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Air battle in the bottle

Chianti barrels

Wine has a difficult love-hate relationship with oxygen. Without a little oxygen there is no aging and development to wine, and with too much there is total failure.

As Sweet sang to us, walking that line can be tricky.

With a new world order of social distancing, public health-induced isolation and the awkward calculus of whether another trip to the bottle shop can be considered essential, there is a renewed focus on how best to get an open and unfinished bottle to last a bit longer.

Oxygen is a reactive substance. It can release volatile flavour elements to increase the flavour of a wine, it can assist in the development of primary fruit characters in young wine and promote secondary and more complex flavours to develop with time. It can trigger the change of precious ethanol into the much less appetising aldehyde and carboxylic acid.

It is this last action which is the challenge in storing open wine. Given the rate of reaction is heat sensitive, one easy way to slow oxidation is to simply refrigerate the leftover wine.

Most modern wine storage mechanisms, such as bottles, cans, tetrapacks and silver bladders are designed to limit the amount of oxygen entering the wine while in storage. Each packing method has a small volume of air in the top of the sealed container which does work upon the wine and, in the case of bottles sealed with corks, small amounts of oxygen seep into the enclosure through the porous wood bark, promoting ongoing development of the wine.

Love is like oxygen
You get too much you get too high
Not enough and you’re gonna die

Sweet, Love is Like Oxygen, 1978

Upon opening the container, new oxygen rushes into the vessel and starts to work on the chemicals of the wine (only the much maligned silver bladder is designed to be effective at limiting the ingress of additional oxygen for as long as the plastic tap holds firm).

Among the many fancy methods to elongate the life of wine in open bottles, the simplest is to transfer the leftover wine to a smaller container with a sealed lid closely matching the volume left. A collection of half bottles and quarter-sized bottles with screw-cap lids can be a very effective and inexpensive solution to storage if coupled with refrigeration.

The much honoured vacuum pump is a standard for your wine writer, but is only about 70% effective in reducing the oxygen in a bottle and is subject to leaking from the stopper. This is a gambit which may just buy a few days, but is better than just replacing the cork.

Enthusiasts have invented greater gizmos to de-oxygenate a bottle, including the species of neutral gas cylinders. Often this method requires a layer of neutral argon gas to be blown into the bottle to sit on top of the wine and keep out the evils of the oxygen. While costly, it does make for good theatre for dinner parties.

A final variant is the shield which is inserted into the bottle to float on top of the wine and form a physical version of the argon gas method. This can be an effective solution in stopping oxygen reaching the wine below and is less cumbersome than dealing with canisters of noble gases. Often shields are single use as extraction can be tricky, so this method may be better suited to the rare occasions when a serious wine is left unfinished.

Wine needs oxygen to be pleasurable, but the challenge of holding over for the next day, is all about not getting too much of a good thing.

The tasting

A tasting from Italy, with love.

The first was the La Gioiosa Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG NV, which was pale gold in colour. It had a first run of enthusiastic bead which burnt down to large languorous bubbles. The nose was demure but the palate was crisp and lively. It was grapefruit and lime citrus lifting with floral sweet undertones. Lovely.

The second was the Ciu Ciu Falerio DOP Oris 2018, which was the colour of straw gold. While the nose was demure again, the palate of this special wine from the Marche was acid and fine mineral structure. It was crisp with lime and refreshing with fine food wine notes.

The third was the Poderi del Paradiso 2018 Chianti Colli Senesi DOCG, which was the colour of blood plums and had a nose of cherry, white pepper and currants. The palate was very special, with pepper, leather, oak and dark chocolate. A smooth operator from Tuscan hills with a real sense of depth of flavour. Delicious.

Verdict: It seems inappropriate to pick anything from Italy as being a winner at present, but the most preferred was the Chianti, as a seriously good red to start exploring decent Chianti.

Matthew Dunn is Queensland Law Society General Manager, Policy, Public Affairs and Governance.

This story was originally published in Proctor May 2020.

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