Few things in life are as frustrating as uncorking a highly anticipated bottle of wine after a long day and pouring a glass only to discover that the bottle is spoiled. Instead of full, fruit-forward notes of cherry and blackberry, you’ve got yourself a chalice full of gym socks and burning rubber. Yuck! But before you abandon all hope – along with the contents of the bottle – there’s a simple DIY wine-saving trick so inexpensive to perform, it will only cost you a penny.
First though, we need to discuss some of the more common ways in which wine can fail to live up to even our most minimal of expectations, because this trick won’t solve all of your vino problems. There’s an enormous amount of time in between the picking of grapes and the eventual uncorking of a bottle. Things can go wrong at every step of the way.
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One fairly common way that a bottle of wine can go sideways on you is by being corked – what we call a bottle that has been afflicted with cork taint. The limited terminology is confusing, I know. Cork taint imbues wine with a volatile compound called 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole, or TCA. You’ll smell corked wine long before you ever try taking a swig of it. The aroma is frequently compared to wet dog, wet newspaper, a dirty sponge or rust. Corked bottles can be so pungent that even sitting a table down from a bottle that has been recently opened can make you feel nauseous. Unfortunately, there’s no wine hack to correct this common – well, more common than any of us would like – occurrence.
But another malady that can ruin a bottle of wine creeps up on our senses a bit more seductively. If the scent of your freshly opened bottle of wine doesn’t outright insult your sense of smell, but manages to taste like sulphur and burnt rubbed as soon as it hits your taste buds, then you might have a problem on your hands that you actually have a solution for. Wine that tastes of rotten eggs and rubber has likely been affected by a chemical process called reduction.
Reduction is a fairly standard part of the fermentation process that wine undergoes as it transitions from grape juice to an alcoholic nectar. But sometimes, the process can be inadvertently kicked into overdrive, dramatically changing the profile of a wine with the creation of a molecular compounds called thiols. Thiols come in a variety of specific types, each with their own less than ideal aroma. Ethyl mercaptan tastes like burnt rubber. Methyl mercaptan hits your senses like a match that has been burnt down. And hydrogen sulfide gives us the classic rotten eggs sensory trigger. Each of these thiols is fairly disgusting in their own right. Unfortunately, they usually hang out in a group.
Lucky for you, just as thiols are birthed by an unwanted chemical process that sometimes occurs during winemaking, they can also be eliminated by another chemical process. Thiols, when exposed to silver or copper, are eliminated like a genie being stuffed back into its lamp. And while silver might be a little hard for you to come by, unless your great grandparents left you a proper set of cutlery made from the precious metal, copper is quite a bit easier to get your paws on. Like say, in the form of a penny.
Not just any penny will do the job. It’s got to be a real copper coin. Ever since 1982, the U.S. Mint has been producing zinc pennies that are simply plated in a thin layer of copper. Those won’t do. But anything that predates ‘82 ought to be 95% copper, giving us more than enough of the metal to activate our little experiment.
You’re going to want to wash your penny, obviously, before giving it a wine bath. Money is filthy, in case you’ve forgotten in the years since your mother stopped telling you to stop putting everything in your mouth. But once your penny has been given a good scrub, just drop it into your eggy, rubbery glass of spoiled wine. Now give the glass a few sloshes and spins, the way you would if you were helping an expensive wine to open up and breathe before you take a sip.
If reduction is in fact the culprit plaguing your bottle, just a few moments of exposure to the copper penny (or silver spoon) will be plenty to “clean” your wine, transforming it back into something palatable by chemically transmogrifying those thiol compounds into odorless copper sulfide crystals. Thiols were only ever unpleasant to consume to begin with, never a health risk, and microscopic copper sulfide crystals are equally safe to consume. Just try not to choke on the penny.
But here’s the thing: while corked wine may be the most common type of spoilage a bottle can undergo, and reduction ranks pretty high up there on the list as well, there are actually more than 100 different types of compounds that can develop within a bottle once it has been sealed with a cork. Obviously, the penny trick isn’t going to work to correct a large swath of problems that may befall your bottle of wine. But maybe you should think twice before immediately dumping a turned bottle down the drain. After all, you’ve only got a penny to lose.