Good evening wine lovers. This evening I am going to get a little serious with you all, and address the age old question; “How long should I cellar my wines?”
And my answer is, it depends. But that is too brief. I should explain why.
To start off, what do you like about your wine? Fruit, tannin, oak? If you like a wine that displays more fruit and tannin than oak, then you should not cellar your wine for more than 3 years. There are some exceptions to this though. Like Penfolds Grange, which is made to age. I looked at their 2010 vintage this year (as some might recall), and though it is now 5 years old, this wine is nowhere near ready to drink. There is too much battling with fruit vs tannin vs oak. It is like an underage party when the parents are out of town.
When aging wine, there are four things to look at.
Acid: Wines that have a higher acidity, tend to go a longer distance. Therefore, wines that have a lower pH level will tend to have a longer aging range. Remember, acid acts as a preservative. A prime example is champagne, which thanks to grapes picked in very cool climates, are usually under-ripe, and can nearly resemble a taste of battery acid. However, these are usually blended with older vintages to make the drink we know and love. Champagne can keep for 50 plus years.
Alcohol Levels: Wine lower in alcohol content, will age better than wines with a higher alcohol content. Alcohol over time reacts with the actual fruit and sugar in the wine, a wine low in tannin and high in alcohol will cause a wine to turn to vinegar a lot more quickly. However, you may have a fortified wine which usually has an Alc/Vol of 17% or higher and these can last forever thanks to….
Residual Sugar: In dry wines it is often overlooked, but in your fortified wines (port, sherry, botrytis Rieslings), they have a high level of sugar content. Remember, like acid and tannin, sugar is a preservative of wine too.
Lastly, and probably the most important is tannin. Tannin is found in the skins and seeds and they have an astringent, somewhat bitter taste. Making your mouth feel dry. Over time, (aging,) tannin “softens up” because they polymerize, (form long chains with each other.) Thus, the molecules feel and taste less harsh on the palate. Tannin also belongs to the same family as the colour and flavour compounds. (Polyphenolic compounds). These also change over time. This is why when you drink an aged wine, the colour is not as rich in colour as it was when the wine was young. e.g. (back on the the Grange) its colour is currently a rich inky black/dark plum. In 30 years time the colour will fade off and it will look more like a brick red. Some of the big red wines, will rely on new oak and the barrel tannin to preserve their wine. This is why wines aged in new oak barrels are made to be put away rather than to be drunk now.
How do we know how long a certain bottle of wine will keep?
Wine makers are blessed. Mainly because they know what their vintages have been like over the course of the year. However, you can get this knowledge too in most places. Usually the major wine makers they will give you a briefing of the vintage along with their tasting notes which you can download off the internet. Or you can go one better!
Try it before you buy it!
Yes, there is no better way to gauge how long your wine will last than to actually know what you’re drinking before you decide to stick it away to age. If you take into account, the four factors, then you can determine when a wine will be in its peak drinking. (This is the rule I always apply when I do my normal wine reviews.) I don’t make up time frames for drinking. I make an educated decision of how long a wine will last before it starts to hit a “grey-phase.”
Onto “grey-phase”, I use this as the term when wine is beyond its drinking peak. Think old people, I may sound rude, but you are now no longer your former self! Wine has its stages. Youth, adolescence, prime, and then grey-phase. Think of wine, as you would think of people. Some go through the maturity stage quickly, others take their time. A wine in Grey-phase has pretty much lost all its fruit, has a taste of old oak barrel, and no structure and body (balance), quite simply, it is a weak version of its former self. Nothing can last forever!
Yet, you have decided to put some age on your wine. So, sticking a bottle in the open and leaving it there for a decade is a plausible thing to do? WRONG!
To keep wine, and cellar it takes care; and a few minor things into consideration..
Golden rule: Treat wine as a living thing! Wine is alive. It needs you to consider its needs and wants.
Light: Wine and light, don’t really like to mix. In order to keep a wine and put age on it, keep a wine in the dark. Light denatures the yeast, and this causes the wine to diminish and you’ll be left with a very flat non eventful wine.
Temperature: Wine is a indoor homebody and hermit, and it doesn’t like when you play with the thermostat. Too cold, the wine will lay dormant and not age. Too warm it will age quickly and when you come to open it, you’ll be very disappointed. The best cellars are usually caves! Yep caves. Why, well caves are usually dark, (which is good) the temperature does not fluctuate drastically, and also they have slight moisture which generates humidity. (I will get on to why that is important) But, we all don’t have access to a cave. Unless you’re Batman. Therefore, for us cave-less people, the best place to store wine, is somewhere in the middle of your house where there are no external walls. The middle of the house is going to have the most constant temperature. So if you’re going to keep wine stick it in the pantry, or invest in a wine cellar fridge. (If you have expensive bottles) definitely invest in a wine fridge. It is cheaper than building a pit underground unless you are fortunate to have a house with one. So what temperature is good for aging your wine? A constant 12 to 16 degrees Celsius will do the job.
Humidity: This is something that in Australia, we are starting to not have to worry about. Why? Well most of our wines don’t have cork anymore. We have opted to go more along the lines of screw-caps. Yet, our elite wines still are bottled with a cork. Humidity is important, because you don’t want the cork to dry out and oxygen to get into the bottle. If that happens… You are going to have a bad time. Why do we still have cork then? Well, it is traditional. In France (old wine world) nearly everything is bottled with a cork. It is therefore traditional to have a cork in our elite wines. Who doesn’t love to pop a bottle open with a bottle opener? It’s part of the event of sitting down and enjoying a bottle. Humidity plays its part by keeping oxygen out and creating a seal from oxygen to cork to wine. With cork as the only barrier from your $600 bottle of wine becoming worthless, please also lay wine with corks on their side, so the wine is up against the cork keeping the cork moist. It also will slow down the process of cork rot.
Vibration: Think of wine like a cat. Yeah you want to pat it (look at it move the bottles around) but really, they hate you for it. (Wine hates you to, leave it alone. Let it rest in peace.) Please don’t store wine on top of your fridge.
In Australia, we have made our wines along the lines of “drink now” rather than “drink later.” We take the Irish approach of make and consume. However, your French wines are made to last and cellar. Therefore, if you are buying Australian wines, 99% of them, ( 99/100 bottles) are made to be consumed within 5 years or so. Yes they may go on for longer but in essence we like a drink now wine. That doesn’t mean a wine wont last. Like I said address the four factors to gauge how long your wine will last. Then address the four cellaring rules to make sure your wine will age gracefully.
The SA Wine Guy