It is one of the most common questions we get from customers and readers alike. It comes in a number of forms, “When should I drink this wine?” “How long should I/can I age this wine?,” or “I have this wine in my collection from ‘X’ year is it still good?” The answer to each of them is typically, “Its hard to say.” The reason it is hard to answer the question may surprise you but it simply comes down to a very personal decision based on each wine consumer’s palate. You should drink it when you open the bottle and have the sense that this is really delicious wine and you love the taste.
Your palate and how you like your wine will always be the primary driver of how long to age a wine, but there are decisions made at harvest and through the winemaking process that determines the age worthiness of wine. The first thing to do though when determining how long you can or should age any given wine is to get rid of all the general statements you have ever heard on the subject. You know the ones, white wines don’t age well, or Pinot Noir doesn’t age well, or all Cabernet benefits from aging. In short, throw all of those out, generalizations simply don’t work when it comes to wine.
The single element that allows wine to age well comes down to acid levels in the wine. Higher acid levels can be accomplished during harvest based on the grape chemistry at the time of harvest. The lower the ph which indicates higher acid levels will stay with the wine through and beyond fermentation giving the wine better ability to age. Other adjustments during fermentation and aging of wine can further enhance acid levels to make a more age worthy wine.
White wines can and often times are made with sufficient acid so they can age beautifully. We have had in our collection from time to time white wines from the US and Europe that have aged beautifully for 20 years or more, and others that are made in the ripe drink it now style that don’t seem to make it a year from their vintage date before they start to fade.
While varietal is also not an accurate indicator of how well a wine can age, Cabernet is frequently viewed as a more age worthy wine. The same criteria apply though, we have tasted some that easily have 20 or 30 years left in them, while others that are harvested very ripe with high sugar and low acid levels again won’t make it a year before the wine starts to come apart in the bottle.
The question that still looms over the discussion is how long you as a wine consumer should age any wine. Again, it is up to your palate but here are a few suggestions on how to manage your collection so you can consume your wine at the optimal point for you. As we so frequently say you should first consult your favorite wine professional, but do so with some information in hand. When you ask about a wine, let your advisor know how you like to drink most of your wine. Do you prefer it to have ample tannin and acid with a dry finish, or do you like your wine to be more fruit driven and softer and rounder on the finish? This will help any of us that work in the wine industry to more accurately answer your question.
With our customers and wine club members we frequently advise our clients that when they find a wine they really like, to buy the wine in some size so you can enjoy the same wine from the same growing year over time. To make sure you enjoy the wine at its apex for your palate though here is a trick. Open a bottle at a minimum of every six months. This will not only allow you to see how your favorite is progressing over time, but it also allows you to seize the wow moment. That window when you open the bottle and think to yourself, oh my god that wine is perfect right now. That is when you start to consume the remaining bottles regularly and enjoy the wine down to the last bottle and last glass in that bottle.
Keep in mind wine will not always continue to improve. Any wine at some point will hit the wall when additional age will not only not improve the taste but the wine will begin to fade. The worst case for any wine consumer is to have bottles go bad, and reach the point when they are no longer drinkable. The best way to avoid this is to regularly check on your collection, consume bottles throughout their life cycle, and to be aware which producers make wine in a manner that allows them to age well.
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George Balling is co-owner with his wife, Mary Lancaster, of the dinner party, a wine and gift shop in Coeur d’Alene by Costco. The dinner party has won the award for best wine shop in North Idaho twice, including for 2018. George is also published in several other publications around the country. After working in wineries in California and judging many wine competitions, he moved to Coeur d’Alene with Mary more than 10 years ago to open the shop. You can also follow us on Facebook at facebook.com/#!/dinnerpartyshop.