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by Dr. Neil Pollock

Last Father’s Day I received a singularly thoughtful gift from my family. This gift demonstrated passion, research skills and ingenuity in finding the solution to a problem that has plagued me, and countless other oenophiles, since the first bottle of wine was uncorked over 1,700 years ago somewhere in Ancient Rome.

Those of us who have had a few bottles of wine in our time recoil at the prospect of drinking the remainder of a half-finished bottle a few days after it has been re-corked. As you likely know, contact with oxygen dooms re-corked wine to a deteriorated state. This becomes painfully obvious when the bottle is re-opened and tasted days, or mere hours, later. The wine takes on a muted expression. It loses its bouquet and lively fruitfulness and seems fattened.

Since the Ancient Romans first floated olive oil atop wine in an attempt to protect it from oxidation, wine lovers have endeavored to solve this problem. And, until last Father’s Day, I personally struggled with this issue for years, trying various products and techniques, while never quite resolving the issue.   

One of the more common wine preservation products on the market is the vacuum pump system. A rubber stopper is twisted into the neck of a half-finished bottle of wine; a vacuum device is then placed onto the stopper and pumped to suck the air—and oxygen—out of the bottle and create a vacuum. Such systems cost $15 to $20 for a sturdy model with a single stopper (additional stoppers are a few dollars each). When they function well (i.e. when vacuum pressure is properly created and maintained) the pump systems do a decent job of preserving the wine for three to four days with minimal deterioration. However, I have found that the rubber stoppers are often unable to maintain vacuum pressure, which leaves me mourning the death of a perfectly good half-bottle and wishing I had polished it off at the outset. Some doubt the ability of these systems to fully preserve bouquet, even when the products are functioning optimally.

Having decided that vacuum systems ”sucked,”I devised my own deceptively simple wine preservation method (at the time, I wondered why I hadn’t thought of it sooner!). After dinner one night, I poured a half-finished bottle of wine into a 375 ml bottle—half the original size—making sure that the cork of the now-full smaller bottle was twisted airtight. Upon reopening the smaller bottle a few days later, my bubble burst when I discovered that the wine was utterly flat. It turns out that wine is so sensitive to oxygenation that the process of transferring wine between bottles allows enough oxygen to mingle with the wine to give it a notably oxidized character a day later. Alas, solutions that seem too simple often are.

And while on the topic of simple systems, there’s the practice of placing small marbles into a partially filled wine bottle. The submerged marbles push the air out of the bottle, which can then be re-corked with little oxygen inside. This method supposedly keeps the wine fresh for a few days, but its limitations lie in corralling and handling many small marbles (aka Marble Management) and then pouring the wine through a strainer to keep the glass spheres from spilling out and breaking your wine glasses. Despite its tricky logistics, the marble system—on its own or combined with refrigeration—should help slow oxidation. (Note: Refrigeration does not work as well for reds as it does for whites. Storing red wine in the fridge dampens the acidity and flavour, which cannot be revived, even after warming.) Unfortunately, the prospect of wine-soaked marbles and broken glass all over my dining room floor has kept me from seriously considering this method.

So, last Father’s Day my quest finally came to an end when I unwrapped the Perservino wine preservation system (retails for about $100; above). The Perservino system uses argon gas, which is heavier than air. Argon gas is infused (with a dispenser) into a stopper that is placed into the neck of the bottle. The stopper allows air to escape from the bottle while argon fills the dead space. Once the bottle is topped with argon, the stopper turns to close off the unit and trap the layer of argon over the wine (argon cartridges good for 10 usages, cost about $5 each or $.50 per use, which seems quite reasonable to me)

 I tried this method on 3 winning wines and was thoroughly impressed with the degree to which they were preserved.

 In the end my family’s thoughtful discovery of the perfect solution to this age old problem turned out to be…a real gas.

Former Winnipegger, Dr. Neil Pollock is a member of the Wine Writers Circle of Canada. Visit his website on wine at Dr. Pollock practices no scalpel, no needle vasectomy and infant circumcision.

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