“It’s the most amazing wine I’ve ever had,” my friend said as he led me to his kitchen. “I drank it the entire time I was in Spain and have been saving a bottle since I went there.”
“When was that trip?” I asked, fearing what I already knew what was coming.
“Seven years ago. Why?”
“And where have you been keeping the bottle?”
My friend opened up the highest cupboard in his warm and muggy kitchen. There stood the bottle of Rioja staring down at me as if it were pleading, “Don’t judge me for the rancid juice you are about to drink. I was once truly great.”
My friend wanted nothing more than to hold on to a tiny piece of his memorable trip to Northern Spain. But if he wanted something with an indefinite life span, he should have purchased a paperweight or a post card.
“But aren’t you supposed to age wine, so it gets better?” he said through a pained grimace, after downing a large gulp of his foul Spanish liquid.
My friend was caught in the age-old conundrum that has had wine lovers up in arms for more than a hundred years: how long can you/should you keep a bottle of wine?
The short answer, for all intents and purposes, is not very long. Consider this: wine is a living thing. It is constantly changing and evolving even as you hold the bottle in your hands. Living things have life spans. This definitely holds true for wine, and most wine is less like the Galapagos turtle and more like the fruit fly.
It’s a fact that, depending on what industry professional you talk to or reference book you read, between 85 percent and 95 percent of all wine being made today is meant for consumption within the first three years of release. Wine just isn’t meant to be held on to indefinitely in that many cases. One sip of a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc will make any sensible person scratch their heads at the notion of how sticking that bottle in a closet for five to 10 years is going to make it taste any fresher or more citrussy. It will, in fact, do the opposite.
Now, I know what many of you are saying right now: “Oh, but so-an-so’s father had a wine cellar when we were growing up and he stored hundreds of bottles down there.”
Or maybe: “Well, what about those wine magazines that say, ‘This 95-point wine will drink well through 2047.’”
OK. Your friend’s father may or may not have known what he was doing. If he did know his beans, then he had a cellar that was either in an area where the temperature was at a constant 55 degrees Fahrenheit, and a high humidity level, or he had a refrigerated unit that replicated those conditions. Without those specific conditions, long-term storage of wine is not only a waste of time, but also a waste of space and energy. The wine will go bad.
Also, as I said before, there are very few wines that make any sense to cellar at all. The ones that warrant a little extra time in the bottle (in a cold, dark corner of your basement) are generally very full-bodied wines that are extremely tannic or complex when they are young. The effect of cellaring basically allows the chemical change that happens when you decant a young wine to happen slower and more gradually while still in the bottle. The wines that tend to be the most popular to cellar for long periods of time tend to be the higher-end Bordeaux.
Other wines, and areas of wine, that might warrant extra bottle time are Tuscany’s famous Brunello di Montalcinos, the Piemonte area of Italy’s Barolos, Burgundies (both red and white) and the “cult cabs” of California’s Napa Valley.
Wines everywhere, however, are being made to drink at a younger age. The focus, even in the wine world, is on youth. So if you have a special bottle that you are saving for a special occasion, do yourself a favor and drink it tonight, before it’s too late.