The notion of old wines really only applies to a small fraction of wines, less than 1% annually to be precise. The reason simply put is that there are only a handful of grapes in the world that have the DNA to make age-worthy wines (think Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Syrah, Nebbiolo). In order to age properly, wines must have higher than normal levels of tannin and acidity. When consumed too young, these wines taste astringent, bitter, and lack flavor and aroma. They require years of aging for the tannin, acidity, and pigments to break down, resulting in beautiful aromas and flavors. Not surprisingly, age-worthy and collectible wines often cost a pretty penny, so if you’ve spent the dough, here are a few tips on how to preserve them for the right time.
- Lay wine bottles on their sides. This practice prevents the cork from drying out, which would allow oxygen to seep in, expediting oxidation.
- Lay wine bottles with the label facing upwards. This ensures that you can retrieve the bottle, display it to your guests (if any), and open the wine without the sediment going back into the wine.
- Avoid direct sunlight. Never display a wine bottle in a windowsill or on a table where long hours of sunlight can penetrate the glass. Doing so can cause spoilage and emit maderzied flavors (nutty, caramel, vinegar-esque). A dark place like a basement or closet is best.
- Find a quiet place where there are little to no vibrations. Underneath the sink or staircase means the wine will be prone to constant motion and vibration, which can affect the quality in the long term.
- Beware of temperatures too hot or too cold and also extreme fluctuations in temperature. If a wine is exposed to a wide range of temperatures throughout the aging process, the lifespan of the wine dramatically decreases, and the wine can spoil.
- Keep in mind the humidity. Persistent humid conditions can cause corks to swell, and then when temperatures fall and the humidity retreats, the corks will retract a bit. Leaky corks are always bad news. If wine can get out, oxygen can get in.
Overall, waiting for wines to age requires patience and care, but the splendors of a properly aged bottle of wine are tough to beat. If a wine tastes or smells like vinegar, chances are it is past its prime. In such cases the wine is said to have “turned.” There’s not really much to do except dump the wine or find a culinary application for it. You’re still welcome to enjoy the wine as you see fit. I have many friends and colleagues who proudly admit to consuming an old and expensive bottle of wine, even though it was past its peak drinking period. The heartache and lamenting of dumping a bottle of wine can be too much for some of us, understandably so. So stash the wine away and wait for a rainy day down the road to enjoy it, but don’t wait too long.
How long to wait? Unfortunately it depends on each and every bottle. Consult the winery’s website, magazines, reviews, blogs, or other resources for peak drinking periods for certain wines and appellations.