Every third day, I play my version of wine roulette, uncorking a bottle I first opened two days earlier and seeing if the last one or two glasses worth of wine at the bottom still taste good. Most recently it was a bottle of RdV Vineyards Lost Mountain Red, a lovely Bordeaux blend from Virginia's emerging Middleburg area. (RdV employs Eric Boissenot, a Bordeaux winemaking consultant I profiled in our June 30 issue.)
When faced with an unfinished bottle, I shove the cork back into place and put the bottle in the fridge. I know, I could pour the leftover wine into a smaller bottle or try some fancy inert-gas device; some of my colleagues have been known to freeze leftover wine. But I've settled on the cork-it-and-cool-it technique, and it works most of the time if I drink the wine within three days. Sadly, this time it failed. The RdV was bright at first, but the finish held a touch of vinegar. It wasn't the wine's fault—it was probably too much air and not enough wine. Maybe I should buy some half-bottles to decant into.
We like to think of our favorite beverage as a divine gift. These days, many vintners are selling the romantic vision that their wines are un-manipulated. Wine made without manipulation—it sounds ideal. After all, as primitive man discovered, yeast on grape skins can turn grape juice into wine. Why should a winemaker do anything other than crush the grapes before stepping aside and letting Momma Nature do the work?
But like most divine gifts, wine is a fleeting one. As my spent Virginia red demonstrated, wine is really just a layover between grape juice and vinegar. In reality, man has had to manipulate wine for more than 2,000 years because of how fragile it is. Take, for example, even this most common of interactions with air.
Louis Pasteur called oxygen "the enemy of wine." It's actually a mixed blessing to wine. Carefully administered, the big O adds complexity to a wine and can help prepare it for long aging. Left to play unsupervised, oxygen triggers a cascade of chemical reactions in wine's chemical components. In the case of my RdV, it turned alcohol into acetaldehyde and eventually to acetic acid, the source of vinegar's strong flavor, aided by acetobacter, one of the few bacteria strains that can survive wine's high acidity. Winemakers spend many hours fixated on how much oxygen should come into contact with their wine and when.
The battle to save wine from turning into vinegar, whose name comes from the Latin words for sour wine, is as old as winemaking. In a new study from the University of Pennsylvania, biomolecular archaeologist Patrick McGovern hypothesizes that winemaking in France may have begun as early as 425 B.C. His evidence is an old stone press in an ancient city uncovered not far from Montpellier. Archaeologists first thought it was an olive press, but McGovern found grape residues in the stone—it's an ancient crushpad.
Clay jars found on the site also contain chemical residues from wines, as well as traces of pine resin, rosemary, basil and thyme. Man has been making wine for centuries, but until recently the vast majority of that wine tasted awful, thanks to oxidation and numerous spoilage organisms. But wine was incredibly popular, thanks to the buzz of alcohol and the fact that it was far safer than the untreated water of the time. Ancient winemakers—Greeks, Romans, Estruscans and McGovern's Gauls—added pine resin, herbs and plenty more "flavorings" to cover the taste. The Romans loved coan wine—vino blended with seawater.
Airtight clay amphorae helped keep some wine fresh, but not for long. It was only when strong glass bottles, sealed with corks, became widespread in the 17th century that wine was truly protected from oxygen after it left the winery. A century later, Bordeaux châteaus began burning sulfur wicks inside barrels before filling them with wine, keeping oxygen away from the wine during barrel aging as well. Suddenly, wine was seen as something to cellar, rather than drink within a year of harvest.
So yes, wine is a gift from nature. But it has taken man a few thousand years to figure out how you can experience that taste in your kitchen, thousands of miles and several years from when it fermented at the winery. That said, protecting it once you pop the cork is your responsibility. How do you preserve those open bottles? Or do you just play it safe and finish them in one sitting?