Skeptical Wine-ing, Part V2: To Have and To Hold
In Part 1 of this post, I discussed what happens as a wine ages and its unique relationship with air. In this follow-up, I’ll explain what makes certain wines age-worthy and how to keep your wines happy for however long you can wait before drinking them.
Selecting Wines for Now and Later
As I mentioned in my previous post, most wines sold in your local store are meant for consumption within a year of purchase, which works for Americans since 70 to 90 percent of wine is consumed within 24 hours of purchase in this country. Most people buy wine on their way to dinner or a party where it will be opened, and that’s just fine. The fresh fruit flavors in most inexpensive and many moderately priced wines are pleasant and appealing at first but turn overripe and flat after too much time in the bottle or exposed to air.
But what if you’re at a winery and the tasting room server tells you the wine you’re tasting can be cellared for up to 10 years? What if you’ve got your eye on a 2000 Napa cab because it’s on sale for half the original price? And what do those “drinking windows” on wine reviews mean?
Predicting how a wine will age is far from an exact science. Winemakers, who habitually save wines just to see how they’ll drink later on, base their predictions on how their wines have performed in the past and the strength of the vintage (that is, the growing season the year the grapes are harvested). A long, hot growing season can yield “big,” age-worthy monster wines, but an even-handed, perfect season can also result in balanced fruit that ages beautifully. Wine critics base their predictions on knowledge they’ve acquired from tasting hundreds of wines a week from multiple vintages. Neither can predict storage conditions or flawed corks, but they can make rough estimates based on the types of grapes in a wine, the quality of the fruit that year, the way it was made, and what it tastes like when they try it. This is why critics always date their reviews; sometimes they’ll taste high-end wines multiple times over several years to see how they’re developing.
Certain grapes are known to age better than others. Tannin, the chewy component of red wines that comes from seed and skin contact during fermentation, and acidity, the mouthwatering characteristic that gives a wine “backbone,” are the key structural components that help a wine age well. Hence, cabernet sauvignon, with its firm tannins, and riesling, with its searing acidity, are grapes commonly associated with aging potential. A winemaker I worked for once reported tasting and enjoying a riesling from Mosel, Germany, made in the 1920s.
Blends, too, are often crafted with aging in mind. High quality fruit (a perfect balance of sugar, acids, and tannin, thanks to a stellar vintage and/or particularly strong blocks of the vineyard) is blended and aged in oak barrels, often for up to two years, where it acquires additional tannins and some degree of oak flavoring (smoke, toast, chocolate, vanilla). The textbook ageable wine, Bordeaux, is a blend, usually dominated by cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and cabernet franc and often including malbec and petit verdot. Wineries around the world mimic the Bordeaux style by blending these grapes for a signature age-worthy wine.
So how to know for sure? Even wine geeks rely on each other––you’ll know them by their in-store texting and googling––as well as favorite wine writers, review sites like Cellartracker, and trusted salespeople and sommeliers to steer them right with a risky purchase. Vintage charts can be helpful guidelines, since a better vintage usually means a more ageable wine, but to make it easier, my frequent advice applies here: find a wine writer you like, or better yet, a wine shopkeeper or employee who seems to share your taste. (Most wine salespeople, at least in my experience, do not work on commission, and they want you to shop there again.) The people who taste wines every day are in a great position to give you solid advice on whether that $30 wine from 2001 is still good, even more so than the reviewers who may have tasted it once and made their best guess. A good shopkeeper will taste older wines on a regular basis to determine whether they need to be marked down. And yes, an older wine at half price is a good indicator that it’s a bit past its peak.
But if you like your wines on the silver-foxy side, by all means, give it a shot! What many people don’t realize is that not only is aging potential a bit of an educated guess, it’s also a matter of taste. Some wine aficionados swear that opening a 30-year-old Barolo is “infanticide” (just one of many popular wine terms I’d like to see abolished). Others say wine ageability is grossly overestimated and 10 years is plenty to age even the world’s most collectible wines. I’ve been lucky enough to try many high-end wines at various ages, and I tend to agree with the latter; I’d rather open a bottle on the younger side, give it some air, and imagine what it might be in five more years as I enjoy it, than risk waiting too long and tasting the hollowed shell of former greatness. Besides, life is short.
Environmental Damage and Optimal Storage
The following advice applies to all wines, from bargain bottles to fancier stuff. Even wines typically made for long-term aging, like the very best Barolos and Bordeauxes, will fail miserably under poor storage conditions. You’re looking at three factors, in order of importance: temperature, position, and movement.
The reason many collectors invest in fancy wine cellars, besides the obvious glamour factor, is that it ensures good conditions for their wines. Wine requires a consistent temperature around 55 degrees Fahrenheit; this is known as “cellar temperature.” Furthermore, wines under natural cork need to be stored on an angle so that liquid is always touching the cork, keeping it moist to prevent it from drying it out and allowing too much air into the bottle. And any shaking, excess movement, dropping, or rolling will damage wine over time.
That’s why your fridge at home isn’t a good long-term storage option: it vibrates gently. In the short term, if you don’t have air conditioning, your fridge is better than an 80-degree apartment. Wine refrigerators, which range from the size of a cupboard to the size of a wall, are perfect if you plan to keep wines for a while but don’t have a cellar.
Wineries will often “library” their highest-end bottlings and release them after a few years of aging, when the winemaker believes they’re ready to drink; this is generally another safe bet, since wineries are built to keep wines at proper temperature. Any wine retailer worth its salt will keep its temperatures within cellar range, but I’ve seen several otherwise exciting bottles of wine languishing in crappy liquor stores with no air conditioning. If you’re uncomfortably warm in a store or in your apartment, so is the wine. This goes for leaving wine in your car, too––if it’s too warm to leave a pet in your car, don’t expect your wine to fare well, either. Drop it off at home before doing your other errands.