Jamie Goode: Can you preserve open wine successfully?

By , 1 February 2022

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A 750ml bottle of wine is a good portion for two to share at lunch, or for a reasonably thirsty person to consume at dinner. But sometimes you open a wine and don’t want to finish it that night. Will it be OK the next day? Or what about the day after that? Or if you are running a wine program at a restaurant and want to offer wine by the glass: how can you make sure that a bottle open for a few days still delivers a quality wine experience for your guests?

These are interesting questions, and they lead on to a discussion of wine preservation devices. There are plenty on the market, but are they any good? In order to answer this question, we need to examine the science of what happens to wine in a part empty bottle.

Oxygen is not a friend of wine. While it can be quite useful during fermentation, helping yeasts do their thing, after this, winemakers take quite a bit of care to limit the contact of wine with air (which is 20% oxygen). A tiny bit can be useful as the wine develops, and barrel aging allows very small amounts of oxygen to come into contact with wine. But good bottling practice limits oxygen pick up to virtually nothing, and a good closure will keep oxygen out almost completely.

The idea that corks ‘breathe’ is a daft one. A good cork should allow very little oxygen transmission at all: we are talking tiny amounts. This has become clear through closure studies and the use of plastic corks. Oxygen can diffuse through plastic, and wines sealed with plastic corks don’t have a long shelf life. [The truth is a little more complex: plastic corks have come a long way and some of the current ones allow less oxygen diffusion.] Generally speaking, only the tiniest quantities of oxygen are wanted once the wine is in bottle. The oxygen transfer rate (OTR) of a closure will determine how that wine evolves, and if ageing in bottle is desired, then the closure needs to have a low OTR. Wines can develop and age in the absence of any oxygen ingress through the closure.

So you have opened a bottle of wine, but you don’t want to consume it in one go. For most wines, it’s fine to put the cork back in or rescrew the screwcap, leave the wine somewhere cool, and then drink the rest the next day. Young reds and whites are probably fine on the following day, too, although there might be some development. But what about wines you want to leave for longer? Or special wines you don’t want to take a risk with.

This is where wine preservation devices come in. There are quite a few on the market. The first I came across when I began drinking wine was the VacuVin. This was a system where you popped a rubber stopper on the wine, and with a pump sucked all the air out of the headspace. With no air, there’s no oxygen in the headspace, and thus no further oxidation of the wine. Or so you might think. Actually, these vacuum devices have two problems, in my experience. The first is that they seem to change the character of the wine. Is this through removing aromas as well as air? Or through degassing the CO2 in the wine? The second is that the act of pouring the wine allows it to pick up oxygen, and so even if there’s no air in the headspace, there’s enough oxygen in the wine for oxidation to occur.

The second method involves using argon gas to ‘blanket’ the wine before re-corking it. This is done using a can with a fine straw attached that directs the argon into the bottle. The idea is that argon, which is inert and heavier than air, forms a protective layer above the wine, keeping oxygen away. There are two problems here, too. First, argon is heavier than air but doesn’t blanket. After a short while the different gases mix and oxygen finds its way to the wine. The second is that the act of pouring has already introduced enough oxygen into the wine to cause problems. This is also a problem if, on opening a bottle you aren’t going to finish, you immediately decant some to another container or half bottle, fill it up to the top, and seal it.

In fact, the only devices that get round this problem of pouring introducing oxygen into the wine are those which use inert gas to actually propel the wine from the bottle into the glass, thus avoiding the introduction of air into the bottle in the act of pouring. These are the Enomatic systems found mainly in restaurants and wine shops, and Coravin.

Enomatic is too expensive and bulky for home use, but they have transformed wine retail. The wine is uncorked and then a device inserted into the neck which re-seals the bottle, and has one pipe in the wine, and one above it. Through the second nitrogen gas is introduced and this pushes the wine out through a pipe into a glass. It seems to work pretty well, but meticulous cleaning is needed, and the lifespan of the wine is a few weeks at best once it is in the Enomatic.

Coravin – the ultimate wine preservation technology?

Coravin has been a remarkable success, especially for wine reps who need to pour lots of samples on their visits, but only have a limited stock of wines, and also for restaurants who want to offer expensive wines by the glass, and can’t risk wastage. The idea is similar to the Enomatic, but with a much finer needle that actually penetrates the cork. The needle uses argon gas to force the wine back out through the needle, and after the sample has been taken it is removed and the cork reseals. It actually works. I’ve had wines from bottles that have been Coravined many months earlier, and they tasted good. But I’ve also had wines from multiply-Coravined bottles that were ruined. A lot depends on how well the cork re-seals itself. There’s also the issue of the physical disruption of the wine being forced through a fine needle: it comes out a bit frothy from the gas, too. Has it been changed? I’m happy writing notes on samples that have been Coravined, but I’d place more confidence in a wine poured the normal way. I think critics should mention it, if they’ve written a note on a Coravined sample. But this is not to take away from the fact that this is a remarkable invention and it has had a big impact on the wine world.

Personally, the only way of preserving wine once it is opened that I’m interested in are these methods that don’t allow any oxygen exposure, and at the moment that means Enomatic and Coravin.

  • Jamie Goode is a London-based wine writer, lecturer, wine judge and book author. With a PhD in plant biology, he worked as a science editor, before starting wineanorak.com, one of the world’s most popular wine websites.

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  • Globetrotter9 February 2022

    Although I might occasionally recork an open bottle and leave it in the fridge for up to a day, I find that some deteriorate if left open any longer than this. I have long practised decanting leftover wine into one or more of my collection of variously-sized smaller screwcap bottles, each filled right to the top and closed with no air gap under the lid. I find that this lasts much better (also in the fridge) than just re-corking an open bottle with a large air volume included. I find that it normally works well for as long as a week if needed and is particularly useful when you open multiple bottles to taste and compare them to each other and perhaps end up drinking only a glass or less of each. As others have commented, I find that the introduction of some oxygen through the initial pouring can actually improve certain younger wines which I store in this airtight manner.

  • Michael RATHBONE5 February 2022

    I am an enthusiastic fan of the Coravin system and found very few wines that have been spoiled by its use while most wines are fine after many months after a glass or two have been extracted. It is ideal when one just wants one or two glasses in an evening as I usually want to avoid drinking anywhere near a full bottles. As it adds one or two dollars to the cost of a glass of wine, it is better to use on more expensive bottles.

  • Bernard1 February 2022

    Hi Jamie,
    Thanks for a very interesting article. Have you experience with the Coravin Pivot which doesn’t use the needle system? The cork is seemingly removed completely and the bottle capped. The device then fits through the cap. Seems it will pour a less frothy drop?

  • Angela Lloyd1 February 2022

    I enjoy a glass or two of wine every evening but as I live alone, there’s no way I am able to drink a whole bottle in one evening; a bottle chez Lloyd will last 4 or even more days. I don’t do more than reinsert the cork and replace the white in the fridge and red in my 16C cellar. With young, quality wines, there is so often improvement and enjoyment over several days, even up to a week, with the wine revealing its ageing potential. This is one way I assess potential 5* wines for Platter.
    Jamie’s article is interesting and informative, giving views for thought, but I think others like myself shouldn’t be too worried about quality young wines & those with even a few years’ age, deteriorating too quickly once open.

  • Schalk Burger1 February 2022

    Very informative article, thank you Jamie. The safest bet still seems to be to finish the bottle and avoid the preservation issue completely! As an enthusiastic imbiber with a tee-totaller spouse, the issue often presents itself – finish the bottle on one’s own or keep some for another day. The wine never seems to be quite as good to my taste, even a day later, so I choose to manage the lesser evil (being a tinge of guilt at drinking an entire bottle) rather than the greater one of disappointment in subsequently drinking what has been left over. It would be interesting to hear some of your other readers’ take on the related and apropos matter of “how much is too much” – is a 750ml bottle over dinner, and a few hours after, too much for one person?

    • GillesP1 February 2022

      LOL. Same predicament for me. Of course my Homeopatist and my cardiologist both disagree with me. Sometimes, the red wines got better the next day though.

    • Chris2 February 2022

      Alc is metabolised at a rate of 20 milligrams per 100ml per hour depending on variables like age, weight etc. One 750ml bottle of 14% alc contains 105ml alc or around 80g pure alc – a bottle is a fair whack of alc.
      However wine is a complex beverage and takes one large glass about 3 hours to be metabolised.

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