Photo © Alex Nabaum
How long does an open bottle of wine stay fresh? And is there any way to make it stay fresh longer? F&W's Ray Isle tests every method—including the trendy Coravin—and finds the winners.
Anyone who drinks wine has been confronted with the problem of an unfinished bottle. The dinner party's over, you've washed all the dishes and there's that half-empty bottle—or maybe a few half-empty bottles—sitting on the counter. Really nice Pinot Noir from Sonoma. What do you do with it? Drink it next week? Possibly... but how long does a bottle of wine stay good, once it's open? And is there any way to make it stay good longer?
Fortunately for humans, but unfortunately for wine, the atmosphere of the Earth is roughly 21 percent oxygen. Once a bottle is opened, it starts to oxidize, the oxygen in the air reacting with the wine's polyphenols (which give color and tannins) and other compounds (those providing flavor, for instance).
For a fast-forwarded version of this process, cut into an apple. Its flesh turns brown rapidly: That's oxidation. When wines oxidize, they starts to lose their freshness—in a sense, the "aliveness" of their aromas and flavors. White wines develop a kind of uniform, dull, apple cider-like character (and will eventually darken and turn brown, just like an apple). Reds start to taste flat and dried out, and often become bitter. A little air may actually improve very young reds, which is one point of decanting; these wines are so tightly wound that an hour or two of exposure to oxygen makes them more open and pleasant to drink. In the end, though, even for young wines, oxygen plus time equals good-bye.
So, to extend the life of an open bottle of wine, you need to a) expose it to less oxygen, b) slow down time or c) both. Strangely, slowing down time is the simplest method. All you do is put the cork back in the bottle and put the bottle in the fridge. Chemical reactions happen more slowly at lower temperatures, and oxidation is no exception. This is true for reds as well as whites.
Exposing an open bottle to less oxygen is more complicated, but there's a whole world of gadgets out there that purport to do this task. There are two main approaches: pumps, like the Vacu Vin, which ostensibly suck air out of the bottle, leaving a partial vacuum; and cans of tasteless, odorless, nonreactive gas, like Private Preserve, that you spray into the bottle, displacing the oxygen that's there. Of course, wine lovers being a creative (or desperate) bunch, all sorts of low-tech methods have been tried: drinking half the bottle, then decanting the rest into an empty half-bottle and chucking it into the fridge; freezing leftover wine to thaw later; even continuously filling the partly empty bottle with glass marbles, so that the remaining wine is always at the level of the cork.
Recently, I performed a series of blind taste tests to sort out which method—refrigeration, pumping out the air in the bottle or replacing the air with something else—works best. (My daughter greeted the idea of submerging her marble collection in wine with justifiable outrage, so I skipped that one.) My control was a bottle left sitting out on our tasting-room table. Over the course of several days, I compared all of these against each other; and, at the end of a week, against a freshly opened bottle. I also compared all of them to wine removed from a bottle every couple of days with a new gadget called a Coravin—more on that in a moment.
The results were clear. Of the three most familiar methods, putting the half-finished bottle of wine in the fridge is best. Gassing it is second best. The pump is the worst, and in some cases actively detrimental, as the vacuuming process seemed to suck out the aroma of the wine, too (I tried several models of pumps, with the same negative results each time). But the most effective method was a combination of gassing the wine and putting it in the fridge. Even a delicate white, like J. Hofstätter's aromatic 2012 Pinot Grigio, lasted at least a week this way. While not quite as bright and fresh as a newly opened bottle, after seven days it was still a pleasure: peachy and crisp and all-around delightful.
The Coravin is a completely different story. In fact, if you want to drink part of a bottle of wine and keep the rest in absolutely perfect condition, the Coravin is really the only way I've ever come across to do it. The downside is the price: $299. But the upside—assuming you're a serious wine lover, or someone buying a gift for a serious wine lover—is substantial.
The key thing about the Coravin is that it isn't a wine-preservation device at all. It's a wine extractor, or "accessing tool," as Greg Lambrecht, the medical-device inventor and wine collector who created it, says. A sleek black-and-silver gadget, it clamps around the neck of a wine bottle, then inserts a long, thin, hollow Teflon needle through the cork. Argon, an odorless, neutral gas that has no effect on wine, is pumped through the needle into the bottle. The increased pressure then pushes wine back through the needle and into a glass. The groundbreaking part is that, since the cork is never removed, no oxygen ever comes into contact with the wine.
I tested the Coravin on everything from $10 bottles of Sauvignon Blanc to $150 bottles of Napa Cabernet, and it worked exactly as claimed. For instance, I Coravinned—wine geeks have already turned this into a verb—a 1991 Parducci Petite Sirah. Normally, if you pull the cork on a 22-year-old wine, it's as dead as a doornail by the next morning (older wines oxidize very rapidly). With the Coravin, I extracted my first glass in mid-July. It tasted great: old, to be sure, but with a complex aroma and dry, spiced-plum fruit. Two weeks later, I poured another glass. It tasted the same. Two weeks after that, ditto. I also tested Coravinned wines against brand-new bottles. Even after three months, it was impossible to tell them apart.
But so what? Why spend $300 on a gadget that sucks wine out of an unopened bottle? Three hundred dollars could buy you a new TV, after all (which will then suck your brain out of your unopened head, but that's a discussion for another time). Given that the cost of the argon cartridges works out to about 65 cents a glass, the device doesn't really make sense for everyday, affordable wines. But the Coravin is an amazing tool for someone who buys expensive wine and doesn't finish every bottle the day it's opened; or who wants to treat their wine fridge like an in-home wine bar, trying a bit of this and a bit of that whenever the mood strikes; or who wants to see whether that bottle of 2003 Château Haut-Brion they've been saving is ready to drink; or is learning about wine and wants to try five Pinot Noirs side by side without burning through five whole bottles. The device has caught on at high-end restaurants, too, because it allows sommeliers to pour glasses from expensive or rare bottles without having to worry about selling the rest of the bottle that night. Hristo Zisovski, beverage director for New York City's Altamarea Group, has been using a demo model of the Coravin for a year now. "I just poured a glass from a bottle of Friuli white—not even a tannic red—that I first started extracting wine from eight months ago. It was fresh as a daisy."
There are a few drawbacks to the Coravin besides the price. The argon cartridges ($30 for three) are supposedly good for 15 glasses of wine; I found that to be ambitious. The device can't be used with screw caps or plastic corks. Also, corks on extremely old bottles of wine are often dry and brittle, and I'd be wary before I punched even a Teflon-coated needle through the cork on a bottle of 1947 Pétrus. (Of course, most of the 1947 Pétrus out there is probably fake anyway, so who cares?) Regardless, that Parducci Petite Sirah, which I first poured for myself in July—without ever opening the bottle—was still drinking gorgeously four months later, and tasted just the way it did the first time I tried it.