"When is the best time to drink this wine?"
During my last appearance on Better KC we discussed the myth that all wine is meant to age and when is it beneficial to age wine. We barely had time to cover the basics so I thought I'd go a little more in depth here on the blog.
I love the line from the old movie "The Jerk" where the newly wealthy Steve Martin doesn't want the 1966 Bordeaux and says I don't want any old wine. I want fresh wine. Funny stuff.
In case you missed the segment one of the questions I get asked the most is regarding how long a wine should age or when should I drink it. Like many things in life it isn't absolute. It is a resounding......it depends. And while it is an expansive subject I know you have important things to do and you don't want a dissertation so I'll try to keep it brief.
Like I said to Alexis Del Cid the first question I ask in response is really the most important. "Do you like the way old wine tastes?" I have always asserted that many American consumers DON'T like the way old wine tastes and for all of those it makes the answer all the more simple. Drink it now or nearly now.
Let's start with what happens to wine as it gets older. Red wine loses color and white wine gains it. Reds go from more purples to brick red to finally brown. Whites go from yellow or pale straw colored to golden to finally the same as reds.......brown. From a flavor and aroma perspective the fruit becomes less prominent and the wine picks up non fruit flavors. These can show themselves in lots of ways but for the sake of red wine you might see herbs, spice, leather, meat, etc. In addition, the tannins soften and the wine doesn't seem to be as dry in your mouth. For whites, these not fruit flavors and aromas can be some of the same as reds but also bread, caramel, cooked fruit like baked apple or stewed fruit.
To further complicate things of course not all wines will benefit from age. For a wine to benefit from aging it needs a good balance of fruit, acidity/tannin and alcohol. Some varieties are meant to be consumed young due to this like Pinot Grigio for whites and light styled reds like Barbera, or really fruit forward wines like Malbec and lots of styles of Merlot. I think when most people think of aging wine they are talking about Big Cabernet Sauvignon. Many of them are good candidates.
If you enjoy these flavors and find them appealing and interesting then you are a person who will LOVE a bottle with some age on it. If you enjoy big, juicy Cabernet with gripping tannins you might want to pass on the aging and drink up. You might be the lucky ones!
So, back to the how long? Often when you read a review from an expert they will give you a time range and many of us tend to follow some basics and say 6-10 years for wines like California Cabernet. They are good rules of thumb.
Speaking in really general terms......and I will likely have disagreement among my peers but if you like the effects of age on wine but you don't want to take the risk of drinking it past its prime and having regrets over spending a hundred bucks for brown, tired wine then I subscribe to the 3 to 8 year rule. This amount of time will give these big boy red wines to integrate their flavors and their tannins to soften and mellow a bit to reveal some amazing beauty. You will get the benefit of seeing the wine age and develop a bit but rarely risk waiting too long.
If you watched the segment we tasted the 1991 Beringer Private Reserve Cab against the current 2013 release of the same wine. Beringer PR Cab is built to last and it really didn't surprise me that the 27 year old California wine was drinking really nicely but it was certainly on the tail end and you would age further at your peril. It had evolved into dried fruits with some dried herbs, leather and meatiness. The tannins we very soft. While it had good color for the age it was certainly getting bricky red at the edges and the wine had thrown lots of sediment that was stuck the side of the bottle. I will also add that the bottle was aged in my temperature controlled cellar and that matters. Sitting in a dusty rack over your fridge will give it no chance of lasting that long. I also had the chance to drink an 1988 of the same wine a few weeks prior and it still had some fruit left so I expected it to have a good chance to be special. The 2013 was a mouthful of extracted black fruits and very firm tannins. Our teeth were stained from one sip. The contrast was fantastic. I had also poured a glass of the 2003 because if time permitted I wanted to show what something in between was showing. We didn't have time on air but the 2003 was really my favorite. It was a beautiful in that it still had lots of bright, dark, fruit and firm tannins but some bouquet of non fruits were becoming evident and pushing to equality with the black cherry that was dominant in the 2013. It makes sense. It was the wine meeting in the middle. This is from a wine built to age.
So what do the pros do? Well, the pros do it all. We usually will buy multiple bottles of the same wine and drink it over time to see how it changes. We are geeky like that. I know my first bottle will be too young and many times the last will be past its prime. That is ok for me. I really enjoy seeing the evolution and I don't mind the strong chance that the last will be frankly undrinkable. We just move on to another bottle. So, the pro tip is if you love a wine buy a case and enjoy it over the course of a decade or more and if you do that each year you will end up with verticals of certain wines you love.......like I did with the Beringer PR Cabernet. People who know me know that is one of my favorite wines. Had I not saved bottles over time the exercise on Better KC would have never been possible to see in a practical way.
Many winemakers make their wines to taste great upon release because they know most it is consumed within hours of purchase and they want you to have a good experience when you drink it. Some can also make them so they taste great now and benefit from age.
Lastly, as I suggested above, storage matters. If you are going to begin this journey you have to think about storage. You don't have to invest in a temperature controlled cellar but you to get good results you do need to store properly. Find a place where the temp is stable and cool. Huge fluctuations in temp are not good. Keep it dark. Light is the enemy of wine. If you can't achieve these in an ambient situation then you might consider investing in a temperature controlled environment. There are many options out there.