How Long to age your wine?

I received a very good question from a reader yesterday. The question by Wayne W. is as follows:

“One question I still have about red wines is how long to cellar them before drinking. I try to keep them a minimum of three years past the bottling date, unless they are wines designed for drinking young … What is your opinion? ”

Remembering a 1996 Hagafen Cabernet Sauvignon that I bought and saved until 2004 I knew this was a question I needed to address. My story did not end pretty – I stored my wine where food should be – in the kitchen, makes sense right? Well, when I finally opened the bottle I had a cooked and really nasty wine. Boy was I disappointed (Hey Ernie, wanna send me a ’96 from your library?).

So, Rule #1 – NEVER STORE YOUR WINE NEAR HEAT. The kitchen is the WORST place. If & when possible, keep in a cool dark location. Some suggested are closets, basements, etc. And if possible, get a wine fridge. This isn’t necessary if you are to hold onto a bottle for a few days or even a few months. But once you hit the 6 month plateau and move on to years, your wine should really be stored properly to avoid pre-mature aging or even spoiling.

Rule #2 – THERE ARE NO STEADFAST RULES TO HOW LONG A WINE CAN/SHOULD AGE. That is not to say that there are not many guidelines. And these guidelines are what I would like to share with you.

Let’s begin with MOST $10 bottles. These bottles may be very nice wine, but they are probably not meant for aging. Whether it is a red wine such as beaujolais or a lite stainless steel aged barbera or even many whites which never saw oak, these wines were PROBABLY made to be drunk young – generally within a year or so of release.

I mentioned a specific price in that last guideline which leads to one suggestion I heard at one point. And that was “the more expensive a wine the longer it can age”. I hated hearing that and I still hate it today. What, if I am not rich I can not afford an age-worthy wine? But sadly there is some truth to it. The idea behind it being that the better quality the wine the longer of a life it will have. And as you get to the really expensive wines, you are probably talking about wines that have proven over decades that they ARE cellar-worthy and will age gracefully. A good (and old) vineyard, good quality (concentrated) grapes, a good barrel aging regimen, and a moderate but sufficient amount of sulfites all play a large role in how a wine will age.

Another (very murky) guideline I was once told was that a wine can age for about half as many years as it spent months in the barrel. So say for example a wine aged for 12 months in barrel – this “rule” says you can age the wine for 6 years. BAD RULE. To be used as a VERY ROUGH guideline, OK, but in general I would not stake your better wines on this rule.

One of the resaons why this last rule and all the rules are difficult to follow is that there are ALWAYS exceptions to the rules. One prime reason for these exceptions is that a poor vintage can hurt the age-ability of a wine. A great example of this last factor happened in Israel in 2002. Whereas one can have the same grapes, fermented the same way by the same winemaker, but from a different year, the wines will age very differently. So getting back to Israel, comparing the 2002 to vintages such as 1997, 1999 & especially 2001, these other years have shown to behave better and age longer than the 2002’s as 2002 was a short, cold and unusual growing season.

Assuming you aren’t already snoring (which is an assumption I probably should not make) I do want to share what I believe to be the BEST piece of advice as it relates to aging wine and how long one should let their wines age. That advice is to buy a few bottles or even a case of whatever wine you are considering letting age. Then TRY ONE & take some notes. Wait a few months or even a year and try another. Make a comparison to your notes from the first time you tried it. If you like it better but it still seems young (tannic, kind of thick, very fruity) wait another 6-12 months and try another. At some point you should find that the tannins have softened, the color has faded a bit, and the feeling of the wine in the mouth (“mouth feel”) is nice and smooth or even soft. That is the point when you want to start drinking the rest of your wine more frequently.

With that I bid you all a wonderful weekend and best of luck with your WINE AGING!!