Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Time In A Bottle

"If I could save wine in a bottle..." (with apologies to Jim Croce).

I have been asked the question, "How long should I age a bottle of wine before opening it?" Wow, this question is going to make my brain hurt because there is no pat answer. I think I would like to answer this question by saying that wine is a living thing and like humans some of us age better than others (Could our age factor have anything to do with how much wine we drink?).

From the day the wine is bottled it is always evolving. A winemaker normally does not release wine fresh from the bottling line until it has had at least six months of resting time. The wine will go through what is known as "bottle shock." Bottle shock is a temporary condition (or also known as "bottle sickness"). The wine may be a bit fragile and the flavors not quite what they should be - a bit disjointed, let's say.

About this whole aging process, I want to tell you there are so many variables. That would be the easy way to answer that question. It can depend on the winemaker's style and how the grapes were treated (such as a rigorous tannin extraction during fermentation). It can depend on the vintage and the association with the weather. It can depend on the varietal of the grape. Some grapes age better than others. The label on the wine bottle isn't going to give you much information, however tasting notes from a winery will often make suggestions.

How the wine is going to age can depend on how the bottle was sealed. Was the wine stoppered with a natural cork? While most winemakers prefer natural cork, they can dry out in time unless the bottles are stored properly. A dried cork can allow air to leak in and will ruin the wine very quickly (And no -- we do not want to use plastic corks. And that is another blog entry for another time) Storing bottles on their side will allow the cork to stay moist and assist in keeping the air out. Then there is the problem of the bottled wine and cork coming into contact with TCA -- known as "corked" and no -- "corked" does not mean there are tiny pieces of cork floating around the wine (And "corked"/TCA is another blog entry for another time).

Why do we even age bottles? Aging will often give a red wine a bit of silkiness by softening the tannins, oak and acidity in a bottle of wine. Aging can remove the fresh and fruitiness of a wine (think fresh and fruity equivalent to a teenager) and will soften the wine and add character. Think of that aged bottle of wine like a mature woman. Soft, elegant and with character. Ummm -- like me! Heh.

Now let's get to what kind of wines are going to age. That bottle you pick up at the grocery store for $8.99 might age okay for about a year or two depending on the vintage. Remember it is about the vintage and not the day you purchased it. So let's say today you purchased a $40 bottle of 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon. There is a good chance you can age it for about seven to ten years. Sometime next year you could open that bottle and it would have a respectable age on it. It has been said that Americans age their wines in the car - from the grocery store shelf to the kitchen table.

White wines usually do not age as well as the reds because they contain little or no tannins However, there are a few exceptions such as Rieslings, better-made Chardonnays and Chenin Blancs. Personal experience has showed me that a well-made Chenin can really age quite lovely for several years. For inexpensive white wines, I say "drink up!" There really isn't much benefit to letting them age. Better-made whites can age anywhere from around 4-8 years. Rich dessert wines like Port, Sauternes and late-harvest whites will usually do very well with age. Color is important to understand about aged wines. The clear white or light yellow wine will turn a amber honey color with age. Red wines will often turn a rich copper color.

I am always telling people that if they want to truly see how a wine is going to age, then buy a case of that wine. For the first year or so, open a few bottles here and there and then open a bottle once a year. The most important thing is to journal your tasting notes and dates everytime you open a bottle of that wine. As you look back into the years you will see how the wine evolved. Remember, there is always the peak time for that wine and in later years it could become flat, brown in color and later "dead." (And no -- wine past its time rarely turns to vinegar - - and that's another blog entry for another time.) Again remembering that wine is a living thing.

And no - - there is nothing wrong with a wine that has sediment in the bottle. In fact, sediment can sometimes indicate a superior wine. Sediment (wine diamonds) is fine deposits that are found in wine once it has settled. It can be found on the bottom of the cork, on the side of the shoulders and bottom of the bottle. This settling is exhausted yeast cells and grape skins (tannins). It can also show that the wine has not been overly-processed or fined. Wines that have not been over-processed is a good thing.

Last but not least, to give your wine it's full aging power it is going to make a difference on how you stored it. Wine prefers the dark and temperatures of about 45 - 60 degrees. Remembering again that wine is a living thing and when you remember that and are considering storage - - how would you like to live in a small kitchen cupboard above your refrigerator?

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