5 Lessons Learned: Aging Wine

Hopefully that last Bordeaux review made a compelling argument for aging wine - something I am asked about a lot.  Why?  Because people are drawn to age wine by the same same allure as that of the stock market; they believe in the prospect of improvement over time.  But in many regards, aging wine is as fraught with as much risk as the stock market.

Assuming that 'wine improves with age' was a steadfast rule, as a twenty-something I began stocking up on all sorts of wines from vintages dating back into the mid-80s.  Then, what had innocently started as a small stash of of bottles grew into an obsessive collection, fueled by trips to winegrowing regions from Washington to Tuscany to remote California.  By the time Y2K came around, I realized that my rate of acquisition was outpacing consumption at an alarming (and fiscally irresponsible) ratio.  If I didn't reverse inventory growth, my wine would outlive me.  It was time to raid the cellar.

What should have been a hedonistic pursuit devilishly turned into a buzz-killing (but valuable) lesson in aging wine.  Why?  Because a large percentage of the bottles I had been holding onto were over the hill - and I mean way over the hill. 

Here's what I've learned since then:
  1. Most wine does not improve with age.  Unfortunately, there's no simple rule like 'Cabernets age well.'  Sure, some do, but, again, most don't.  And a lot of wines' virtues lie in their vibrancy, which can fade quickly over time.  That said, some wines seem to age much better than others.  German Riesling, for example, is almost categorically age-worthy.  Bordeaux, too.  Vintage Port - in fact most fortified wines - will age well, too.  There are so many factors at play that determine a wine's longevity, only some of which are dictated by the grape variety, but the primary indicators of ageworthiness are a good balance of fruit and acidity without too high an alcohol level.  So, how was that inexpensive 1994 Montepulciano back in 2000?  Positively awful.
  2. Temperature matters.  As an age-worthy bottle ages, acids deplete sugars resulting in complex layers of flavors and desireable textures.  This is, in essence, an organic chemical reaction.  Introducing heat to any chemical reaction invariably alters the outcome.  So, wine subjected to heat spikes - even for very brief periods (hours) - can wither and burn.  And if you're holding on to wine for longer than a year, average temperatures above 70 can diminish the freshness of a wine's fruit making it taste dull.  Cellaring for longer?  Then you should consider investing in climate control.  Last year I had the chance to drink a properly stored 1982 Bordeaux - at 31 years old it hummed with youthful vigor and gleamed like liquid rubies. 
  3. Age it yourself.  Particularly for impatient people like myself it's awfully tempting to snatch up older vintages collecting dust on shelves or at auction.  But know that the buyer assumes all risks - of which there are plenty.  Unless you're buying at Christies auction house (and dropping large coin), the provenance of any wine is really a crap shoot.  A few years ago I succumbed to this temptation and bought a bunch of 1999 Napa Cabernets on Winebid at a hell of a discount.  Now I know why they were so cheap.  Vinegar, anyone?
  4. Sell on the upswing.  Like stocks, holding onto a wine for too long is to let the passage of time cross the point of diminishing returns.  How long is too long?  Every wine is different - and some wines will reach peak drinking after just a few years in bottle.  Cellartracker stores drinkers' experiences with millions of wines, sorted by date.  I use this incredible community resource before buying any wine that I am unfamiliar with or that's older than 5 years.  What I really should do is look up what I've got in the cellar to see what's at risk of fizzling.
  5. If you can, get more.  This is a tough ask for the budget-conscious, but when you find a wine that you like and that you think will age well, try to get a handful of bottles.  Two reasons for this: I've often opened aged wines only to find that they still had a longways to go before reaching maturity - like picking a juicy tomato off the vine before it's ripe.  If you've only got one bottle, that's it - you won't have a chance to see what it's like in a few years.  Second, a lot of wines drink well along a curve of maturity.  As a friend once said of a young Gigondas, "That's the kind of wine you get a six pack of, forget about for five years, then open a bottle a year after that.  It'll be like catching up with an old friend once a year  It's still the same friend, but you're getting older and more interesting together."
Finally, when in doubt as to opening a wine or keeping it longer, always err on the side of caution and open it now.  After calling me to come over, that is.