How to protect leftover wine from its enemy: oxygen

One of the best ways to store leftover wine, and certainly the simplest, is to pour it into a smaller container that holds the liquid without leaving an air pocket. (Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

One of the best ways to store leftover wine, and certainly the simplest, is to pour it into a smaller container that holds the liquid without leaving an air pocket. (Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

You’ve drained a slew of bottles — you and your good-time crew — and if tonight were a movie, the credits would be rolling right about now. Time to sleep it off. Live to sip another day. But there’s wine left in one of those bottles. What do you do with that?

You have options, but there are two rules you should follow every time: Limit the leftover wine’s exposure to oxygen, and keep it cool. You don’t live in an old oil painting with a fresh kill of pheasant, a bugle and yesterday’s half-drunk bottle of wine resting on a sideboard; use your refrigerator. The cooler temperature will slow the wine’s decay. If you have a wine fridge, great. But a regular fridge is better than no fridge at all. Your wine will probably be colder than it should be when you retrieve it to polish it off, but it will soon rise to its optimal temperature in the glass.

Young, intense wines that normally would have benefited from decanting in the first place could actually improve after being opened and stored for a day or two in the fridge. (You know — like a big ol’ pot of chili.) But oxygen is the enemy of wine, and even when you put a cork back into a bottle after opening it, essentially sealing it off from the outside air, the wine has nonetheless begun its rapid descent to undesirability.

Limiting the amount of oxygen that comes into contact with leftover wine is sort of the human equivalent of wearing sunblock and avoiding fried foods, refined sugar and excessive sodium. Storing it in a cool place is the equivalent of regularly getting a good night’s sleep on a high-quality mattress. All of it should keep your wine alive and healthy longer. But still, we’re talking about only a few days, give or take.

Your first, least-involved option is to stuff the bottle’s cork back into it (or screw its cap back on tightly), place it in the fridge and cross your fingers that it will still be good in two or three days. You could also forgo the original closure device and use a wine vacuum pump, with its reusable rubber-seal cap. These gadgets pull air out of a bottle and keep it out until you’re ready to open it and pour again. Another wine preservation technique is to use a product that replaces the oxygen hovering over the wine in the bottle with an inert gas.

Your final option — possibly the best and easiest, considering it involves no pumping or gas injecting — is to pour the remaining wine into a container that is sized as close as possible to the volume of liquid that remains. A standard wine bottle holds 750 milliliters, or a little more than 25 ounces. If your pours have been roughly 5 ounces each over the course of an evening, even a buzzed English major can figure out how much is left in the bottle. But no math is required if you have a few smaller-size bottles on hand.

A half bottle (375 milliliters) holds about 12 1/2 ounces, and a split (187.5 milliliters), holds a little more than 6 ounces. (Splits are the little single-serving bottles of Champagne.) This is a good excuse for you to buy some half-bottles, so you can drink the wine first and, as a bonus, score a few implements to add to your arsenal of wine tools (the empty little bottles, ready to hold leftovers). Buy a funnel, too, so you can transfer the wine without spilling a drop.

Other bottles and jars of different sizes work well, too; they don’t all have to be wine bottles. Just make sure they’re perfectly clean. The glass will not be hard to get completely clean, even if it originally held salsa or giardiniera. But the cap — that’s where the residual odors and flavors can linger. I’m all for reusing, but this might be an instance when recycling is the better option. Put those used jars and bottles in the bin, and buy a couple of brand new ones for your leftover wine. It’s a tiny investment that will pay for itself after a couple of uses.

To keep your leftover bubbly adequately fizzy and fresh for mimosas or just a good old eye-opener the next morning, invest in a sparkling wine stopper, which will fit directly onto the bottle the wine came in. They’re inexpensive and often work well. Generally, sparkling wines will last a day or two in the fridge, reds will last at least two days, and most whites should last at least three. But if you’ve ever eaten food that was past its expiration date and discovered that it was fine, you know there is some wiggle room. Dessert wines can last much longer — up to a couple of months in some cases. Any wine that is a day or three past its leftover prime won’t kill you; it just might not excite you.

Of course, the best plan is the same one you should use when you interact with nature: Leave no trace. Don’t guzzle down your wine just to empty a bottle. But if you can time it so that the end of your drinking campaign coincides with the final drops of a bottle, everybody wins. Have those little bottles and jars ready but — like a lot of things that you can imagine in life — if you don’t have to use them, all the better.