by: Vino Joe (e-mail)
Vino Joe gets a lot of e-mails regarding the aging of wines.
For example: “I just received a bottle of Califoakian Cabernet 1996 as a gift and wonder if I should drink it now or lay it down for a while?”
An entire book can be written on what wines should be aged and for how long. In fact, there are several on the subject, many of which go in to great detail. Also, you may notice that many of the wine “experts” include aging recommendations in their reviews --
Wine Spectator, Robert Parker, Clive Coates and Stephen Tanzer are a few that come to mind. Once in a while, even Vino Joe will suggest that you lay down a wine for a few years. But why? And how does one know? First of all, 90% of all wine produced is meant to be drunk immediately, or within two years. So really, all you have to worry about is the other 10%. Without getting too long-winded, here are a few general “hard and fast” rules to follow:
Rule 1: If the wine costs less than $25, drink it up.
Sure, there are some exceptions, but generally speaking, anything under $25 will not benefit from prolonged aging. There are many under-$25 wines whose imbalanced tannins or acidity will soften after a year or two in bottle, but don’t expect any
mind-blowing evolution -- beyond two years, the wine is likely going downhill.
Rule 2: You won’t know whether to age a wine until YOU taste it.
Maybe this should be called the “personal preference” rule. As mentioned before, many wine experts will recommend a specific year to drink a wine. There are also many “vintage charts” available that suggest whether certain wines should be held or drunk. However, that’s
their opinion, according to how they like wine to taste. These recommendations are an educated guess as to when a particular wine will be in perfect balance -- when the fruit, acidity, tannins and alcohol levels are all in sync. But
you might like to drink a wine when it’s “big -- when it has strong tannins, or high levels of acidity. (Generally speaking, you age a wine so that these two components mellow somewhat, and allow the fruit to come “forward,” and thus bring the wine into “balance.”) Yes, the experts may know when a wine has reached its peak, but that doesn’t mean you have to like it at that point. That’s why you need to taste it, then decide whether or not to cellar it.
Well, gee, Vino Joe, how the heck can you age a bottle of wine after you’ve opened it? You can’t, obviously (do NOT recork a wine and cellar it, unless you’d like to make expensive vinegar), but you can buy, say, four bottles, try one, then decide whether to cellar the other three. Many people buy a case or two of wine that they think might be worthy of aging, then taste one bottle every year to follow its evolution. When they hit a year when the wine is really rockin’, they drink up the case.
Rule 3: Don’t bother aging a wine if you don’t have the means to do so.
All wines mature fairly quickly in a typical household (68-72°F, frequent changes in sunlight and humidity), and shouldn’t really be kept more than five or six months in these conditions. Beyond six months (sometimes sooner, if there were very hot days inside), most wines will begin to deteriorate. Finer (i.e., expensive) wines that require aging need to be kept in a place that is constantly cool (50-60°F), dark, damp and without excessive vibration. For most people, this is the cellar; for others, it is an artificial “cellar” such as you can find in the Wine Enthusiast catalog. (Note: do NOT store wines in your refrigerator for an extended length of time; though it’s a constantly cool temperature, there is little humidity, so your corks will shrink and the wine will spoil.)
Since not everyone has a wine cellar, you will need to find a place that is as close to these ideal conditions as possible. The most important thing is CONSTANT cool temperature -- wines do not react well to extreme variations. Dampness is also important, but you should be okay if your storage area is not overly dry, and you are sure to keep all bottles laying on their side, so that the wine stays in contact with the cork, thereby keeping the cork moist and expanded to hold a tight seal. If the cork dries, air gets in and destroys the wine.
Rule 4: When in doubt, pour it out!
If you’re really not sure whether to open a bottle or not, don’t fret it -- open it up. Invite a few friends over and turn an ordinary day into a distinctive occasion. Opening an expensive or special bottle of wine is a lot of fun…and isn’t that what life is all about? And besides, wouldn’t you much rather drink a great wine too young, than to never drink it all?
A note about recorking wine
There are some wineries and independent companies that will recork a wine. After so many years (15 to 20 at least), a cork can begin to deteriorate, or even disintegrate, and eventually be unable to hold a tight seal. To guard against this, some people have their bottles recorked. Essentially, the original cork is carefully removed, the wine is “topped up” with the same exact wine and vintage, and a new cork installed. However, this is an expensive and hazardous process, and unless done by the winery, isn’t necessarily recommended by Vino Joe. For me, once a cork is removed, it’s time to drink!
A short list of wines that typically benefit from prolonged aging (five years or
|All of the below are in regard to wines costing at least $30 upon release.
Bonnezeaux (dessert wine from Loire, France)
Brunello di Montalcino
Burgundy (Red and White)
Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, California
Hermitage, and some Crozes-Hermitage (Rhone Valley, France)
Meritage from California
Shiraz from Australia
Spatlese and above from Germany
Super Tuscans (Tignanello, Sassicaia, Olmaia, Coltri, etc.)
Tokay Pinot Gris from Alsace, France
Vendange Tardive and SGN wines from Alsace, France
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