Some things get better with age and some don’t. Classic paintings – check. Fossils – yep. My wife – you bet (and I didn’t just put that in because I need to sleep some time and she knows where all the sharp knives are kept in the kitchen). Cottage cheese – not so much. Spoiled children – are you kidding me? I’ve been next to too many on airline flights. How about wine? Well…that isn’t a simple answer.
So how long should wine age? It’s one of the most frequently asked questions about wine. Every Varietal has different needs when it comes to aging. Some like Beaujolais Nouveau should be enjoyed within months of harvest. Others like the most robust Cabernet Sauvignons can lay down for decades and continue to improve. Generally what allows a wine to age gracefully and improve are the combinations of tannins and acids. Wine with both, will generally improve with age. Wines with little of either, should almost always be consumed soon after release.
Most retail wine produced and sold in California is designed to be drunk directly off the shelf. By the way…random thought…anyone notice that one of the correct past tenses “drink” is “drunk” even though most people don’t use it that way. Come on people…it’s a natural…everyone embrace the “drunk”. Yeah…I know I digress…we return you back to your regularly scheduled blog post. However, many wineries produce vintages that have the characteristics to be “cellared” so they will improve with age. Aging a wine that wasn’t designed to be aged works about as well as trying to age mayonnaise on a hot summer day. Drinking a wine too early, that was designed to be aged, is a waste of your investment because age-worthy wines are usually more expensive and don’t come into their own for a number of years. Lesson number one – age wines that are meant to be aged and drink wines that were made to enjoyed right away. So, assuming you’ve realized that you have a wine worthy of aging, it’s key to age it in the right conditions.
When storing wine, the ideal temperature range is 57 – 60 degrees. This reflects the normal cellar/basement temperature where wines were traditionally stored in wineries and homes. If that’s not available, find a place in your home where the temperature stays as consistent as possible; often a basement, back room or even a crawlspace. Wine that was designed to be laid down can age gracefully even at 68 degrees as long as the temperature remains consistent. It likely they won’t improve the way it would have at a lower temperature, but for a casual wine drinker, the differences shouldn’t be too great as long as it’s enjoyed on the younger side of mature, rather than waiting for it to reach full maturity as it would have at cellar temperature. Temperature stability is much more important than lower temperatures.
If there is a yin and yang of wine storage, it is temperature and pressure. Large temperature swings create pressure differences between the air in the bottle and the outside air. As the temperature outside cools below the temperature of the bottle, the warmer air in the bottle is at a higher pressure and will try to force its way out of the bottle. As the wine storage temperature warms beyond the temperature of the bottle, it usually has a higher pressure which pushes air back into the bottle. Even well sealed bottles are subject to this movement and after several years, the daily intake and outflow of air will begin to oxidize the wine.
It is critical to avoid any strong sources of light. Any source of light is harmful to wine whether it be sunlight, incandescent, fluorescent or LED. Sunlight is the worst though, because it shines in so many spectrums. Light of any kind reacts adversely with the phenolic compounds in the wine and degrades it. The stronger the light, the worse the reaction. You can tell if wine has been subjected to light damage because it will have a slightly skunky smell, mildly reminiscent of a teenager’s sweat socks that have been percolating in a gym bag, next to a dead skunk in the neighborhood of an overflowing septic tank on a hot summer day.
Type of Wine
The most important of all factors is the wine itself. Some Varietals are age-worthy and some are not. Cabernet Sauvignons age well but only if they were meant to be aged. Dolcetto should be drunk within a couple of years of its vintage. Refer to the individual Varietal pages on our reference site to get hints on how long a wine can be stored after purchase. If you have the opportunity, consult with the winemaker, who always has the best idea of how the wine will improve with age. And most important, don’t by a cheap-ass bottle of Cabernet from the store and sit on it for years with the expectation that it will improve. You’ll end up with really bad vinegar, not really good wine.
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