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Uncorked: Leftover wine? Now what do you do?

The clock starts ticking when you pull the cork. Most will last a day, but there are steps you can take to help keep it tasting good.

Published March 23, 2005

[Times photos: Patty Yablonski]
Some stoppers from American Spirits, St. Petersburg

The caller handed me a perfect straight line: "What do you do when you don't finish a bottle of wine?"

Hmmm. "Never happened to me."

"How will you know if the wine's gone bad?" "If I don't want to drink it."

"How long will wine last?" "Not long in my house."

And so on.

Silly answers aside, how long wine lasts after opening is a serious question that serious wine lovers confront regularly.

And argue about endlessly. On the counter or in the fridge? Corked, rebottled? With an air vacuum or protected by a layer of nitrogen?

All of us have our methods, savvy or not.

At my house, half-finished reds are on the counter and in the fridge, half-finished whites are refrigerated and old sparkling wine in a gallon jug sits in the garage waiting for vinegar to come. Then there's the older stuff for cooking, kept by the stove in bottles combining the dregs of a month or more in an ersatz solera system.

Oxygen and wine have a testy relationship best kept brief. "Wine starts to oxidize as soon as you open it," warns Darlene McGeehan, who sells fine wines for Premier Beverage in Tampa.

Oxygen does seep slowly through barrels and corks into wine over years. Many wines benefit from aeration after opening, decanting, swirling in a glass or simply sitting 20 minutes in the glass.

This is metaphysics and real physics, organic chemistry and alchemy as well as personal taste, a baffler that can test the geekiest.

Sadly, the solution often hangs on "depends." How long a wine will last depends on what kind: red or white, sweet or dry, made to age or ready for drinking.

"A young red, it will last a few days. A big cabernet longer. Pinot noir? Pouf," said Aleth Voarick of Wine Warehouse in St. Petersburg.

The question has many answers, as evidenced by the variety of wine-saving gadgetry sold, from plastic vacuum caps to fancy glass Cruvinets in restaurants where a dozen wine bottles are hooked to taps.

How long opened wine keeps is a big enough question that Beringer Blass Wine Estates has commissioned the University of California at Davis to test the competing theories.

"The by-the-glass market has just exploded. A finer restaurant wants to have the right systems in place to make sure the wine is good," said Allison Stimpson, a spokeswoman for Beringer Blass in St. Helena, Calif. (A countervailing theory I suggest is that cheaper prices by the glass, say $4, would empty bottles faster.)

Wine drinkers want the best methods too, Stimpson said. "In the wine country lifestyle, we like to open a couple of bottles and try them over a couple of days."

Whatever the Davis conclusion on particular methods, there are a few truths:

* All wine will live to drink another day at least 24 hours with a cork in it. Most wines will go three days, and richer wines a week, with proper care. "You do notice on the second day that it's not as pristine sometimes," Stimpson said.

* Wine will not "go bad" in a way that is unsafe. You will know if it has been kept too long because it won't taste as good. It will have less aroma, taste dull or even sour, but it won't hurt you. Still, in a tasting room like Beringer's Rhine House, the staff tastes every opened bottle each day before serving it.

* The more wine in the bottle, the longer it will last. A bottle with a few inches of wine has more air and thus oxidizes faster.

Buy a few of the half bottles that are popular now. After finishing those, save the empties for nights you don't finish a 750ml bottle. Transfer the remains into the smaller 375ml bottle and it will keep longer.

* Beyond vacuum and nitrogen devices, simple wine stoppers are essential tools (and perfect gifts). These corks and metal cones, with or without rubber rings, come with ornamental tops from Betty Boop to Christmas trees.

Special stoppers for Champagne have wings that clamp around the bottle flanges and will keep the pressure and sparkle for a few days.

* Sugar and high alcohol are preservatives too, which is why ports, sherries, Madeira and dessert wines can last up to a year after being opened.

* If you don't drink leftover wine, use it. Cold, it could be a marinade; with time, warmth and the right bacteria, it will be vinegar.

Better to cook wine long enough to lose the alcohol and concentrate its flavor and natural acidity, said David Frakes, Beringer's executive chef, who cooks for 10,000 VIP guests every year.

Frakes puts wine and chopped shallots or onions in a saute pan and cooks them until almost dry, when the vegetables and wine are as thick as a syrup. Use that essence to sharpen sauces or mix with rice vinegar and olive oil for a vinaigrette.

* Wine you don't like won't get better in the refrigerator or a stock pot. Pour it out.

Chris Sherman can be reached at 727 893-8585 or

[Last modified March 23, 2005, 11:47:38]

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