THE ART OF AGING WINE
Many of our club members may have been drawn to us by the fact that we age our wines longer than most wineries do before releasing them. Our average barrel time for most of our reds is three years, and then they get another year or two in bottle. We age them for you, so you don’t have to—although with proper cellaring, these wines will continue to develop gracefully for many years to come. This is demonstrated in our Library wines. We hold back a number of cases from each vintage to continue aging. Once these wines have rested for some additional years, we often re-release them to our valued club members so that you can experience the miracle of aging wines!
Why age a wine?
The practice of private cellaring has increased dramatically in the last few years. With the availability of relatively affordable wine refrigerators, many wine-drinking households have begun their own collections, ranging from a few special bottles to hundreds. Often, these wines are aged without a clear intention or goal—they are merely collected in order to be available for the right occasion. For the more serious collector, however, the primary reason for aging wine is to allow it to develop in the bottle, actually increasing in complexity over the years. Collectors have long been aware of the amazing transformations that can occur in the bottle, and for this reason place great value on wines that have the ability to age.
Identifying an age-worthy wine
Those of you who collect wine can attest to the fact that some wines hold up to aging better than others. So how do we determine which wines to age, and which to drink up quickly? What is an age-worthy style? Well, acidity is the primary component. If a red wine has a pH of 3.6 or lower, chances are that it is a good candidate for aging. The best whites for aging have a pH of 3.4 or lower. Tannin is another friend of aging, particularly in reds. A wine that gives your mouth a dry, puckery feeling when it is young will have the backbone to age particularly well. And finally, an abundance of fruit or bouquet on a wine when it is young will most likely ensure that there will be at least some enduring fruit characteristics. (Don’t mistake residual sugar for fruit!) So here is a tip—before deciding to cellar a wine for years, first try to get a data sheet from the winery to determine its acidity. Also, taste the wine to assess its acidity, tannin and fruit. If you are not able to taste it, order two bottles—one to drink now, and if it seems to possess the right characteristics, you can put the second bottle down.
What to expect from an aged wine
A well-aged wine will obviously taste different from a younger wine. For one thing, it will likely be softer in acidity. Do not expect an aged white wine to have bright, crisp tropical or citrus fruit. It is more likely to have warm, softer fruit such as mango, peach or papaya, and a nutty and slight caramel tone to the finish. And the tannins that might characterize a young red will break down with age and present in a more velvety, round texture. The color on a cellar-worthy white such as Chardonnay will deepen to golden or even slightly amber with age, and a red will often pale slightly and take on a brownish hue detectable only around the edges of your glass. A prominent brown in either a white or red can be an indication of severe oxidation and spoilage (usually due to extreme temperatures or excessive temperature fluctuations), but a subtle browning is expected. And as we already stated, a wine suited to aging will continue to “open up” as the years go by and yield layers of complexity that were not present in its youth.
Tips for cellaring
One of the biggest misconceptions about wine is that it is not perishable. Many people keep wine in their non-insulated garage, or in a cupboard above their stove, not realizing that these conditions reduce the quality and life of the wine. Even your food refrigerator is not ideal, as it cycles too dramatically and is accessed too frequently. If you plan to store wine even for a few weeks, choose the place in your home that has the greatest temperature stability. This is true for young wines, but particularly for well-aged wines, which tend to be more susceptible to oxidation. The ideal temperature range for cellaring is 55-60˚F, but not many people have this luxury. Perhaps even more important is that the diurnal (day-night) temperature fluctuations are minimized. Do you have a closet in the center of your house that you access infrequently? If you have a basement, even better! We recommend purchasing an inexpensive min-max thermometer to check the temperature range of your chosen storage spot. Ideally, the range should not exceed more than a few degrees in a 24-hour period. Also, sheets of 2” rigid insulation are great for quickly adding insulation to the floor, walls and ceiling of a closet or cubby.
Once you have found your best location, the next step is deciding which wines to hold onto, and for how long. You might organize the bottles in order of “drink by” date estimates. Many people keep a log or inventory in which they list key information including winery, variety, vintage, estimated “drink by” date, and any personal tasting notes. Then be sure to store the wines either on their sides or upside-down. This will help prevent the corks from drying out and compromising the seal. (A dry cork is more likely to allow oxidation to occur.) If your humidity is particularly low, consider a humidifier to help prevent the corks from drying out from the outside.
Serving and drinking
When you decide it is time to open an aged bottle, we recommend an “Ah-So” two-pronged corkscrew, which is easier on older, brittle corks. Also, do not underestimate the value of a decanter. Particularly with aged wines, decanting allows volatile compounds to escape more quickly, and the desirable qualities to show better. A funnel with filter can help screen out sediment that settles out over time. Let the decanted wine sit for half an hour, then...enjoy! The best things in life are worth waiting for.
Please note that well-aged wines will often pair differently with food than youthful wines, so don’t be afraid to experiment with a variety of gourmet cheeses and patés when tasting these wines—you might find an unexpected winner. Cheers!