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A Wine on Day Two

August 14, 2011

Do you want to know the real secret to making sure you get a good glass of wine when ordering by the glass? Choose a sparkling wine.

When a bottle of sparkling wine fades it is completely and totally obvious: the bubbles go away. So when a bartender pours a glass from a bottle that has been open a bit too long, they should see immediately there is a problem, open up a new bottle, and pour a fresh glass.

Preserving sparkling wine is easy. One of my favorite wine tools is a spring-loaded cap designed specifically for the task. Of all the wine preservation tools that exist, I believe it’s the most effective. Everyone should have one of these in their possession to encourage the enjoyment of more bubbly.

Saving the remainder of a bottle of still wine is a bit trickier. And in my mind, the best approach may be the worst method.

First we should talk a bit about wine and decomposition. A bottle of wine has an arc. There is juice in the bottle that has been there for some time, with little access to air. Air does two things. It speeds the decomposition of wine, but it also helps to bring out its flavor. And as a result a bottle of wine has an arc.

You pour a bit into a glass, and it may not smell like much. After a while of exposure to air the wine will perk up. Over time in the glass, the wine can evolve and shift and change. But eventually it will fade.

The speed that this happens depends on a lot of factors including the age of the wine, how well it was made, and its exposure to air. You can increase a wine’s exposure to air by decanting it, pouring it into glasses and letting it sit untouched, or simply swirling it in your glass.

Sometimes you want to stop a wine’s exposure to air, like when you are done with the bottle for the evening, and you would like to save what’s left for the next day.

The best method is the approach I never take, as it seems like way too much of a hassle. But if you could find another vessel whose volume is equivalent to the remainder of the wine, people will advise you to transfer the wine into the smaller container, and put a cork in it.

Hopefully the flaws of this method are self-evident. Although maybe you have a cabinet filled with odd-sized bottles that are sanitized and ready to be called into service at a moments notice. In which case, you should go right ahead and do this, because it will keep the wine beautifully.

Alternatively you can buy yourself a canister of inert gas. This thing is a hoot, because a full can of gas feels empty. But this gas is heavier than air. The idea is that you can lay down a protective layer of protective gas that will keep the oxygen away from the wine and stop it from fading away.

Fundamentally, this is the same technology that wine bars use in their fancy and expensive machines that can pour glasses of wine straight from the bottles. When the tap is pulled, wine in the bottle is replaced not with air, but with inert gas, so theoretically a bottle can be in service indefinitely before its quality begins to diminish.

I’m continually amazed to see such machines around Albany that are not being put to use, and instead serve solely as glorified wine refrigerators for a restaurant’s bottles.

But ultimately for everyday home use I like the vacuum pump. It attempts to suck all of the air out of a bottle, even though this means furiously pulling on the pump’s handle like an angry monkey for a good minute or so. A bit of air still remains, so the wine may not be pristine the next day. However, it’s relatively easy to do, and you don’t have to worry about being out of gas.

The interesting thing is that depending on your bottle of wine, you may even find it to be better on the second day. After all, how often do you decant wine at home? That’s what I thought. This is not to suggest that you should start decanting, quite the opposite. Drinking a wine on its second day will give you a glimpse into what that wine would have tasted like had you let it sit out a bit before you drank it on night one. Sometimes you might like it better, but other times not.

As opposed to sparkling wine, still wine doesn’t have a bright line as to when its time has passed. When is a glass of still wine too old to serve? It’s a judgment call, to be sure. And it’s one that I’m unconvinced many local bartenders are capable of making well. So, I suppose it’s good news that sparkling wine goes well with everything.

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