Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Have A Heart: Chill Your Reds Between Uses

In my last post I mentioned, tangentially, a situation that is common among wine lovers: the half-finished bottle. This subject came up in the context of a food-and-wine discussion -- you may recall that I had taken advantage of having an open bottle of Merlot, and one of Riesling, to see which paired better with the food I had made. (They both tasted fine.)

A quick poll of the winemaking staff here at Fox Run (they both live far enough away so that I couldn’t go and take a sneak peek myself) confirmed my suspicions that what holds for me, holds for them: at any given time, chances are high that there will be a partially-consumed bottle of wine or two in the fridge.

Notice that I didn’t say anything about an open bottle of wine sitting on their countertop.
You see, when I interview candidates here at the winery, I always make it a habit to toss some direct questions at them: “Are you, or have you ever been, the type of person who would…?” Tricia and Kelby were able to answer honestly in the negative to my red-baiting, and they both got a job offer.

Coincidentally, I came across an article over the weekend that does a fine job of answering some common questions that consumers have about wine. Number two on the list was “How long does wine last once opened?”

The smart-aleck response would have been “Just drink it up, dummy, and you won’t have to worry about that.” I have to admit that I’m occasionally tempted to give that answer, especially when someone asks me about a bottle they’ve had open for several months: “Is it still good?” (Typically, the query will finish with, “Or do you think it’s turned to vinegar?” More on that subject below.)

If the author, Gregory Dal Piaz, had been in the room at the time I read his piece, I would have given him a big, congratulatory bear hug, because he said something that I have been harping on for going on a quarter century:

“Refrigerate the wine. Wines go ‘off’ once they have been open because they are interacting with oxygen while warm. Cool the wine and you slow down the rate of those reactions.”

Notice that he didn’t say, “Refrigerate white wine”. That seems to be the reflexive practice of most wine drinkers, and its dangerous corollary is that open bottles of red wine are fine on the countertop.  They are not. Dal Paz nails it when he avers that oxygen is the enemy of wine, as long as it’s clear that we mean bottled wine here. Measurable oxidation reactions happen within a few hours of a wine being exposed to air, and though in some cases a quick hit of air can make a wine taste much better, that doesn’t mean the wine will improve, or even continue to taste good, with a day or so of oxygen exposure. (Remember that standard-issue air is about 21% oxygen, most of the remainder being made up of harmless nitrogen.)

Most people like sunny kitchens. Are you one of them? Yes? Then you have just fallen into my trap. Let’s say, completely hypothetically, that you are also a person who likes to keep a half-finished bottle of red wine on the counter. You get up the next day, go to work, then come home and proceed to ‘enjoy’ the remaining wine from the night before.

But while you toiled at the shoelace factory or insurance agency or wherever, what has happened?  The cat has wandered all over your food prep surfaces, certainly, but more importantly the sun has risen fully and tracked through your kitchen before going on its merry way. That open bottle of red wine? It became, for an hour or so, a mini greenhouse as the sun bestowed all its shining glory on your counter.

Or, since few of us have greenhouses, let’s instead say that while you were away your bottle became a mini automobile sitting in the sun with its windows closed. That’s a more familiar image. For a time, then, those fearful oxidation reactions were ramped up by the Los-Angeles-like temperatures that developed inside your little Buick Regal.

What’s an oxidized wine taste like? Let’s start with what it smells like, how about. It helps to have a memory of what the wine smelled like when it was freshly opened. Typically both red and white wines display some identifiable fruit aromas: pear and apple in the case of Chardonnay, raspberry and cherry with Pinot, and so on. Moreover, there should be no “off” aromas in a newly opened bottle – cardboard, apple peelings, nail polish remover, what have you.

By contrast, a wine that has suffered through some owner-induced oxidation will show a sharply diminished fruit aroma intensity, and in place of those nice, evocative scents you’ll smell things that clearly should not be in the wine. Red wines that have sat out for a day or so often develop unsavory aromas like shoe polish, beef bouillon, bruised apples, rancid cocoa, and Worcestershire sauce. Mmm.

What you won’t find, though, is that your red wine has started to smell like vinegar. The conversion of ethanol to acetic acid is actually a pretty hard trick to accomplish at home. It certainly does not happen to sealed bottles of wine, despite what everyone thinks, and an open bottle will show other off-aromas long before it becomes acetic.

So please keep your open bottles of all wines in the fridge between degustations. If your fridge doesn’t have a shelf tall enough to accommodate a bottle standing up, do something about it.

But you’re supposed to drink reds at room temperature! I hear you say. Easy – take the bottle out of the fridge as you start cooking to let it warm up a bit; or if you’re really in a hurry, place the bottle in a bath of lukewarm water for a minute or two.

Don't Let This Happen To You

Moments before sitting for his portrait, this otherwise
cheerful individual learned that he had been drinking oxidized
red wine every other night for most of his adult life.

- by Peter Bell, winemaker

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1 comment:

  1. Guilty as charged! Thanks for the lesson, Peter.