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Subject: Wine (the beverage) FAQ, part3 of 10 [LONG]
This article was archived around: 30 Sep 2000 17:19:01 GMT
Copyright: (c) 1995-2000 Bradford S. Brown (Notices/Disclaimers in pt. 10)
U.S. WWW (HTML) Mirror: http://www.sbwines.com/usenet_winefaq [newest]
U.K. WWW (HTML) Mirror: http://www.bath.ac.uk/~su3ws/wine-faq/wine-faq.html
III. AGING WINE
Most people assume that the longer that you keep a wine, the better it
will get. So probably the most commonly asked question you hear is, how
long do I keep the wine before drinking? (Since its best to store wine
under certain conditions, like in a cool damp underground cellar, this is
known as "cellaring" wine.)
It is a _misconception_ that you _must_ age wine. The fact is, throughout
the world, most wine is drunk "young" (that is relatively soon after it is
produced, perhaps 12 to 18 months), even wines that are "better" if aged.
While some wines will "mature" and become better over time, others will
not and should be drunk immediately, or within a few years. Eventually
_all_ wine will "go over the hill," so even the wines meant to be kept for
many, many years should be drunk before its too late.
Wines which are expected to be matured in the bottle before drinking can
go over the hill faster if not properly stored. If someone is giving you a
very good deal on an old red wine that you would otherwise expect to be
great, start to wonder how it was kept! And a famous name on the label is
no guarantee whether a wine will age well (sometimes they make mistakes,
or the grapes that year ("vintage") just won't produce wines suitable for
extended aging ("cellaring").
Tannin is a substance that comes from the seeds, stems and skins of
grapes. (For a taste of heavy-duty tannin, try a strong cup of tea.)
Additional tannin can come from the wood during barrel aging in the
winery. It is an acidic preservative and is important to the long term
maturing of wine. Through time, tannin (which has a bitter flavor--"mouth
shattering"?) will precipitate out of the wine (becoming sediment in the
bottle) and the complexity of the wine's flavor from fruit, acid and all
the myriad other substances that make up the wine's character will come
into greater balance. Generally, it is red wines that are the ones that
_can_ (but do not have to be) produced with a fair amount of tannin with
an eye towards long term storing and maturation. The bad news is that you
shouldn't drink it young since it will taste too harsh (and probably cost
too much, besides). The good news is that (with a little luck) after a
number of years, what you get is a prized, complex and balanced wine.
Remember that red wines get their color from the stems and skins of the
grape. This gives the wine tannin and aging capacity. White wines may have
no contact with the stems and skins and will have little tannin (though
some can be added, again, through barrel aging). Therefore most white
wines don't age well. Even the ones which do get better through time will
not last nearly as long as their red cousins. A fair average for many
"ageable" whites would be about 5 to 7 years (some might go 10). On the
other hand, really "ageable" reds can easily be kept for 30 years and
So, how do you figure out how long to keep a wine before drinking it?
We'll get to a summary, but it _is_ just a summary. Check out other
sources for the particulars! The Internet provides a wonderful medium
through which people who may have the wine you are thinking about drinking
might already have done so. They usually are willing to share their
opinions. There are several Usenet groups to this end.
Two wineries, side by side, producing the same grapes and the "same" wine.
One ages considerably longer than the other. Why? While they are the
"same" grapes, perhaps the soil or microclimate (small variations in the
local weather due to terrain; what the French call "terroir") is just a
bit different. Maybe the vines are older. The winery may have processed
the wines differently (for example, heavy filtering). (In fact, even the
size of the bottle matters--a half bottle ages faster than larger
bottles.) There are lots of reasons, so general rules are just
In any event, the red French Beaujolais Nouveau is meant to be drunk
within days. Its a light, fruity wine.
White wine is the next least aged wine. But here there is a range from a
light wine like Sauvignon Blanc or a light Chardonnay, to more ageable
"complex" Chardonnay of good White Burgundies. Probably drink the former
within a few years (aging isn't needed, and the latter from 3 to 7 years).
Dessert wines like Sauternes or other late harvest wines (Riesling,
Gewurztraminer, etc.) should be aged. Sauternes get better over a _very_
long time: 10, 20, 30, 40 or more years!
Then come the reds. While the vast majority of wines produced today _can_
be drunk immediately, a good number of red wines will benefit by SOME
aging and some will benefit from a _lot_ of aging. The ones that you open
now that taste like road tar may very well be fantastic in 5 or 10 or 20
years. Look to some French Bordeaux (maybe up to 30 years) or Cabernet
Getting more specific about some red grapes, rules of thumb *might* be for
the very best wines: Cabernet, 10 to 15 years; Merlot, 4 to 7 years for
many; Nebbiolo, 10 years or more; Pinot Noir, about 5 years to start.
Some people contend that while California wine won't "go bad" in the
bottle, it doesn't get any better--unlike French wines that mature (get
better) with cellaring. Don't ask me to explain this controversy as I have
had plenty of California wine that seemed to me to be better after aging
(but then, I said I wasn't an expert. On the other hand, I know I like it
when I drink it.)
So much for the summary. Didn't help much, did it? As you learn more and
more about wine, you get a feel for which wines are produced to be aged.
That doesn't mean that you still know when it is the _best_ time to drink
the wine. You need to check around. Ask fellow wine drinkers (and, any
unbiased wine merchant with whom you can establish a relationship). Get a
book that gives opinions. Read the magazines. Ask around on the 'net.
These resources have the ability to tell you what happened when _they_
drank the wine. Was it still good, is it starting to go over the hill, is
it gone? At least one correspondent tells me that Australian wines seem to
mature faster in Australia than in Europe, even if kept at similar
temperatures and humidities. Just one more reason why it is best to _ask_
(and taste) about individual wines.
Lucky ones (like wine critics or friends of expansive people with big
cellars) can get to be part of "vertical tastings." A "vintage" is the
year in which a wine is produced. Line up a particular wine on a table
with a bottle from each vintage, say, 1971 through 1992 and what you get
is a "vertical" of that wine. A young wine, designed to age, can taste
harsh (from the tannin). As you sample older and older bottles, the wine
will mellow. Flavors come into balance. The oldest wines will lose their
tannin and their fruitiness and eventually have a flat taste. Somewhere in
there is the vintage which tastes the way _you_ like it. That part is up
to you, not to the pundits. But their comments can help. There are lots of
resources (see Learning About Wine) which can help you get an idea which
wines should be drunk when.
When *we* first started learning about wine, we bought way too much white
wine, which somehow we still have. Some of it--which was wonderful when
purchased--can now *best* be described as awful. Since you'll hear the old
cliche that you should cook only with wines you would drink, that wine
isn't even good for cooking. I plan on trying to turn it into vinegar.
Aside: One of the first really "good" wines we had was a 1984 Acacia
Winery Lake Chardonnay. We bought a case of it and drank it slowly (like I
said, we've got a lot of white left over). A few years back we asked the
winemaker how it would be. His answer was "never open it . . . just
remember the way it was, you'll be happier." We're glad to say he was
wrong. As this is being written, that bottle was opened last night (it was
10 years old). Past its prime but still pretty good! So even the winemaker
may not always know, either.
When you are just starting out, it probably doesn't pay to buy many wines
for aging ("laying down"). First off, you are going to want to drink some
of them, and the ones that are "good" won't be so good this young, and
they'll cost too much besides. There are plenty of wines that are good
_now_. As you drink these wines, you'll get an idea of what types of wine
you like. With a little learning, you'll get an idea of the style of wine
you want to put away. And you may not make the mistakes we did, besides.
(On the other hand, we did manage to get a few wines that did age well and
we are just drinking now. So much for rules.)
Don't forget, how you store the wine will affect how long it lasts as
well. Even the size of the bottle will change its life. Getting good
advice about particular wine is the only good idea here.
IV. STORING WINE
What is the best way to cellar wine? If it is a wine that is meant to be
drunk within a year or so, you probably don't have to keep it in any
really special place (like an expensive refrigerator style wine
cellar--check the ads in the back of wine magazines for examples), other
than it should be relatively cool and out of the light. Some _do_ say,
"panic at 70 degrees" Fahrenheit.
For wines that should be aged, a cellar should have proper:
_Temperature_which does not have rapid fluctuation. 55 degrees Fahrenheit
is a good, but you can live with 50 to 57 degrees Fahrenheit (10 to 14
degrees Centigrade). Wide swings in temperature will harm the wine. Having
too high a temperature will age the wine faster so it won't get as complex
as it might have. Having too low a temperature will slow the wine's
_Humidity._ About 60 percent is right. This helps keep the cork moist. The
wine will oxidize if the air (and its oxygen) gets to it. If the cork drys
out, it can shrink and let air in. This is another reason to keep the
bottles on their sides. The wine itself will help keep the cork moist.
_Lack of light_.
_Lack of vibration_.
_Lack of strong odors_. Whatever it is that is causing the odor stands a
good chance of getting through the cork and into the wine.
If you live in or have a cave, you probably are all set. For the less
fortunate, you can buy (or even build) a wine cellar. Also, in some
places, commercial storage cellars exist. Every once in a while you can go
visit your wine. There are also "wine jails," wrought iron wine storage
cages that can be locked for people, I guess, who live in caves?
You should know that some people have not followed the temperature rules
and it is their opinion that the wines have not suffered. They have found
that _slow temperature swings_ from relatively cold to relatively warm
(but not really hot) have not drastically affected the wine. Nevertheless,
consistently storing wine at warm temperatures is going to age it faster
and breaking the other rules probably isn't going to help.
Many people ask whether or not their can gimmick an old refrigeratoror air
conditioner to store wine. This is not considered to be a very good idea.
To start, refrigerators are too cold. Though this can probably be remedied
by a new thermostat, there still are other problems. Wines prefer
humidity, but refrigerators are designed not to be humid. If you get
around this challenge, there still is the fact that refrigerators take no
effort to dampen the effect of the compressor turning on and off. The
vibrations throughout the appliance are not considered a good thing for
long term storage. Air conditioners aren't really meant to run at the
lower temperature needed by wine. If you manage to get the unit set to
such temperatures, the coils may "ice up." You also need to deal with the
humidity (get a humidifier). With enough home ingenuity, some common sense
and knowledge, and some homework, you can convert an entire room into a
If you have the time, space, inclinationa and ability, you might want to
try buildingyour own wine cellar. See the BOOKS section for assistance.
Can this be done? Sure. The biggest hint is that you should build _big_.
There is the natural tendency to buy wine at a faster rate than you can
drink or store it. So while you're already at it, build for the future.
IV. STORING WINE
Large amount of wines tend to get lost around my house so the computer
comes in handy. Personally, I use a standard database program which I have
tailored to my needs. It only took about five minutes to set up the
database. There are wine specific software programs available (some even
including descriptions and lists of particular wines). I have not seen any
of them, but will list (in alphabetical order) those mentioned.
Elixir Data (CD-ROM)
Fuji Publishing Group Freeware Wines Online for Windows
ftp://ftp.netins.net/showcase/fujisoft/wow.zip (FTP download)
Wine Advisor and Cellar Manager software
WineBase for Windows
From Ken Tripp
[firstname.lastname@example.org] : email@example.com)
V. DRINKING WINE
Room temperature. Well, that's what you always hear. The problem is that,
at the very least, it is a bit inaccurate, and at the worst (as
demonstrated by a whole lot of restaurants around where I live) you
wouldn't want to drink it at 80 degrees Fahrenheit ("it's the room
temperature, isn't it?")
As cool wine warms, vapors rise off the wine. Since your sense of smell is
a very big part of what things taste like, getting those vapors into your
nose is important. Try drinking a bottle of wine that has been heavily
refrigerated. In some ways, it will taste a lot like water, or at least
tasteless alcohol. On the other hand, if you serve a little below room
temperature, you'll get the benefit of the vaporizing effect. So one rule
of thumb is to serve the wine 1 or 2 degrees below room temperature.
But, there _is_ a limit to the warmth. To some extent, you can use the
following hints for:
+ _Best red wines; "big" red wines:_ 59 to 61 degrees Fahrenheit, 14 to
16 degrees Centigrade.
+ _Lesser reds, rose, and "complex" white wines:_ 50 to 54 degrees
Fahrenheit, 10 to 12 degrees Centigrade.
+ _Less complex white wines:_ 46 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit, 8 to 10
+ _Sweet white wines, Champagne:_ 43 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit, 6 to 8
If the wine is too cold, can you warm it in the microwave? I wouldn't
think so, but one correspondent tells me that he saw (they call this
hearsay, don't they) a notable wine expert do it with an old and expensive
bottle, so . . . . Personally, I find that holding the glass with my hands
usually gets it warmed up pretty quickly.
Call it scandalous, but I am quick to ask a restaurant to chill a red wine
(gasp!) which comes to me way above a proper drinking temperature.
V. DRINKING WINE
Opening the Bottle
You can tell a little about the wine even without opening it. Besides a
moldy cork (see below), perhaps the "bottle fill level" known as ullage,
is lower than you expect. If the bottle was low to begin with (I'm told
not uncommon in some Italian wines), you don't have to worry about it. But
there are other causes. If the wine has been subjected to high heat, the
wine can expand and liquid may be forced out through the cork. Since heat
isn't good for wine, this can be an indicator of problems to come. On the
other hand, increase in ullage is natural over a long period of time and
even can be a selling point at auctions. Other problems that could cause
bottle leakage would be damaged corks or storage in a very low humidity
environment, which can cause the corks to dry out.
_Corks and Capsules_
Most corks are made from cork. Since cork is expensive, some wineries are
experimenting with making corks from plastic or other high-tech materials.
Since the idea of the cork is to keep what's inside the bottle inside, and
what's outside the bottle outside, it doesn't seem to matter what the cork
is made of. It is questioned by some, however, whether a non-cork cork
might allow the material it is made out of to leech into the wine with
harmful side effects to the wine and to humans. A screwcap (gasp!)
probably is better than a cork since it does the same job and can't "cork"
the wine. Screwcaps are now coming on the market in somewhat more upscale
wines (they've been on jugs for years--and don't forget that a lot of wine
comes out of "milk carton" type cardboard containers that certainly don't
When you remove the "capsule" (the thing that covers the top of the bottle
around about where the cork is, which may or may not be made from some
sort of metal foil), you may find a cork which is discolored or even has a
lush growth of moldgrowing on top. If whatever it is hasn't gotten into
the wine (also check the "fill level"--if wine has leaked out it is a
further indication of trouble), then all you need do is wipe the cork off
with a damp rag, towel dry it a bit and remove the cork. Wipe off the top
of the bottle. Also check out the article on "corked" wine. People also
wipe off the top of the bottle in the hopes of removing anylead
contamination from the foil on older bottles of wine. To the best of my
knowledge, lead foil is no longer used. Since foil is merely decorative,
some producers are dropping the foil altogether.
Sometimes you may see something that looks likeglass crystals on the
bottom of the cork (or sometimes in the wine). Assuming no true
contamination from the winery, these crystals are probably the result of
tartaric acid in the form of potassium bitartrate(cream of tartar). While
I don't vouch for accuracy of the information is this guide, I'm told that
this is tasteless and harmless.
By the way, a handy use for leftover corks is to clean knives. Keeps your
fingers away from the blade, but lets you exert enough pressure to get the
There are lots of different types of devices which will remove a cork.
Some are a lot easier than others. To me, one of the harder types is the
one that is invariably used by the waiter in a restaurant. I once asked a
waiter why he didn't use something easier and he told me that the manager
thought it made the place look more "professional." The only benefit I can
see from those sorts of corkscrews is that they are useful when pulling a
cork from a bottle of wine that is sitting in a cradle (and they have a
built in knife for cutting the capsule).
Some people don't like putting a hole into their cork (I guess they figure
they're going to use it again?) and use a cork puller known as an "Ah-So".
The device is made of two metal prongs which you wriggle back and forth so
that the prongs move down the side of the cork (sometimes pushing the cork
into the wine). When you hit bottom the tension lets you pull the cork
back up. I don't find these types very effective.
There are _expensive_ corkscrews, like the US $100+ Leverpull (tm) which
works, as many times as I have seen it in operation (mostly in winery
tasting rooms), quite well. (It is the sort of thing you would bolt to a
countertop.) But I don't actually see why you need to spend the money on
it (unless, of course, you are tasting room!). I've gotten pretty good at
using the Napa motel free giveaway corkscrew (you can get them for about
US $1). At home we like to use the approximately US $20 Leverpull (tm)
which has a Teflon coated screw and a nice long mechanism that extends at
a 180 degree angle at the top which you can push around with your finger
when the mechanism is extended (to distinguish from a slightly less
expensive model that you twist with your hand). Some people say "don't let
the screw go through the bottom of the cork." It does with the Leverpull,
but it does it so neatly there never are any particles that come loose (at
least so far!).
Dealing with the Open Bottle
_A Light Touch?_
The first real rule is that you don't want shake up the wine (well, most
wines) very much. Get something that lets you get the cork out easily and
smoothly. Its a nice idea to find something that doesn't break the cork
off in mid-pull (there _are_ little hooks that will help you fish out a
cork you've been forced to push down into the bottle).
On the other hand, I knew one "wine expert" who swore that he could "age"
fine young red wines as if they were laid down for a decade, merely by
vigorously shaking the wine up and down and pouring them back and forth
between containers. I've done it. It "seems" to work. Assuming you find
the practice acceptable (there are those who will tell you this "bruises"
the wine) _and_ you think you can do it somewhat unobtrusively, it is one
way to deal with high wine list prices. Buy something young and shake it
With fancy old red wines, it can get a bit more complicated. As wines
mature, sediment(which is tannic), described by some as "crud in the
bottle" will come out of the wine. If the wine is laying on its side, the
sediment will be along the lower edge of the bottle. The best thing to do
is stand the bottle upright a day or two before you plan to drink it. Then
the sediment can fall to the bottom of the bottle. Handle the bottle very
carefully. You don't want to mix the sediment back through all the bottle.
When you pour, stop before any sediment comes out.
If you haven't managed to get the bottle upright in advance, you can serve
the wine from a cradlewhich inclines the wine at about a 45 degree angle.
If you carefully open and carefully pour, the sediment will stay along the
bottom edge and out of your glass.
_Smelling the Cork_
Just because there was no discoloration or growth along the top of the
cork does not mean that is isn't possible that the cork hasn't caused a
problem with the wine, or that there isn't some other problem. It is
useful to smell the wet end of the cork before drinking the wine.
Sometimes it will give you advance notice that there is something wildly
off about the wine, including that the wine may be "corked." See the
section on What to Do In a Restaurant for more about this practice.
This is where you pour the wine out of the bottle into another container
(a "decanter"). Properly decanting a bottle lets you get rid of sediment.
Use a candle behind the neck of the bottle to see when sediment gets to
the neck (I'm repeating the standard line here---Assuming you don't get it
close enough to heat up the wine, is there some reason you can't use a
light bulb?). Stop pouring as soon as you see the sediment. Not all wines
have sediment, but old vintage Port does and is always decanted for this
reason. Some people will decant through cheesecloth, wire mesh placed in a
funnel or even coffee filters.
Some wines will say on their label that they are "unfiltered." (See the
section on fining and filtering.) If you find that there is sediment in
such wine, go ahead and decant, but just because a wine is unfiltered
doesn't necessarily mean that there will be sediment.
There are other reasons to decant wine. For example, some young white
wines may be have a sulfurous quality which can be removed by spirited
decanting. Decanting also lets red wine "breathe," giving any bad but very
volatile chemical compounds in the wine a chance to evaporate ("blow off")
so they're not there when you serve it.
_Letting the Wine Breathe_
Some wines (for examples some Burgundies and Bordeaux) when young are
"accessible," meaning that you can detect the bouquet and flavors that are
and will be in the wine. But then chemical reactions take place and the
wine closes up (becomes "closed"). What was there before is harder to
perceive. The wine gets, as they say, "dumb." Aging the wine causes the
wine to again open up (tannin, a bitter flavor, turns to sediment and
won't be tasted--if it isn't poured into the glass!), and is more
"complex." Since letting oxygen in the air get to wine can help to open it
up, decanting will help this process along, though not as much as aging it
Be forewarned, however. Not all wines benefit from this airing (known as
"letting the wine breathe"), for example, fine Burgundies. Also, you can
allow a wine to breathe too much. While oxygen helps to open up the wine,
it alsooxidizes the wine, which will eventually ruin it. Finally, a wine
that is "over the hill" isn't going to get anything from breathing, since
it is already "gone." Experience is important here. In any event, if you
don't know, don't decant. While there are those who advocate letting wine
breathe, most don't, or when they do, advise a relatively short period of
time (an hour for young reds, 2 to 3 hours for older fine reds; and some
say don't decant until just before drinking).
Some people will let a wine breathe by opening up the bottle, but not
decanting it. This really isn't of much use since not much oxygen is going
to get down that small neck.
The trick of shaking the wine so that it forms like soda pop is certainly
an extreme example of getting oxygen into wine; but if it works....