lost liquid in partial bottles with clean marbles. That pushes the air out.

Once the liquid has reached its original fill level, oxygen no longer poses a grave threat.

Simpler and equally as effective is the use of an inert gas made for just such tasks, like Private Preserve. Sprayed into the bottle it blankets wine with an anti-oxygen blanket of nitrogen and argon.

I’ve used Private Preserve for decades and find it helps keep most wines for weeks. Just use a sound cork that doesn’t leak. Also, it’s economical: a can (about $11) can treat well over 100 bottles.

One recent invention that does a good job of keeping wines from deteriorating is called Coravin, a clever system in which a thin syringe penetrates the cork to allow for some wine to be served. The cork remains in the bottle, and the system replaces the space in the bottle not with air, but with inert argon gas from a proprietary capsule.

I’ve tried several wines that underwent the Coravin treatment. All have been fine after even several months. But a Coravin seems practical only for expensive wines since the system itself is typically more than $100 — and each capsule is $9. One benefit is that Coravin-ed bottles need not be refrigerated.

Other systems to protect already-opened bottles work to one degree or another but each has a drawback or two.

One downside of re-sealing wines is that original 750-ml bottles consume a lot of fridge space, so some wine lovers buy seal-able smaller bottles or jars and transfer leftover wines. I’ve done this, though occasionally I forget to label the containers and then have to guess what’s inside each!

One benefit of the cold months ahead is that re-sealed bottles need not be refrigerated. Any unheated space, such as a garage or storage shed that doesn’t get below 30°, can work also. (Wines that do get ultra-cold may then display crystals, which are harmless.)

Refrigerating opened reds seems counter-intuitive since we typically drink them cool, not cold. During the winemaking process, most reds are aged in barrels and thus get more oxygen than do most whites, so they’re usually more susceptible to oxidation after being opened than most whites.

Heartier reds like Cabernet and Petite Sirah do have tannins that act as anti-oxidants, but tannins are inefficient as anti-oxidants, and 5-year-old reds can oxidize quickly if left in contact with air and aren’t refrigerated.

(Young reds can improve briefly with aeration, but most inexpensive reds that are about three years or less from the vintage are likely to decline in 48-72 hours.)

The amount of time you have to consume a wine after it is opened depends on which varieties are involved, how the wine was made, and especially the chemistry of the wine (alcohol, pH, acid). In general, the lower the alcohol and the higher the acidity, the less likely a wine is to deteriorate.

I find that whites often are better at withstanding many days being open.

Sauvignon Blancs can tolerate a few more days open than do Chardonnays. That’s because the former rarely are aged in barrels (less oxygen), spending most of their pre-bottling life in anaerobic conditions. Chardonnays, usually aged in barrels, can oxidize slightly more rapidly than other whites.

Cabernet, Merlot, and other grapes of the Bordeaux family usually have more “oomph,” and can withstand some aeration. In my experience, Zinfandel (notably those with high alcohols) tend to decline and lose crucial aromas if left without protection from the air for even short periods.

Pinot Noir, which I view as a white wine with color, is one of the least air-tolerant reds. It can be more fragile than most other reds, so keep all PNs well protected from air. If you can’t get back to an opened Pinot quickly, keep it cold.

Years ago, two California wine publications suggested that leftovers of fine wine could be held for years if frozen. Such a technique seemed so anathema that I experimented with two different wines, freezing bottles that were half-filled. I found that some of the subtler elements of the frozen wines had changed radically.

I never again tried that idea.

One great advance for wine in the last 50 years is the advent of the screwcap. Red wines sealed with caps age much more slowly until they’re opened, and re-sealing helps them last longer than do cork-finished wines.

As a result, red wines sealed with screwcaps often are a bit backward when they’re young, and it’s best to aerate them if they are opened soon after release. The benefit of screwcapped reds is that they age in the bottle more slowly than do cork-finished reds.

A final word on already-open wines: Some people have no problem with oxidation because they simply do not detect it as a flaw!

Decades ago, I visited the home of a respected culinary expert. She offered me a glass of white wine from her refrigerator. It was badly oxidized, so after one (unpleasant) sip, I never tasted it again.

She finished her glass, unflinching.

Wine of the Week

2018 Sierra Star Barbera, Sierra Foothills ($24) — Super fruit of Barbera with hints of fresh tomato, plum, a low level of oak, and perfect balance between moderate tannins and great acidity, so the wine works well with red sauces. This region of California is one of the state’s best in which to grow this excellent Italian grape, and this delightful wine is a great example of the breed. https://store.sierrastarr.com

Watch now: How Drinking Red Wine Can Benefit Your Health

Check out the week in cartoons

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a subscription-only wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com. He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.

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Festive dinner-table gatherings end up being complicated, especially when attempting to come up with the “right” wines. Dan's rule of thumb: serve several tasty wines and ignore food pairings. No one is vexed about the perfect wine to go with prune parfait.

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