Don't Just Stick a Cork in It
For those of us who want just one glass of wine at a meal (or in my case, just one more glass), the standard 750-milliliter bottle poses a dilemma. We're told that wine is fragile, a living thing, and that pulling the cork or twisting the screw cap exposes the precious liquid within to its mortal enemy, oxygen, initiating the transformation of vin to vinegar. How can we keep leftover wine fresh?
The simplest answer is to stick the cork back in the bottle as far as you can and put the bottle in the refrigerator. Cold slows oxidation. But wines stored that way still will lose some of their freshness within days, and you need to remember to take a red wine out of the fridge to let it warm up before drinking.
Another option is to drink half-bottles: 375 milliliters, a perfect size for two people to have a generous glass each. Keep the empty bottles, and when you can't finish a standard-size bottle, pour the remainder into a (clean) half-bottle and re-cork it. That minimizes the amount of oxygen in contact with the wine. A jelly jar would also work, of course.
Naturally, the wine industry has figured out a way to entice us to spend more money on gadgets intended to keep leftover wine fresh. So I decided to test three of the most popular wine preservers.
The Vac-u-Vin employs a small hand pump and a rubber stopper that replaces the bottle's cork or screw cap. You insert the stopper and work the pump until it clicks. The pump supposedly removes air from the bottle, creating a harmless oxygen-free vacuum that protects the wine. A simple press of the thumb on the top of the stopper breaks the seal with a hiss, allowing for easy removal of the stopper. After pouring another glass, simply repump to create a new vacuum.
The other two products use inert gases that are heavier than air to create a protective blanket over the surface of the wine. Private Preserve, the most widely available, uses a combination of argon, carbon dioxide and nitrogen. VineyardFresh, a new product developed by Gary Gottfried, a Silver Spring native now based in Ohio, uses pure argon.
I tested each of the three products using a different wine, weighing each against an untreated bottle of the same wine, tasting each daily over several days. Then I tasted four bottles of an identical wine, one treated with each of the preservation techniques and the final one untreated, over several days. No scientific analysis was involved, only subjective evaluation by my imperfect nose and palate.
All three products worked, in that the wines treated with the Vac-u-Vin, Vineyard Fresh or Private Preserve all tasted fresher and fruitier than the identical wines simply re-corked. The difference was noticeable on the first day after the wines were opened. By the third day, the difference was clear as day. That was true for inexpensive wines as well as bigger, more intense wines that often can improve for some time after opening. After three days, even the wines that had been (repeatedly) treated declined noticeably in freshness.
Each system has its advantages. The Vac-u-Vin is a one-time expense (about $12 for the pump and one stopper; extra stoppers, two for $5). When pumping air out of the bottle, however, I could smell the wine, as if the pump was stripping the aromas from it while creating the vacuum. And although the Vac-u-Vin definitely was better than no treatment, the gas blankets seemed more effective at preserving the wine's freshness and fruit.
The gas systems (each about $12 a can) do need replacement, and carelessly dipping the straw into the wine itself before squirting the gas can create a volcanic eruption. (I have the stained notebook to prove it.) And the first glass poured from a bottle that has been treated with either Private Preserve or VineyardFresh can smell a bit funky -- the gas pours into the glass along with the wine -- so it is good to swirl the glass vigorously for a moment to let the gas escape.
The makers of the gas treatments boast that their products will preserve a wine's freshness for weeks, if not months. So for my final test, I opened a bottle of an Argentine malbec and enjoyed a glass. I treated the bottle with Private Preserve, re-corked it and stuck it in my cellar. A week later, I tasted a glass from that bottle against a glass from another bottle of the same wine, without knowing which was which. The difference was striking. The newly opened bottle was markedly fresher in aroma and flavor.
The verdict? These systems do help save a wine's freshness and flavor for a short time, allowing them to be stretched over a few days. For extended periods, I'm a devout skeptic. I'd rather spend my money on the wine.