Isn’t it romantic? Carefully slipping a dusty bottle out of a dark bin in a cool wine cellar, you announce the name and the vintage with great pride. Sipping the highly anticipated liquid nirvana proves a scenario almost as intoxicating as the wine itself. Don’t we all hold hope for that experience just once during our lifetime, opening a great bottle of wine, aged to perfection? Truth is, less than one percent of the wine produced each year is really worthy of a long snooze in the cellar.
Most bottles under the $30 price point today are created to be consumed within five years, with the majority consumed within just six months. Provided it is stored well, most any drink date from purchase to 60 months, or thereabouts, should provide expected rewards. When, then, should one consider cellaring a wine? And even more to the point, when should one drink such a wine?
Aging wine may be a science, but it’s not an exact one. More like an educated guess, the selection of which wines to cellar must consider four attributes:
- Worthy wines must be built to make the journey, showing a high level of acidity. A quality that diminishes over time, low acid wines tend to flatten out, delivering a truly unremarkable product after a long nap.
- To benefit from aging, a wine should have a high level of tannins. That’s why reds, like Cabernet Sauvignon or French Bordeaux, Merlot, and Pinot Noir are good candidates. That’s not an absolute, however. Some whites, like White Bordeaux, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc also age well despite their lack of tannins.
- Wine with lower levels of alcohol, somewhere in the 13.5% ABV or lower, is a better choice for cellaring than a high alcohol wine, which can turn to vinegar more quickly. Fortified wines are the exception to the rule, with many an aging Sherry, Muscat, or Port sporting a high 20% ABV, delivering a most pleasant sip after decades in the dark.
- Wines with a high level of residual sugar also tend to age well. Ports, Sherries, Rieslings, and Sauternes all have the potential for a long life ahead, with well-deserved opening celebrations a century or more into the future. Additionally, some well-made cuvee Champagnes easily make it to 60 years, rewarding the pop with an intensely complex and very mellow sip.
With those characteristics in mind, remember that large format bottles age more slowly. Remember that heat, light, and vibration all affect aging, and not in a good way. Remember that exceptional years for specific grapes might make fabulous additions to your stash. And remember that, while the experts are knowledgeable and experienced, the real benchmark here is your own palate. Taste often, and learn to trust yours.
What, then, are solid bets for the five-year range? Imagine you’re headed to the cellar to pull a bottle for a friend’s birthday, or that a new client is over for dinner. You’ve got some choices that have done three-to-five in the chill. What do you pick? Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Oregon Chardonnay, or New York Riesling.
What of the ten-year? Say you’re about to celebrate a best friend’s engagement. Pull out a balanced, well-crafted Malbec, Grenache, Syrah, or Reserva Rioja on the red side. Did someone just graduate from law school? Select a Muscat, Chablis, or White Cotes du Rhone. A baby? How cute! Let’s celebrate with a White Rioja, or an oaked Chardonnay. Did your better half just get a long awaited promotion? Pull out a creamy White Bordeaux or rich Merlot and reap the rewards.
And those twenty year nap candidates? This is the one percent of the one percent, the cream of the crop, the best you can put your hands on. You’ve just been appointed to the Board? Grab that 20-year-old Cabernet Sauvignon or Red Bordeaux. You’ve earned it. Your son or daughter just landed their first job? Choose a Brunello di Montalcino, Amarone, or Barolo. Someone’s getting married? Pick that late harvest Riesling, ice wine, or Sauterne. You just remembered your silver anniversary? Good thing you’ve got the solution right downstairs. Go grab that Premier Cuvee Champagne. You do have a card at the ready, right? Then, there’s the “I just won the lottery,” or the retirement bottle. What do you pick? Anything you want, my friend. Anything you want.