Fighting Crime….Wine Crime

How fast does an opened bottle of wine go bad?

By “go bad” I’m assuming you’re not wondering if your wine joins a gang or becomes a criminal.

Bear with me. My humor (much like an opened bottle of wine) can go bad.

Yes, opened wine will eventually lose its original flavor and can develop a vinegar taste. When a bottle is opened it’s exposed to oxygen. The oxygen interacts with the wine and begins a chemical process that will make the taste of the wine different. And by different I mean bad. Essentially, oxygen provides fuel for bacteria to produce molecules that affect the taste. And when you think about it, that’s kind of criminal.

So how long have you got to fight this crime?

That depends on the wine.

Let’s assume that you put the cork back in all open bottles and put sparkling wines and white wines in the refrigerator, and that you put red wines in a cool, dark place. The following chart gives you a pretty good estimation of how long your wine will last under these conditions.

Chart showing how long opened wine lasts

Why do some wines last longer than others?

For a few reasons. 

First, fuller-bodied whites like oaked Chardonnay are not going to last as long as lighter whites because through their aging process they’ve already been exposed to a certain amount of oxygen. It’s not enough to make the wine taste bad, but it has given the wine kind of a “head start.”

Second, red wines have tannins. And the higher the tannins (and acid) the slower the oxidization process will be when a bottle is opened, giving red wines just a bit longer time to enjoy. But remember, different red wines have different tannin levels. So your Syrah is going to last longer than your Grenache.

Third, fortified wines like Sherry and Port will last much longer because of their higher alcohol and sugar content. They’ve got higher alcohol and sugar because a grape-based liquor like brandy is added during the production process. The higher alcohol and sugar will slow down the oxidization process. Port can last three weeks or longer, and Sherry can go for a couple months.

So how can you make your opened bottle last longer?

The key is to slow down the oxidization process, and there are a couple of steps you can take to do this.

1. Recork the bottle right after you pour. Too often we pour a glass and let the bottle sit out uncorked, letting in lots of oxygen.

2. Put the bottle in the refrigerator – even the reds and fortifieds. Oxidation is a chemical process and the cooler temperature in the refrigerator will slow down that process. Just remember to take the bottle out to warm up before serving the next time. For more on that, see my previous post on serving temperature.

There are also a couple of gadgets you can try to make your opened wine last longer.

The cheaper option is vacuum stoppers. These are stoppers that you place on the bottle then use a pump to remove the oxygen. Do they work? Maybe. Some wine experts love them; some think they’re a waste of money. There have been some studies done on these that have been fairly inconclusive about their effectiveness. But they’re pretty affordable (you can get the pump and two stoppers for $15 or less) and easy to use. I use them and believe I get about an extra day from an opened bottle with them.

The more expensive gadget option is the Coravin®. At about $200 for the basic model, this had better work! And according to wine experts, it does. Essentially this contraption sticks a needle through the cork so you aren’t removing it. It then injects an inert gas into the bottle to increase the pressure so you can pour out wine through the needle. Then you remove the needle and the cork expands to reseal the bottle. So no oxygen gets to the wine and therefore there’s no oxidization. In full disclosure, I’ve never used the Coravin® but I hope to one day.

So there you have it. Opened wine does go bad, but you can take steps to make it last longer. Personally, I think the best way to ensure an opened bottle’s taste is to invite enough friends over to finish the bottle together because wine should be enjoyed with others.

But wait! One more question: What about boxed wine? Doesn’t it say on most boxes of wine that it will last six weeks?

Ok, technically that’s two questions, but yes, boxed wine will last longer. And it had better, since a lot of boxes of wine have the equivalent of four bottles or more! What makes boxed wine last longer is the spigot and bag help keep oxygen from getting to the wine. When you pour a glass, air doesn’t get in the bag. The volume of what’s in the bag (wine) just gets smaller. I don’t have experience seeing how long a boxed wine can last, but perhaps that’s an experiment I’ll try and report back to you.

But for now I’m going to go make sure that bottle of pinot noir I opened last night hasn’t gone and joined a gang.


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Talkin’ Temperature

My roommate puts red wine in the refrigerator. I thought red wine is supposed to be served at room temperature. Which one of us is right?

It’s tricky, but you both are.

Wine, whether it’s red, white, rose, or sparking, should be served at a temperature that fully expresses its aromas, flavors, and structure. That means that different wines should be served at different temperatures.

Here’s where you’re right: There is an old adage that red wine should be served at room temperature. And red wines are generally served at a warmer temperature than white, rose, and sparkling wines. But what exactly is “room temperature?” Everybody has a different idea of what that is.

Here’s where your roommate is right: Back when the whole “room temperature” thing actually began, which was before we had central heating, homes were much cooler than they are today. So red wine would be served cooler than what we think of today as room temperature. 

So how do you know what’s the best temperature to serve your wine?

I say drink wine at whatever temperature you like. Everybody’s tastes are different. But if you really want to bring out the best in a wine, serving it at the optimal temperature is the way to go. A basic rule of thumb is reds are served warmer than whites and the fuller-bodied the wine is, the warmer the serving temperature, and the lighter-bodied and higher acidity of the wine, the cooler you’ll want it. So your Merlot will be slightly chilled, while your Sauvignon Blanc will be well chilled.

Here’s a handy chart I use:

* White wines with oak aging should be closer to 55; unoaked whites should be closer to 50.

According to this guide and the old standard, “room temperature” is a cool 54-65 degrees. Brrrr! Now do you see why simply saying “serve reds at room temperature” doesn’t really give the full picture?

If you’re not convinced of the effect that temperature has on wine, try this experiment: Chill a bottle of red wine so that it is cooler than what the chart recommends. Then open it and pour yourself a glass. Sniff it and make a note of the aromas and how pronounced they are (or aren’t.) Take a sip and note the flavors and how intense they are (or not.) Then hold the wine glass for about five minutes, cupping it in your hand (not holding the stem) so that your hand warms it up a bit. Sniff and sip again. Notice any difference? Cup the glass in your hand again for about five to ten minutes this time. Warm it up even more. Again, sniff and sip. Did any of those flavors get more intense? Did they diminish?

Experimenting like this is not only a fun way to learn how a wine tastes at different temperatures, it’s also a great way to start to develop a sense of what you like best. 

So how long should you chill a bottle to get it to the right temperature? Let’s add a third column to the chart.

** Most refrigerators are set at approximately 37 degrees. (The US Food & Drug Administration recommends staying under 40 degrees. Most food safety experts say you should stay between 35 and 38.) You probably won’t need to change your chilling time if your refrigerator isn’t right at 37, unless you go outside the recommended 35 to 38.

If you’re short on time, you’ve got a couple alternatives for quickly chilling a bottle:

  • Put it in the freezer. Shoot for roughly a quarter of the time you would have it in the refrigerator. If you do this, I recommend setting a timer. I once put a bottle of Pinot Grigio in the freezer, then got distracted and forgot about it. The next day I had a slushy mess in my freezer because the water content of the wine expanded as it began to freeze and pushed the cork out, leaving me with a Pinot Grigio disaster to clean up.
  • Place the bottle in a large bowl or ice bucket filled with ice water…and salt. The salt lowers the freezing point of water, which makes the ice melt (that’s why salt is used in the winter on roads when they get icy) and the water gets colder. That will make the bottle get cooler faster. Try about 15-20 minutes for whites and 8-10 minutes for reds.

Also note, if you’ve had a bottle of wine (even white or rose) in the refrigerator for a few days, you’ll want to take it out and let it warm up for a while before you serve it.

What should you do if you’re served a wine at the wrong temperature?

First, don’t be a jerk, especially if you’re at somebody’s home. Not everyone knows about wine temperature. And nobody likes a wine snob. If you’re at a restaurant or bar, chances are you’ll have one of two things happen: either you’ll get a red wine that’s too warm or a white wine that’s too cold. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot you can do about the red. For the white, you can always do the “cup the wine glass with your hand” to warm it. (Watch for a future post on what to do in a restaurant when the wine you get isn’t “right.”)

Bottom line: When it comes to serving temperature, I encourage you to experiment and find what you like best. But chances are, because of the science of wine, you’ll generally like wines best when they are served at the recommended temps. (This is a theme that will reoccur, we’ll find, multiple times.)

What do you think? Feel free to add your two cents in the comments.

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