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The Battle Against Vinegar

Wine is a gift from nature, but it's mankind's job to safeguard it

Posted: Jun 18, 2013 10:10am ET

By Mitch Frank

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?

Randall Geehring
Virginia —  June 18, 2013 10:37am ET
I finish most bottles the day after, when often they'll be showing their best.

How did the RdV Lost Mountain compare with other Virginia reds? And vs. Bordeaux and California blends?
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  June 18, 2013 12:43pm ET
This is the best wine preservation system I have found, by far: http://www.wineshield.com/
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento, CA —  June 19, 2013 3:04pm ET
I wage my battle with the vin-loc vaccum sealer and repalcement of the wine standing up in the side of my wine fridge. Most wines will last 2-4 days post opening when preserved in this fashion
Greg Dunbar
Seattle, WA —  June 19, 2013 7:23pm ET
Leftover wine? What's that? :-)
Pamela Heiligenthal
Willamette Valley, OR —  June 22, 2013 2:02pm ET
I've tried the product Harvey mentions and it works well.
Jeffrey Hollister
Washington —  June 22, 2013 11:30pm ET
The Dunbar Method related above has its merits ;-)

...but when saving part of a bottle is necessary, I've had good results with these airtight plastic bota bags (http://www.platypreserve.com , also available on Amazon.com).
Mitch Frank
New Orleans, LA —  June 24, 2013 1:17pm ET
Thanks for all the good suggestions, folks.

Randall, the RdV was one of the better Virginia blends I have had—a sign of the state's continuing progress. Style-wise, I would hesitate to pigeonhole it. It's not Bordeaux or California. It showed ripe red fruit flavors, but with refined tannins and some lovely hints of cedar on the finish.

Harvey, the Wine Shield is new to me. Don't love the disposable aspect, but I'll have to try it.

I have done comparisons of vacuum-seal devices versus just shoving the cork back in and found very little difference.

Greg, bravo sir. The perfect storage container is usually inside us.

Joshua Hull
Lancaster, PA —  June 27, 2013 4:01pm ET
The best method I have found for preserving leftover wine is a plastic spring water bottle. Pour the leftover wine in, squeeze the bottle until the wine is all the way at the top, and seal with the cap. The bottle will remain collapsed with virtually no air (no more than it has already been exposed to) inside. Place in a fridge or wine cooler, and the next day, the wine tastes as fresh and sometimes even better than the first night (young reds often better). I didn't come up with it, I saw it in some blogs online, but is absolutely the best thing I have found.
Robert Ulrich
San Jose, CA —  July 2, 2013 4:29pm ET
Best I've found is the PlatyPreserve (http://www.platypreserve.com). Holds any amount up to a bottle, so it doesn't matter how much you have left. Pour it in, squeeze out the air and cap it. I've kept wine successfully for a couple of weeks with this. Also good for carrying wine to places that don't allow glass bottles. Can also be frozen.

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