The single most frequently asked wine question I receive has to do with when a wine should be consumed.
My answer should always be, “I don’t know.”
Most often, I take the bait and offer an educated guess, but no two wines age the same, even if they were produced under identical circumstances.
Wine is a living thing. One really doesn’t know how a wine has aged until it is opened. If I err in my projections, I would rather err on the side of youth, rather than geriatrics.
I don’t know why the concern about wine aging is so prevalent. Perhaps it is due to what I call the “Antiques Road Show Syndrome,” where holders of would-be valuable antiques learn their possessions would have been worth a gazillion dollars were it not for the small repair inflicted upon the said treasure.
Wine lovers armed with the misguided notion that wines improve with age and become more valuable hold wines needlessly, assuming they will appreciate like unmolested antiques brought to the Road Show.
If interested in collecting showy bottles, then hold onto them. But if interested in enjoying the contents of the bottle, think again. The longer a wine is held, the more unpalatable it is likely to become — with the exception of some fortified wines like Port and some sweet wines like sauternes.
Consider pricey red wines in the $40 and above category. These wines go through aging in both French oak barrels and bottle before release. If consumed immediately upon release, they are perfectly sound wines, dark garnet red in color, very fruity, with a tannic grip to them.
Properly stored, five years out these wines will still be dark garnet red, fruity, but perhaps a bit less tannic, with fruit and tannin more in balance.
Ten years out, the wine might take on a brick color around the edge, it might not be as fruity and it might seem more tannic, because fruit flavors are declining.
What would be the optimum time to drink this wine?
If you answered five years out, go to the head of the class.
At least 90 percent of today’s wines are made for immediate consumption. Some may last a few years, but they do not generally improve with age.
Wine company websites share opinions about a wine’s ability to age. Wine publication vintage charts offer further guidance about optimum aging. But in some instances, holding a wine for its full projected life span may result in your being (a.) dead or (b.) disappointed.
If in doubt about when to consume a wine, open it as soon as possible, especially if this is a brand seen regularly in your grocer’s wine section. For expensive California cabernets and blends, the maximum time for holding is 10 years, although many wines will have projected longer lives. The length of time a wine will age is not the same thing as the optimum consumption date.
Lighter red wines like pinot noir, have shorter lifespans than cabernet-based wines. In my experience, high-powered, big zinfandels do not have the longevity of well-made cabernets. I have seen them fall apart with eight to 10 years of age.
As a general rule of thumb, don’t age white wines. Drink them while they are fresh and young.
This includes wines made from chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, riesling, pinot gris and other popular white varietals.
Alexis Lichine, the late wine expert and owner of several Bordeaux properties, said, “When it comes to enjoying wine, throw away the vintage charts and bring out the corkscrew.”
To that, I would add, “And invite this wine writer to join you.”