“When should I open that ‘special’ bottle I’ve been saving for that ‘special occasion’?” Or, “How long should I cellar this wine?”
The question of how long to hold or age a wine before it reaches it’s peak has to be one of the most frequently asked questions I’ve received over the years. The short answer is…the mere fact that you are opening that bottle makes it a Special Occasion.
However, the real answer is a little more detailed than that, and requires some explanation. If you have not done so already, enjoying a wine which has been aged properly will give you a new sensory experience of wine that a young wine cannot impart. If you have the patience and capacity to age good quality wines for a period of time, you will be amply rewarded. But there are a few steps needed to ensure proper aging.
Here are five factors to consider when aging, or cellaring good quality wine (and they really should be “good-to-exceptional quality” for optimal results):
In order to store wines for any length of time, and allow them to age gracefully, temperature and humidity need to be constant. Fluctuations of more than 5 degrees can result in deleterious effects on the wine being stored. The ideal temperature is between 55-60 degrees Fahrenheit, with humidity maintained around 70%. But once again, it is the fluctuation in these environmental factors that affects the wines’ aging ability. So your hall closet or garage would not be ideal places to age wines for the long term.
Under ground cellars typically have minimal temperature fluctuations and provide a good environment to age wines. The addition of a thermostat to monitor and regulate temperature and a cooling unit, if needed, would help keep temperatures constant. But not everyone has an underground cellar, especially if you live in the southwest. You can find stand-alone wine refrigerators starting at about $200 for a 50 bottle unit (try Costco). Larger wine refrigerators that hold up to 500 bottles or more are also available.
2. Drink Before the Peak
Like a stock, it is virtually impossible to tell when a wine has reached its peak. Only when it has started to decline will you recognize that the best the wine is ever going to taste has passed. It can be quite disappointing to open a special bottle and find that it is “over the hill”.
Wines do have a “window of opportunity” where they will be at there best. Different varietals from various regions age differently. For example, a good quality Napa Cabernet Sauvignon has an “optimum enjoyment window” of about 8-15 years. Whereas a First Growth Bordeaux may be best between 20-30 years of cellaring. The wines are certainly drinkable before and after these time frames, but they do have a “sweet spot” or “window” when they will be at their best. A good approach to monitoring a wine’s aging is to purchase multiple bottles and try them over time.
3. Is Older Better?
Good quality wines are meant to be aged, and get better with additional bottle age, up to a point. If a wine is properly stored and there are no other flaws, you will experience more layered and complex aromas. The texture and mouthfeel will be smoother and seamless. Harsh or edgy tannins will have subsided, and flavors will be more integrated and layered. You may even experience secondary flavors that were not present in the younger wine. All in all, it is a much more memorable experience drinking a well-aged wine than a younger wine.
Unfortunately, in today’s faced paced, instant gratification world, many people are drinking their wines much too young, and missing out on what the wines ultimate potential may be. This may be a result of not having proper storage or a budget for higher quality wines. And unfortunately, far too many wineries and winemakers are making wines that have flash and sex appeal upon release, but not much longevity. The beauty about wine is that there is something for every taste and palate out there. But every wine lover should try a properly aged wine at some point.
4. Use a Decanter
This is not so much a topic related to aging wine, but an important consideration when opening a bottle. Whether opening a newly released wine or one that has been resting in your cellar, use a decanter. A decanter will allow the wine to “open up”, letting all the aromatic and flavor elements to integrate and become fully present in all their glory. Decanting will allow you to experience all the elements of a wine to the fullest.
5. Waiting fo that Special Occasion
At some point we all want to save a bottle, or case of wine to commemorate a special occasion; a wedding anniversary, a birthday, a graduation, or a host of other occasions. When selecting a bottle to open at a later date to commemorate a special occasion, consider a) the approximate length of time to age, and b) the variety and region (Cabernet, Napa, Bordeaux).
Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Sauvignon-based blends tend to age the best and longest (other than Riesling, Burgundy, Port, Champagne, which we won’t get into here). Generally speaking, Bordeauxs tend to age longer than California or Washington state Cabernets Sauvignon, although there are always exceptions (i.e. Dunn Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon can age 20-30 years, possibly longer).
At the risk of sounding trite or practicing pop psychology…everyday is a “Special Occasion” and every bottle of wine can be a celebration. If you treat it as such, you will not miss that Special Occasion. Nothing is guaranteed beyond what we have today so enjoy every minute of it.