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What to do with leftover wine

Although I rarely have leftover wine, the problem does afflict some. You know the problem: wines that are past their two- or three-day prime, don't quite smell as fresh, or have been sitting on the counter so long you forget when you opened them. It happens.

As soon as you open a bottle, oxygen goes to work on the juice. A little bit improves the wine, but a whole bunch will create a vapid mess. Prevailing theories differ on how long a bottle will remain fresh once opened. I use the cheap, reasonably effective VacuVin system that sucks the oxygen out of the bottle using a plastic pump and a rubber stopper. Using this, sturdy red wine (cabernet, zinfandel, syrah) -- chilled or not -- remains fresh, albeit emerging a bit dulled, for about three days. Sadly, lighter reds like pinot noir and Beaujolais tend to fade much sooner. Whites kept in the fridge under the same system remain fruity for about two days in my experience. And dessert and fortified wines, which are naturally preserved by their high sugar and alcohol content, keep far longer -- several months -- if they are "pumped" and stored in a cool, dry place.

But if the wine's been exposed to air longer than three days and less than say, a week, you have options: Marinate, make sauces or create vinegar. When marinating, the wine's acidity tenderizes meat and fish flesh, but also adds flavor. A combination of oil and wine creates an effective mechanism to penetrate a particularly fibrous cut of beef, like London broil, flank or skirt steak. The marinade can be left in contact with the meat for several hours or overnight, depending on your time frame. However, fish and shellfish, when left in contact too long with a wine marinade (white wine only please -- purple shrimp looks kinda funny), can actually become tougher, so leave it in contact two hours or less.

A red or white wine sauce can be heaven. Best when added to the saucepan or sauté pan after cooking and removing the meat, the wine adds tremendous flavor and complexity to a sauce. Try sautéing onions and garlic in some olive oil, add some wine, and let it boil out until it's achieved a sticky, unctuous consistency. Add this to vinaigrettes for salads to intensify their flavor.

Like home brews, homemade vinegar can be seen skulking in garages across the country, birthed from a bubbling, fermenting goo called a "Mother." Although I've never made it, I scoured the Internet and got some reasonably trustworthy scoop. Wine often spontaneously makes itself into vinegar after several months with the right airborne yeasts, but if you're looking to produce reliable, stable vinegar, you need to control the situation. Check your local wine-making store for a vinegar crock that resembles a ceramic thermos with a spout at the bottom, and a stock of bacteria that starts the vinegar fermentation process. After two months, you'll have a tart concoction that reportedly tastes better than the bottled stuff. There's good advice at www.gangofpour.com/diversions/vinegar. Much luck ... and ship me some if it's good.

Taittinger La Francaise (France) A couple of weeks ago, I reported that the French Taittinger Champagnes tasted so woody, they were undrinkable. The PR folks were so aghast, they sent me shiny new bottles to re-taste. Something must have gotten messed up in the original bottles I tasted, since this second bottle was fresh, toasty and distinctly green apple and citrus in flavor. Almost like they made it just for me. Not. Sw = 2. $40. ****

Avila 2005 Chardonnay Santa Barbara County (California) Full-bodied, with smoky, oaky vanilla, fresh fruit like banana, tangerine and pear. Sw = 2. $13 *** 1/2

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