How to Keep an Open Bottle of Wine Fresh, According to a Sommelier
While the term “leftover wine” may sound like an oxymoron, there are occasions when we can’t finish a bottle. If you just want a glass or two, you’re left at a crossroads—do you forgo the wine altogether or risk pouring out the leftovers?
“In my opinion, there are few things worst than letting a delicious bottle of wine go to waste,” says Christopher Hoel, sommelier and founder of Harper’s Club and Luckysomm, and expert wine curator for Wine Insiders and Martha Stewart Wine Co. Definitely one of the biggest wine mistakes. The good news? According to Hoel, there are a few easy tips and tricks to extend the life of an open bottle of wine.
Why Wine Goes Bad
Before we discuss how to preserve a wine, let’s understand why a wine goes 'bad' in the first place. Primarily, it comes down to the level of oxygen that comes in contact with the wine itself, Hoel says.
Wine requires a delicate balance of oxygen exposure. Oxygen is crucial in the fermenting process and can boost flavors and aromas of a wine once opened, but too much exposure will turn your wine into vinegar (this process is how we make red wine and white wine vinegars!).
"Therefore, almost every wine preservation tip you’ll find is based on minimizing your wine’s exposure to oxygen," he explains. And while that might seem difficult, there are five easy tips that’ll keep your wine fresher for longer.
How to Keep Wine Fresh
1. Always re-cork your wine.
If you know that you’re not going to finish that bottle, keep it closed. It can be easy to leave the cork off until you’re ready to put the bottle away, but according to Hoel, re-corking the bottle immediately after each glass is your first defense to keeping your wine fresh. "It limits the amount of oxygen that's in contact with your wine and helps keep its flavor fresh for longer," he explains.
2. Keep your wine upright.
If possible, avoid storing your wine sideways. "An upright position helps minimize the surface area that’s exposed to oxygen, slowing the oxidation process," says Hoel.
3. Keep some half-sized bottles on hand.
“I like to keep a few empty half-sized bottles (375 mL) on hand for the rare occasions I can’t finish more than half a bottle of wine,” says Hoel. “Even if it’s not filled all the way, a half-sized bottle will reduce the amount of oxygen stored with your wine.”
4. Keep the wine cold and dark.
Oxygen isn’t the only factor when it comes to maintaining a wine’s integrity—light and temperature play a part, too. “Try to keep your open wine bottle out of light and store it below room temperature,” says Hoel. “The refrigerator is often the best place and can go a long way to keeping your wine fresh. This slows down the process of wine oxidizing since the molecules are now moving very slowly.” This works for both reds and whites—but remember that this method only works for open bottles. The fridge is not recommended for long-term wine storage.
5. Invest in a wine preserver.
If you’re serious about preserving wine, it might be worth your while to invest in a wine preserver. There are two common systems: the vacuum pump and an inert gas preservation system. A vacuum pump works by removing some excess gas from the bottle after it has been opened. "You can easily get a quality vacuum pump for $10 to $20 and, while not perfect, it can add a few days to the life of your wine," explains Hoel.
The inert gas preservation system allows you to serve wine without opening the bottle by injecting gas—typically nitrogen or argon—that is denser than air and puts a “cap” of wine-friendly gas atop your remaining wine. There are two types of such systems: Gas canisters with a thin hose and fancy Coravin preservation systems that insert a needle through your cork so you can enjoy a glass of wine at a time. According to Hoel, "Argon canisters are simple, effective, and inexpensive. For around $10 you can order a can of Argon gas on Amazon and spray a half-second blast of gas in your bottle to displace a layer of oxygen at the surface of your wine." Coravin preservation systems take this concept to a whole different level. They are on the pricey side (about $200 to $350), but they can keep your wine fresh for weeks or even months in some cases. If you’re serious about wine and find yourself wasting expensive bottles regularly, then it could be worth the investment.
How to Tell if Your Bottle Has Turned
Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether or not your wine has gone bad in the first place. If you’ve ever left a glass of wine out overnight, chances are you’re familiar with the sweet but vinegary smell of 'off' wine. But for wines that have technically been stored correctly, the signs may be more subtle.
According to Hoel, oxidation will begin to change a wine’s color and taste, but that doesn’t always mean your wine has gone bad. “In fact, this process is the reason we decant wines before drinking, as the flavors are often enhanced by oxygen. However, there is a point that it stops enhancing the wine, and starts turning it into vinegar,” he explains.
First, check the color. Reds will begin to darken to brown and brick tones, while white wines will often deepen and become more yellow. Then, give it a test (don’t worry—bad wine won’t hurt you). For red wines that have gone 'off,' you’ll find that the flavors and aromas will flatten, replacing fresh flavors with nutty, sherry-like notes. Whites will start to develop a sour, vinegary taste.
“This process is also useful for checking the integrity of your wine when dining out,” explains Hoel. “If you order wine by the glass at a restaurant, remember to take notice of the color and the flavor profile.” Wines served by the glass can come from bottles that were opened earlier that day and can start exhibiting signs of over-oxygenation, even in just a few hours. “If you discover the wine you ordered in a restaurant has gone 'off,' it’s well within your rights to ask for a fresh glass,” he adds.
Even if Your Wine Has Gone Bad, Don’t Just Toss It
Even if you take all these steps, the sweet spot for an opened bottle of wine is three to five days. If you notice your wine has gone off, don’t toss it. There are still a few ways to make good use.
If you’ve stored your wine correctly—in a sealed bottle in the refrigerator—a slightly oxidized wine can still be used in the kitchen. "I find they work best in recipes with long cook times, like stews, sauces, or marinades, which allow the alcohol to cook off and the flavors to meld seamlessly," Hoel says.
If you’re at the point of no return, consider turning your leftover wine into vinegar. "All you need is raw vinegar, a clean jar, an old bottle of wine, and voila," says Hoel. "Simply combine all of those ingredients and store the concoction in your pantry and, in about a month, you’ll have delicious vinegar to cook with. Plus, you can keep contributing your leftover wine to the container to continue making vinegar."
This story originally appeared on RealSimple.com.