Is your Wine Aging or Aged?
by Richard J Palermino
You might be in a wine shop about to buy that bottle. It might be a bottle already in your kitchen or cellar? Maybe you are a store or restaurateur and it is in your inventory. In all cases, and many more that I can think of, this is an issue of the greatest importance. It can be the difference between that anniversary dinner being a great success or a terrible disappoint as you realize, on opening and pouring the bottle you have been saving for an event like this, it has gone bad. It is not like there is time to recover from this disaster emotionally or financially. Wine presents unique challenges, like the possibility that you got a “corked” wine which is beyond your control, without adding things like the maturity of the wine to the mix which is within your control. Here I am going to expand on a topic which I covered briefly on my consultancy website below, Aging.
Wine, as most things in nature, goes through a cycle. It is young and raw at birth, peaks to maturity in flavor and elegance on the palate and then declines to an inevitable end. Sort of like us humans. As an historian one of my area of interest was cycle theory, you know, the rise and fall of things. Anyway, all this is not a total mystery because the winemaker, mostly through price, gives you a rough idea of how long the wine should last. A winemaker is like a chef. He starts with ingredients and processes that affect the outcome of the final product. He can use grapes that had higher yields per acre (cheaper and less concentration in the fruit) or grapes that had lower yields and cost more. He can use oak chips (the cheap way) or oak barrels. The barrels can be made of cheap oak or expensive oak, the barrel can be newer or reused. He can use one quarter new barrels and 3 quarter older ...the possibilities are endless. The wine can have a longer or shorter period of barrel aging to affect oxidation which slows down dramatically when the wine is put in bottle. Another generalization, young whites show better than young reds. One of the best indications of how long the winemaker expects that wine to last is the quality and length of the cork; cheap (for instance, agglomerated) and short, drink up quickly; high quality and long, it can take some age. Every decision the winemaker makes will affect the price and quality. With that in mind, you can start to evaluate the situation.
Vintage date, not date of purchase
Again, let me qualify that these are generalizations for starters. When I give a date, I am talking about a date on the bottle called the vintage date. Also these numbers assume proper storage: 55 degree Fahrenheit, 80% humidity, protected from bright light, and free from vibration. Finally, the wine was not discounted as an inventory reduction or close out? By now you are thinking, how the heck am I going to know all that? Not to worry, that is why you are reading this blog! The more expensive the bottle, the more you have to know the answer to the above questions.
All this would not be a problem for you if you were born a member of the old British nobility. Then you would be drinking up old bottles of wine bought by your father. Your job would be to replace these bottles with new ones for your children's eventual drinking. Nice little system that ensured not having to guess the quality of storage in a store. These wines would have been bought very young and would have spent their lives in your proper wine cellar. Then again, not much in life would pose a problem for you if you had been born an aristocrat! ....back to reality!
You can also do some preventative scouting and testing on your own. How hot do you think the store gets at night? Meaning when it closes and no one is there except the wine! Many stores have the temperatures set on a timer. Cool when customers are in shopping and hotter when they go home for the night. Ask the manager NICELY. At least you will establish for him you as a customer have an interest in quality of the wines you buy from him. The temperature does not affect spirits but the worst thing for wine is constant changes of temperature.
If you hold the bottle to the light, in the narrow of the neck, if a white wine, is there a major difference between the glass color and the color of the wine showing through the glass? If an old sauternes, there would be a reasonable explanation... not in a chardonnay or sauvignon blanc for example. You might have to put the bottle level to the light to see both the glass and the wine at the same time. In a 10 year old improperly stored chardonnay, for example, you should be suspicious of oxidation or worse, maderization (wine tastes cooked). In other words can you see the green glass for example and then a dark yellow in the wine itself (which would show as a darkened green)? Similarly in red wines, if you looked through the glass of the bottle, would you see the wine as red or hints of browning in the wine itself? Other worrying possibilities, is the cork leaking or pushing out?
By the way, if you encounter a bad wine, stop drinking and within a day or so go back to the store where you bought it (hopefully with the receipt but if they know you as a regular customer, there. Most stores will honor their wine because they are going to return it to the wholesaler who, in necessary instances, will bring to the attention of the winery. Anytime I had someone return a bottle that was supposedly bad but they drank all of it…….hmmm.
You will rarely have to lose sleep about the questions above. There are exceptions to every rule but this category is where most sales occur. If you pulled the bottle from a display, it is likely a fast mover and spends little time in in what is usually poor wholesaler warehouse storage or poor store storage. It is probably within 2 to 3 years from the vintage date. How much can it be affected by bad storage? The corks for these wines are “short” because those types of corks are cheaper and the wine doesn’t need the sort of protection afforded by a longer cork. The cork will be 1.5” or 35 mm. You will take some pleasure in the wine but a winemaker would generally have to let the wine age a little more depending on the grape used. He might choose to expose the wine to oxidation to make the wine more palatable so young; the more age worthy and tannic the grape (Cabernet Sauvignon, etc ) the more magic he has to employ. For a list of grape varietals and how aggressive a grape might be, go to my consulting site.
This wine you can buy with security if it is standing up and stored in a store that turns off the air conditioning at night. Being 2-3 years from the vintage date, it can take a lot of abuse because in is a raw young wine which, if you try not to drink more than two or three glasses, you should okay. However, unless you take precautions like hydrating, this wine is the most likely to cause histamine reactions, tannic reactions etc. There are reasons why it is less expensive. I am not saying that you will necessarily react or that all wines at this price have these effects, but this category of wine is the most likely to cause these effects. For example, when I was with Fetzer Vineyards, I asked the winemakers if sulfites levels decline with bottle age which I suspected to be the case. We went into the lab to find out. We used wines that had the same levels of sulfites at bottling and lo and behold, the wines levels of sulfites went down the older the wine. The same reduction over time occurs in the level of alcohol.
Chance of finding some that tastes like a more expensive bottle?.. O%. This where the old saying “You get what you pay for” really come true. In conclusion, this is a wine you can store in your kitchen if necessary. It should come and go from there quickly.
On opening the cork will be slightly longer than the one used in the under $12 category. Probably the cork is 1.75” or 44 mm. If it is a wine not meant to age, like beaujolais nouveau, and it is more than one max two years, avoid it. This is where my list major varietals is useful if you are unsure of a wine ability to take age. Chance of finding something that tastes like a more expensive bottle? Roughly 25%.
When I give the very general rule of say an additional 10 to 15 years for a red, I have to qualify also that we are talking about the majority of wines in the category. This and the over $30 are the categories where you find the biggest disappointments of quality compared to price. Chance of finding wine tastes that like a more expensive bottle? Roughly 35%. The cork probably will be 1.75” or 44 mm.
Now is the time where the provenance of the wine is a big question. You spent over $30 and have a duty, no, a right to know where this wine has been if you are say 5 or more years from the vintage date. Spend a few seconds to ask the retailer. And before you ask, note if it was stored badly, in sunlight, standing up etc. The wine will not necessarily be bad if it was not properly stored but it will not be as good as it should have been with proper storage. Hopefully he will know where the wine has been. The cork here should be 2.0” or 49mm. Note that wine corks don’t last forever. To be insured that wine is not affected by the cork in aging, they should be replaced every 25 years. You might buy a bottle that is over 25 years and the corks has not been replaced (and I have) but realize there is an additional risk in that. I recently received a bottle of 1970 Bordeaux from my brother Joe where the wine cork was deteriorating but not yet fully gone. It had not been recorked. The wine was “just” and another year or two would have been gone. The sign it had not been recorked is the amount of ullage or the empty space between the cork and the level of the wine. A wine that has been recorked has been topped up with a younger specimen of that wine. Penfolds Grange make a big deal of the winemaker travelling the world recorking the wine.
The wine also had a goodly amount ullage or space between the cork and the wine.
This, hopefully, will not be the case of a second bottle I received as a gift years ago from the owner of a wholesaler who was born in Madeira, Portugal ... a 1930 vintage Boal Solera. I hesitate to open it because he has since passed away -- I always think of him as I survey the oldest bottle in my cellar. Corks tend to last longer because you store fortified wine standing up.
Richard J Palermino