Tricks to Make a Bad Wine Better

WSJ.COM – Have you ever stuck a spoon in an unfinished bottle of Champagne, stuffed Saran wrap into a decanter of corked wine or spun a Cabernet in a blender? These are just a few of the tricks oenophiles have been known to employ to save a wine from being poured down the drain.

Wine collectors regularly bandy about the Saran wrap technique as a way to remove 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA), or cork taint, from a wine. TCA, a chemical compound occasionally found in corks (hence the term “corked”), can impart a dull or even musty character that is perfectly harmless but unpleasant to consume. Polyethylene, found in plastic wrap, absorbs it.

“The non-polar TCA molecule has a high affinity for the polyethylene molecule,” Rich Olsen-Harbich, winemaker at Bedell Cellars in Long Island, N.Y., wrote in an email, explaining how the trick removes the taint.

New York attorney Jay Hack once used the technique at a Manhattan steakhouse, after discovering that the pricey premier cru red Burgundy he’d brought to dinner was corked. When Mr. Hack asked for some plastic wrap, the waiter took “about a square foot right out of the restaurant kitchen,” he recalled. “We crumpled it up and inserted it in the decanter for a few seconds.” The result was a much better wine, with diminished cork taint—although a few of Mr. Hack’s friends thought the wine had been stripped of some flavor as well.

That’s because polyethylene not only absorbs TCA but other wine components as well, especially aromatics, said Mr. Olsen-Harbich.

Alas, the method doesn’t always work; it depends on the type of polyethylene in the plastic wrap, said Mel Knox, of San Francisco-based Knox Barrels. Other factors that can determine the trick’s success or failure include the ratio of polyethylene to TCA, and the wine’s temperature and alcohol level.

Other wine tricks are even less complicated, like sticking a spoon’s handle into the neck of an open bottle of Champagne before placing it back in the fridge to preserve the bubbles. Winemaker Jennifer Williams, of Zeitgeist Cellars in Napa Valley, admitted to employing the technique over the holidays. It seemed to work, she said, but like many oenophiles she didn’t know why.

Is there actual science behind the spoon trick? Gordon Burns, co-founder and technical director of Napa-based wine-analytics company ETS Laboratories, said there’s none. Temperature, he said, is the most important factor in preserving bubbles; the colder the refrigerator, the longer bubbles hold.

For wines that are reduced (aka marked by a sulfurous smell that can range from burned rubber to rotten eggs), many professionals suggest placing a copper penny in the bottle. “Copper reacts with the sulfur ion (sulfide) to make CuS, copper sulfide, thus taking it out of the solution,” David Ramey, of Ramey Wine Cellars in Healdsburg, Calif., wrote in an email. “It doesn’t even cost a penny to try it, since you get it back. So why not?”

Perhaps the most unlikely trick of all is the one devised by former Microsoft chief technology officer Nathan Myhrvold: decanting young, tannic reds by means of a high-speed turn in a blender. Decanting is traditionally done by transferring wine from a bottle to a larger container, thereby accomplishing both oxidation and evaporation, helping the fruit and aromas come to the fore and seeming to soften the tannins. The process can take several hours, even days. Mr. Myhrvold maintains that spinning a wine for 30 seconds in a blender is just a faster version.

The Bellevue, Wash.-based scientist has championed the trick, which he calls “hyperdecanting,” for many years, but it only received widespread attention in 2011 after he noted it in his multivolume tome, “Modernist Cuisine.” It isn’t, however, a trick for older or well-balanced wines, he cautioned. Those wines rarely benefit from decanting and, in fact, can be so fragile that they fall apart.

To balance a wine that has excess fruit, tannin or alcohol, Mr. Myhrvold suggested adding a pinch of salt to your glass. He said he tried this for the first time a few years ago with a Cabernet, at a dinner where he sat next to Gina Gallo, of E. & J. Gallo Winery. According to Mr. Myhrvold, Ms. Gallo said she wished the Cabernet, which she’d made, was more savory and less fruity. He promptly put a pinch of salt in his glass, and found it improved the wine. “Pretty soon everyone at the table was doing this,” he said. A Gallo spokesperson said Ms. Gallo didn’t recall that the wine in question was hers and noted that she hasn’t salted a wine since.

I liked the idea that a few grains of salt could correct, or at least ameliorate, an obvious flaw in a wine, and decided to try it on a Petite Sirah whose towering alcohol (17.4%) made it hard to drink. The 2008 Scholium Project Bricco Babelico was a big, dense bruiser of a wine. While salt obviously couldn’t reduce the alcohol, it did slightly mitigate the sting.

The spoon trick actually seemed to work. The bubbles in my partially full bottle of Roederer Estate nonvintage sparkling wine were still lively the second day—although it might just have been that our fridge is very cold.

However strange it was to commingle wine with plastic, I found giving a wine a whirl in a blender even more unsettling.

It took more effort to pull off the other tricks. I had a hard time finding a corked wine. After asking retailers and sommeliers if they had any returned bottles, I eventually found a tainted wine on my own: a 2013 Georges Descombes Morgon Beaujolais. I placed it with some plastic wrap in a decanter. After swirling for a few minutes, I poured the wine out. It no longer seemed corked, but the aromas were too muted to be pleasurable. My husband and I drank Dolcetto instead.

However strange it was to commingle wine with plastic, I found giving an expensive wine a whirl in a blender even more unsettling. Since Mr. Myhrvold had practiced his first hyperdecanting in a restaurant, I decided to honor the tradition—and have a bit of fun—by following suit. I took two reds and a blender to one of my favorite BYOBs, Ruthie’s Bar-B-Q & Pizza, in Montclair, N.J., where owners Ruth Perretti and Eric Kaplan had said they were curious about the technique. Three friends joined us.

The first wine, a 2010 Chateau Lafon-Rochet, had tasted closed before decanting. But after the allotted 30 seconds in the blender, “it definitely softened it,” said Burt, a physician. Laura, an investment banker, thought the spinning had enhanced the wine, but we all agreed it wasn’t much more interesting—just a bit easier to drink.

The second red, a 2009 Smith-Madrone Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, was much better, both before and after decanting. Burt was particularly impressed. “This one really responded well,” he said, sounding every bit like a physician making his diagnosis: “It seems a lot softer and more aromatic.” But, he joked, it didn’t seem worth lugging a blender to a restaurant.

Of course, there are many other even simpler tricks. Warm a wine up, cool it down, put it in a different glass, pair it with cheese, and your impression might change. For example, a wine that’s warm will seem higher in alcohol than one that’s been cooled. Perhaps you could say that just about anything you do to a wine is a trick of some sort.

Lettie Teague, Wall Street Journal

Original Article