“I’ve been saving this bottle of wine for a special occasion.”
“I just purchased a bottle of my favorite California Chardonnay, which I’m placing on my mantle to be opened for my newborn daughter’s wedding.”
How many times have you heard these comments, and how many times have these statements ultimately resulted in tears?
Among the many opinions regarding the ageability of wine, none is more misunderstood than the dynamics of wine longevity and preservation.
There seem to be polarized viewpoints regarding a bottle’s aging viability. There are those who believe wine is at its best when consumed young. They appreciate its freshness, vibrancy and quaffability. Those of the opposite viewpoint vow never to drink wine before it reaches its peak of complexity and balance of fruit and acid, believing that only aged wine can achieve this euphoric state.
It is estimated that over 90 percent of wines are produced to be drunk within a few years of release. This includes the full spectrum of wines, from full-bodied whites to robust reds. The exceptions include certain French wines, notably Bordeaux and Burgundy, Champagne and Sauternes, which are crafted to evolve over time.
Generally speaking, winemakers release their wines from aging cellars when they believe the wines are at their peak, ready to be consumed within one to two years for whites and up to four years for reds.
If one were to graph the life cycle of a typical bottle of fine red wine, it would be in the shape of a bell curve. Immature out of the fermenting tank, building character as it is aged in barrels, peaking when the acids, fruit and tannins are in perfect harmony and balance and then fading as these three components are in contraposition to each other. Each of these aspects of the bell curve may last several decades for fine French wines.
However, for most wines the curve is indistinct, quickly rising, peaking and fading over a short timeline. A winemaker will assess the effort and investment required to realize a desired cash flow from his endeavors. This is quite evident each time we enter our favorite wine shop.
The logic behind the aging potential of wine is as much scientific as it is storage principles. Wine is a living organism, constantly changing. Fruit, acid, tannins, oxygen and bacteria all interact in different ways at different points in the life cycle of wine. Any interruption or corruption of the natural cycle of their interactions will disrupt the natural evolution of a wine.
A personal story will shed light on my goal to consume a wine at its peak of maturity.
I received a special bottle of wine for one of my early decade birthdays – a 1982 Mouton Rothschild Bordeaux. Upon release it was priced at $40; when I decided to open it to celebrate a subsequent decade birthday, its value had risen to more than $1,000. I had diligently stored my precious wine in the back of my closet for 10 years and then transferred it to my new, thermostatically-controlled wine cellar for a few more decades.
When I finally opened the wine with great fanfare before my wife and best friends, it was spoiled. To this day, my wife swears she detected a tear in my eye when I tasted the first sip of this classic wine.
What happened? The pedigree of a first growth Bordeaux is impeccable; longevity is its hallmark. In my case, I believe the mistake I made was storing it in its early years in an environment that was subject to wide variations in temperature, upsetting its natural evolution.
If you wish to purchase and store a “memory” wine, consult your trusted wine merchant for one with a proven reputation, year in and year out, of having long-distance legs to sustain itself for a cherished celebratory moment. Tears are not a good outcome. Believe me.
Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and program director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @sharingwine.