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Among my friends I’m known as the “Wine Girl” the one that people come to whenever they have a question related to wine. These generally range from “what wine should I get for xxx occasion” and “what wine goes with xxx dish” but the one I hear constantly from curious wine drinkers is whether their bottle is best drunk now or really intended for cellaring.
The good news is that for your average supermarket enthusiast you’ve probably never drunk a wine intended for cellaring. Most wine, particularly wine produced by New World wineries, is not actually intended to be stored for very long. I would speculate that as little as 5% of wine produced is designed to stand up to the weight of years, never mind improve with age.
There are still ultra-traditionalist wines which reward those with the patience and foresight to age beautifully, but even wines such as the mighty Barolo or famous red Bordeaux do not require aging in the way their forebears did. This is less due to an insufficiency of quality but resultant from two trends, the growing demand for wines intended to be enjoyed young and the adoption of ‘green harvesting’ techniques where unripe fruit is literally cast aside at levels inconceivable only 20 years ago.
Consequently we are presented with red wines from uniformly perfect grapes offering finer, softer tannins than were previously available. In general, modern techniques are offering larger quantities of high quality wine, which although not removing the ability of wines to age certainly remove the necessity in many instances. Subsequently, the storage of wine has changed dramatically as well, while higher premium wines of a more traditional character will always benefit from storing, current production catering primarily towards supermarket and wine warehouse audiences creates a middle ground of ‘good enough’ ready to drink wines.
All of which is not to say that modern wines don’t still benefit from storing, simply that comparatively fewer wines are produced with bottle aging in mind. Those that are often don’t require very long to come of age and you will be witnessing diminishing returns earlier than you would have with wines made only a few decades ago. Regardless of overall trend, some wines will always offer benefits to those who put extra time and energy into them be that in taking the time to age or even just serving them in the correct wine glasses.
Differentiating Storing Wine from Pouring Wine
Having said all that, we’ve still not really answered the question of how to differentiate a bottle that’s ready to drink from one that will improve enough to merit the cost and anticipation of cellaring. Three factors ultimately come to play in the decision to cellar a bottle of wine: Acidity, Alcohol and Tannins
Test the acidity: A wine starting with low acidity will become flat and lifeless long before its other characteristics have the chance to evolve, any wine with a below average acidity is intended to be enjoyed young, not stored for better days. While you can break out the ph kit, this is far from necessary as an acidic wine with cause your mouth to water, the more you need to swallow the higher the wines acidity.
Alcohol by volume (ABV) is a crucial factor when considering wines ability to age. Although this is not a consideration for fortified wines the high volatility of alcohol affects a wine in storage. Traditionally storing wines fall around 13% ABV or less, though this is not universally true and high alcohol need not adversely impact a wine’s flavour it will change it. The issue is compounded by the fact that high alcohol wines are typically made with grapes left on the vine longer to enhance the sweetness of the grapes. Higher alcohol wines are as a consequence of the alcohol creation less sugary than lower alcohol wines, conversely sweeter wines which typically age longer have a lower ABV.
Another strong signal of wines age worthiness can be found in its tannins, the dry bitterness imparted by grape skins and the oaking process are often bold and less palatable in younger wines. However contrary to popular understanding tannins do more than simply mellow in a wine that has been aged, arguably more importantly tannins slow the aeration process preventing wines from oxidising. When more tannic grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon are blended with low tannic grapes such as Merlot the result is typically a wine intended for consumption young.
The simplest way to establish a wines cellar worthiness is actually to crack open a bottle a try it out. If you can afford to buy a case and simply open a bottle every year until the wine reaches its potential, then throw a wine tasting. Failing this method it is likely worth buying two bottles, although this is not strictly necessary as you can rely upon the advice of others if a wine is so expensive than doubling the cost may be more favourable than being left with a substandard wine?
Should you store or pour
The above should give you a reasonable understanding of the considerations of wine storage but remember there are always exceptions. Some wines will always be created for aging the majority however will not, this doesn’t mean that young wines are bad any more than it means that every aged wine will be good.
Maria Polyakova is a wine reviewer at Wine Experts Guide with a passion for helping people explore wines, whether they are simply tasty and affordable for everyday enjoyment, or worthy of cellaring.
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