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September 14 - 21, 2000


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Extra, extra

What to do with leftover wine

by Thor Iverson

Just drink it.

It's not a Nike slogan, but rather the best advice I've ever heard on what to do with unconsumed wine. However, for most people it's not always practical. There may be any number of reasons why two people don't finish an entire bottle of wine, but they all result in the same thing: leftovers.

What to do with these leftovers seems to cause wine lovers a lot of anxiety. A lucrative industry has sprung up selling various gadgets that supposedly help preserve wine. But the fact is that all the technology is completely unnecessary; preserving wine is a matter of simple common sense.

First, though, it's important to know what happens to leftover wine. Oxygen is the enemy of wine, and the more a wine is exposed to oxygen, the more it devolves. Fruit fades, the wine goes out of balance, and an oxidized aroma and flavor develop, similar in character to dry sherry or stale nuts. Of course, there's an important caveat when it comes to long-aging, but young, reds and whites: often, air can actually make them taste better, by seeming to bring the wine out of its tannic or acidic shell. Still, this is just part of the process of devolution, and even these wines will eventually succumb to the effects of oxygen.

Obviously, then, any preservation method must involve keeping oxygen away from the wine. It also follows that, since the wine is exposed to a lot of oxygen by sloshing around as you pour your one or two glasses, it's best to start separating the air from the wine as soon as possible.

One of the most popular devices for wine preservation is the Vacu-Vin, a little hand pump with some rubber stoppers that supposedly sucks the air out of the bottle. However, no hand pump is going to create a true vacuum, and in fact there's still a lot of oxygen left in the bottle (not to mention dissolved into the wine, thanks to all that sloshing). Worse, many people report that delicate wines, like pinot noir, lose their aromatics when subjected to this treatment.

Another, slightly better method is to use an inert gas, available in little spray cans, to "coat" the surface of the wine (the gases used are heavier than oxygen, and "settle" on the surface of the liquid). But again, this does nothing for the oxygen already in solution, nor does it provide a perfect seal when the bottle is moved around. Plus, it's expensive.

The most sensible of the wine-preservation doo-dads are sets of glass (or sometimes crystal) containers that look a bit like decanters, with a funnel and their own stoppers. They're nice to look at and they do the job as well as anything else, but they're very expensive. Besides, there's a better and cheaper solution: half-bottles.

Here's what to do: visit a good wine shop (the corner packie probably doesn't carry many good wines in this size) and pick up a few half-bottles. Drink the wine, but save the corks. Rinse and clean the bottles thoroughly. The next time you're sure you're not going to finish a full bottle, pour half of the wine into the half-bottle immediately after opening the full bottle (you might want to use a funnel). Cork it. You've now gotten the wine into another container with as little exposure to oxygen as possible.

It also helps to put these leftovers in the fridge. Colder temperatures slow down the chemical reactions caused by oxygen. But remember to take the wines out and warm them up (when necessary) before drinking them. And another reminder: if you start to assemble a lot of these half-bottles of leftover wine, it's a good idea to label them somehow so you can remember what's in them.

On the other hand, the advice "just drink it" has its own merits. And if you're in the mood for drinking, here are a few great wines to get you started:

El Grifo 1998 Mavlasia "Dulce" Lanzarote ($11.99). This is the second time I've written about this wine, and there's a reason. Someone found a big stock of it at $3 below the previous price, which definitely makes it the best sweet-wine value of the year. It's clean, floral, and hugely flavorful. Serve it as dessert, or with lavender honey drizzled on fresh fruit.

Jeanine Emanuel 1997 Mâcon Villages "Domaine du Clos du Four" ($10.99). The chardonnay-based whites of the Mâcon are usually thin, watery, and uninteresting. But Mâcon doesn't have to be industrial plonk, and this wine proves it. There's some intensity and minerality here, with bright lime and honeydew flavors sharpened by a good deal of acidity. Cries out for shellfish.

Palliser Estate 1999 Sauvignon Blanc Martinborough ($17.99). This New Zealand beauty gets better every year, and is much more interesting than the good but over-hyped Cloudy Bay. It's fat, grassy, and ripe, but with good balancing acidity and none of the sharp chili-pepper or cat-pee aromas that sauvignon blancs from New Zealand often have. And on that appetizing note: serve this one with full-bodied fish dishes or herbed chicken.

CS Santadi 1996 Carignano del Sulcis "Grotto Rossa" ($12.99). Some wines are like those awkward, gangly children who grow up to be supermodels. This Sardinian red isn't that good, and it certainly isn't very approachable when first opened. But after decanting and a few hours of air . . . what a change! It's rustic and untamed, with aromas like herbs and beef stew dominating the sharp black-cherry flavors, but it's also one of those classic Italian wines that really come alive with food. Serve it with something intense and flavorful, like grilled portobello mushrooms, or let it age for about four years.

Thor Iverson can be reached at wine[a]

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