Commonsense winemaking - storing partially full wine bottles

(This question came from a consumer but it has obvious benefit for professional winemakers who need to store tasting samples in part-full bottles for several days.)

Commonsense winemaking - storing partially full wine bottlesQ We have a terrible problem. My wife can't drink more than one small glass of red wine with dinner because of various health problems. I enjoy about a glass and a half, sometimes two. That still leaves too much in the bottle to throw out but we don't know how to make it keep. I'm too cheap to pour it down the sink, but it goes downhill overnight even when I replace the cork tightly. We've tried refrigeration but the wine never tastes the same when served cold.

We've heard about this from many people over the years but never felt any particular urgency to find a quick answer to the problem. Now I, too, find myself with an occasional left-over half bottle of expensive red table wine. I guess it's time to take this problem seriously.

I've never been that satisfied with inert gas in a spray can - which many use to fill up the headspace in a part-full bottle for flavor protection during short-term storage. The theory is to replace the air in the headspace with inert gas, then quickly close the bottle, but this is not easy to do perfectly. The wine flavor only lasts for a day or so and that dreaded "oxidized" word starts creeping back into conversations unless the wine is used up within 24 hours. Storing the wine cold - i.e., in a refrigerator - will stop oxidation reactions very well for at least a week or two. But at what cost to the wine's flavor and body?

Let's keep that one in proper perspective by telling you about my crude experiments. First, trying to drink a red wine cold is, itself, the cause of the "lack of flavor and body." You can show this easily by a comparative tasting of three identical bottles taken from one case of red wine. Label one bottle "chilled & rewarmed" and put it in the refrigerator on Monday. Remove it on Tuesday and place the unopened bottle inside a brown paper sack on the kitchen counter to warm back up to room temperature.

Also on Tuesday, place the second bottle, labeled "chilled," in the refrigerator. Remove this on Wednesday and open it for tasting (while still cold) in comparison with two room temperature samples. One is the "chilled and re-warmed" bottle above, the other one, labeled "control" remained on the kitchen counter at room temperature the whole time. Keep it in a brown paper sack also. Nobody learns anything if the tasters know which was chilled and which was not. You'll be surprised to discover that, nearly every time, neither you nor your friends can tell the difference between the two room temperature wines. But the cold one will have less flavor, less body, less smoothness and it will seem less well balanced. In short, having been chilled for a short time didn't hurt the flavor, it was tasting it cold that hurt the flavor! I've stored opened bottles of fine red wine in the refrigerator for a week or more; on rewarming, the flavor's fine!

Another fun experiment, which eliminates error in the first experiment due to possible variation, is to fill small bottles full to the brim from a newly-opened bottle of your favorite red, varietal wine. Cap them so there's no headspace left. Label the samples "Refrigerated" and "Control" with small stickers on the undersides of the sample bottles.

Place the appropriate sample in the refrigerator and keep the control in a cool, dark, bottom drawer someplace where it won't get either cold or hot. Twelve to twenty-four hours later, remove both and allow them to stand side by side on the kitchen counter to get back to room temperature. Have someone else move the bottle positions so you won't know which is which after they've been mixed up.

When the samples are back to room temperature, open and taste each of them without knowing which is which. You'll be surprised to see that few, if any, of you can tell them apart consistently! Then, compare these with a newly-opened bottle of the same wine and, again, you'll be shocked to see that the wine wasn't changed significantly by its brief sojourn into the climate of butter and eggs. This is usually true whether the wine is red or white, sweet or dry and expensive or plonk.

The experiments show one thing that is already well known. If you chill most red wines to refrigerator temperature and try to drink them cold, you'll be very much disappointed. Cold red wine lacks flavor, body, smoothness, balance and gives you no reason to swallow. It usually tastes thin, tannic and unbalanced. You already know that most red wines throw a sediment during long freezer storage which won't redissolve upon warming. The taste of these wines is damaged irreversibly by that severe treatment. So don't do it.

Now the piece de resistance: It's clumsy to warm up a cold wine by letting it stand for a day at room temperature. Use your microwave to warm it back up to ambient temperature in less than a minute, without damage. I don't care if this flies in the face of convention, try it; it works. Start with twenty seconds for a standard-size wine glass containing four to six ounces of cold wine. If it's still too cold, add another five, eight or ten seconds. Microwaves tend to heat the upper layers of wine faster than the lower layers in a glass, since microwave energy is absorbed by the first liquid it sees. So you need to stir or swirl the glass between warmings and before drinking.

I've learned through trial and error to absolutely avoid heating any wine to above room temperature in the microwave, even for a few seconds. Always creep up on a room temperature from below.

I realize this whole thing may sound like heresy. For that very reason I've tried this over and over, with many different types of wines. Without exception, I've found the chilled and rewarmed wine to be in far better shape for tasting or drinking than any other method I've used. After refrigeration, use the microwave to warm it up, but use it cautiously. To overlook this marvelous modern invention because of tradition is to miss out on yet another common sense tool, both for wine evaluation and for wine enjoyment.

(The above is Dick's 59th winemaking column in Wines & Vines.)

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