Those rubber vacuum corks, especially the popular Vacu Vin system, are the kind of gift that any self-professed “wine lover” will inevitably receive, often in numerous quantities. It’s a fun gizmo, but does it work?
To answer this I took the usual off-the-cuff, mostly-scientific approach favored in the Distilled Opinion offices: a mostly-blind taste test and some rather cursory Internet research. Click here for the details of the experiment or here to skip right to the findings.
According to Wikipedia, wine is always oxidizing in the bottle to some degree or another. Opening the wine should in theory only accelerate this process. “Breathing” wine in a decanter is just a more efficient way to oxidize wine. Many wines benefit from oxidation, as strong, overpowering compounds are broken down.
As a wine oxidizes, it should get “flatter” as many compounds responsible for flavor and taste are converted via a redox reaction into less-delicious molecules, like water and hydrogen.
Therefore it stands to reason that vacuum wine savers seek to prevent oxidation, thereby prolonging the life of an opened bottle of wine. To test the effect of a vacuum wine cork I bought two bottles of Oreana “?” red table wine, available at Trader Joe’s. I corked them at the same time and tested each to ensure neither was spoiled and tasted the same (they were identical).
The wine had a sharp, high, and pungent nose. Slight astringency. Light and sweet taste, feels carbonated almost. The “carbonation” taste overpowers the rest of the flavors, and is quite uncomfortable. I did not decant either bottle, which might have been a mistake.
Cork: Nose is not as strong, more fruity. Still quite pungent and still has a sizzle, but not as much as first open.
Vacuum: Nose is bright and strong. Taste seems brighter. I don’t know if I could tell much of a difference. The corked was slightly more pleasant to drink, probably because breathing it helped mellow the high strong fruity flavors of the wine.
Cork: Nose is much emptier. Much of the astringency is gone. Flavor is light. Still has a “sizzle” but is generally much calmer and more pleasant.
Vacuum: Almost no flavor in the nose, mostly astringency. Tastes bitter, and tastes more like the first open. Flavors are still high fruits and acids. I guessed this correctly as the vacuum-sealed glass.
At this point my discipline failed and I lost the notes for days 6 and 7. (I also drank the rest of the corked wine – I am a very lazy scientist). I did do a few tests on friends, all of whom verified my findings: that the corked wine was simply more enjoyable to drink than the vacuum-sealed wine. This likely means that the vacuum-seal does work, and that the Oreana “?” table wine really should have been decanted for a few hours.
Vacuum-seal systems really work, at least to prevent against oxidation for a few days. They won’t, however, protect you from your own bumbling ineptitude.
Details of the Experiment
To replicate my results, follow this extremely scientific procedure, which is what I used for each day’s taste test:
- Uncork each bottle
- Get two identical glasses and two identical Post-It notes
- Write “corked” on one Post-It and “vacuum” on the other.
- Put the glasses on the Post-It notes so that the writing is underneath and the note hangs from the glass.
- Pour a splash of wine from each bottle into its respective glass.
- Close your eyes and spin around a few times, and with your eyes still closed, shuffle the two glasses around on the table (this is why scientists call this a “blinded taste test”).
- Walk to another room, read some email or something.
- Come back to the wine glasses and pick up a glass and taste it and make notes. Try to not pay too much attention to which glass.
- Make tasting notes for the second glass.
- Reveal the sticky notes and match your notes to the corked and vacuum-sealed wine
Optional Extension to the Experiment
- Pour a glass of each wine for a friend and see what they think. This is what scientists refer to as “peer review”.