Thursday, August 2, 2012

How do natural wines last so long once you open them?

Last night we got back to France and shared the remains of a bottle of Mas Coutelou’s Le Vin Des Amis 2011* we’d left in the fridge a week before. It was delicious - as good as the night we’d opened it.

It’s not the first experience I’ve had of that recently. Thierry Germain told us that the Terres Chaudes we tasted the other week had been open for 8 days. And some wines even taste better the second day than they do when they're first opened. So what’s going on?

In my experience that doesn’t happen with conventional wines - certainly not at this price. Often I’ve had some bottles hanging around from a tasting and tried them the following day with food and they’ve just fallen apart.

The most obvious explanation is that these are ‘living’ wines or vins vivants as the French put it. Because there is very little, if any, sulphur in them, because they’re not fined or filtered  bacteriological activity is still taking place (precisely what those opposed to natural wines disapprove of).

Wines that are clearly heat-treated (see previous post on soupy reds) by contrast or which are made with aromatic yeasts seem to fall apart very quickly. The producers and retailers who sell them probably assume - quite rightly - that most people will drink them in an evening well before they get to that stage but with the greater awareness of alcohol intake at the moment I’m not sure that’s necessarily the case - certainly in households of two like ours.

The yeast aspect is interesting. The wines I’m referring to - indeed almost all natural wines - are made with wild yeasts and therefore presumably don’t need the enzymes required to make commercial yeasts do their job. Sourdough bread also lasts a great deal longer than bread made with commercial yeast. So maybe that’s it?

Or is it the tannins - both the wines concerned were red? Or the fact our wine had been kept in the fridge which I imagine must have helped?

Winemakers, what do you think?

* a blend of Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault and Mourvèdre


  1. Hi there
    As I mentioned on Twitter, enzymes are not always used by commercial wine makers so this would not be the issue. Good wine making will keep wines tasting good longer whether they are inocculated with commercial yeast or whether they are non innoculated. And of course good wine making must be preceeded by care in the vineyard. The more care taken in the vineyard will mean an easier job for the wine maker.

  2. I'm sure that's true but nevertheless it's a rarity to keep a half empty bottle of conventionally made wine for a week (assuming you can keep your hands off it that long) without deterioration. Not such a rarity with natural wines

  3. That's really interesting to know.

  4. I'm sure the living active microflora of these wines contributes to this effect, but so does the fact that many of these wines are minimally (or never) racked. The wines seem to crave air on opening, and go through a sort of accelerated elevage once opened.
    I think that many wines, which are racked often, have nowhere left to go after opening.
    At least that's been my impression.

  5. Although your observation is certainly correct : some wines (not only the « natural » type) seem to actually improve after a few days, and will keep for anything up to a week, I would be very careful in finding one unique reason, or even a set of reasons. A lot of assumptions here, but hard to prove, hence the comments “I think ....” and so on. Anyway, I share your view this is rather the sign of a “good” wine.
    Mind you: how often do we leave a “good” bottle unfinished? Wouldn’t we be tempted to drink it to the last droplet?

    1. This is true but if one has several bottles open, as winewriters - and possibly even winemakers - are prone to do, one might find oneself in that unusual situation ;-)

    2. Correct, Fiona.
      I amend: How often do we leave SEVERAL good bottles unfinished, hips .....??
      Just joking, of course: Moderaçión is watching us.

  6. I've always found it interesting that in many blind tastings how even sommeliers have declared a preference for wines straight out of the bottle vesus decanted or crushed. Personally, I feel the whole oxygenation/aerated thing is highly overrated. The best wine I've ever experienced was a 1st growth '84 Margaux right out of the bottle. It almost made me religious.