Years ago, John and I were visiting friends in New Orleans who’d recently inherited a 30-year-old bottle of Chianti from the estate of a deceased relative. Our friends were teetotalers, so they insisted that we take the bottle back to Houston with us—a great honor, since the bottle had been held in high esteem by their family.
On our next milestone occasion, we pulled the bottle from the kitchen wine rack we kept on top of the refrigerator. A few twists of the corkscrew, however, and we knew
we would not be celebrating with Chianti. The cork crumbled upon contact. After painstakingly excavating it from the bottle, we were greeted with the unmistakably musty odor of oxidized, undrinkable wine.
As “newbie wine lovers,” what we didn’t appreciate at the time was that this wine was doomed from the start because of the way it had been stored–standing upright on a shelf in an old-fashioned china cabinet for three decades.
“Cellaring” a wine, or putting it down to age for a period of several years or more, is a commitment which can yield very satisfying rewards. It’s a practice left over from a time when all wines needed the help of some extended time in the bottle to smooth out the rough edges and make them more drinkable.
Today, it’s not true that all wines improve with extended aging. In fact, most wines commonly available to consumers are best enjoyed within approximately 3-6 years of the vintage date. If you’re putting down a bottle for longer than that, make sure it’s worth the effort.
Which wines are age-worthy?
Any fine wine from a notable wine region can gain character and complexity from aging for up to 10 years—sometimes longer. Reds from the Bordeaux family of grapes, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, respond very well to cellaring. Top French wines from the Rhone regions, Loire or Burgundy should be aged, as should the best American wines.
Though many whites are not meant for extensive time in the bottle, top Chardonnays can be cellared, as can German Rieslings, which are known for their age-worthiness. A few French roses hold up well to aging too. If you’re partial to Italian wines, many of these demand aging to express their “best selves,” such as Barolo and Brunello. Think you’d like to cellar a few fine wines? Make sure you’re committed to the task of giving them the tender loving care they’ll need.
Proper Storage is Job One
Remember that bottle of Chianti I told you about earlier? It’s a perfect example of what NOT to do when storing wine. No wine, even a bottle you intend to drink fairly soon, should be stored upright for more than a short period of time, because that cork needs to stay moist to protect the wine from premature oxidation. And never store your wine on top of the fridge (It gets warm up there!). In fact, unless you’re refrigerating your wines, don’t store them in the kitchen at all. It’s usually the sunniest, warmest room in the house, and its temperature is the least consistent.
Instead, choose the coolest, darkest room in your home. Sometimes a spare bedroom is ideal! If we lived in a cold climate, we all might be able to get away with storing our wines in a cool, dry basement. But here in the Houston area, it’s mandatory to use some sort of temperature controlled storage—either a proper wine cooler (i.e., a good wine fridge), or, if you decide to go all in, a fully ducted cooling system in a room that’s been finished out specifically for wine storage.
Why go to the trouble?
This is the big question. If you get excited just thinking about experiencing the subtle characteristics that can only be found in a bottle of well-aged wine, then cellaring is a worthwhile experiment in patience.
Another beautiful reason for long term aging is the story of the bottle. Maybe it was a gift from a friend who’s an aficionado, maybe you discovered it on your dream vacation to a certain wine region, maybe you purchased it in honor of a special occasion, like a wedding or the birth of your child.
In this respect, wine is like a time capsule, but better. Opening a birth year wine, to celebrate a child’s college graduation, for example, is an event like no other. This is when wine is at its most compelling: when it commemorates the past, while celebrating the present, in a way that you could never experience without tender loving care and the passage of time.