written by Tamara Belgard | photo by David Krug
There are those of us who have indulged in the fantasy of having a personal wine cellar. One that’s full to the rafters of dusty old wine bottles. Next comes the anxiety of how long we would age each one until it’s coaxed into perfection, and the fantasy becomes overwhelming and drifts away. While not all wines are made for aging, the ones that are made to age likely don’t need the years of storage or the precise conditions we fret over to reach their full and delicious potential.
The Aging Process
Wine legend has it that the longer wine gathers dust in your wine cellar, the better it will be. Wine experts would likely tell you that most wines do not improve significantly from years of aging; it’s really the first year that is most important. Sommelier Keith Schulenburg said, “In that first year after bottling, the wine needs a chance to come together again, all the complex components melding into one harmonious and delightful vinous treat.”
Consider that new release you just bought. Over the last three months, it has been woken up from a deep slumber, pumped from its toasty barrel to the bottling line, squirted into waiting bottles and then had a cork plunged into its neck. That bottle is then put into a case, onto a truck, shipped to a warehouse, then put on another truck, stacked on your retailer’s shelf and finally loaded into the trunk of your car. Giving the wine ample time to overcome its bottle shock might be all it needs. Instead of opening the bottle you purchased while selecting ingredients for the evening meal, Robert Volz, owner of Pour Wine Bar, suggests giving that bottle a rest. Swap it with an older one in your cellar, ensuring well-rested wines and no dent in your cellar stock.
How do you determine whether the wines that line your grocery store shelves are already at their best or whether they would improve dramatically with time? If you know you want to cellar a wine for one year, five years or more, talk to the wine steward and let them help you choose a wine that’s well balanced. This means that alcohol levels, sugar, acidity and tannins are already working together. Schulenburg says, “Time will not improve a bad wine, but it may make a good wine even better.”
According to wine director and sommelier Ken Collura, “There’s a nuance that properly aged wines give up that is unmistakable. Tannins soften, alcohol levels seem less pronounced, fruit seems more complex and layered.” The trick seems to be in our ability to seize that moment before the wine starts to fall apart. About that trick, Collura said, “It’s not magic at all, just good common sense. Catch wines on the upswing, while they are still gaining in complexity and not on the way out. Wines that have aged too long show flat, muted colors and flavors.” Schulenburg contends, “Wines may reach a plateau of drinkability and could stay there for years. They don’t necessarily reach a dramatic peak and then start to fall away.” This theory leaves more room for hope that there’s a window of opportunity for enjoyment.
Kept in the dark
While personal wine caves, wine storage facilities and wine refrigerators may sound necessary for properly cellaring wine, they’re really not. Elaborate wine caves, outfitted with extensive wooden wine racks and temperature and humidity-controlled environments are for serious collectors. The “everyman’s cellar” needn’t be buried deep in the ground. Choose a cool, dark and quiet corner in your home. A spot in your basement or a closet under the stairs will do just fine. Cold temperatures (55 degrees or under) will shut the wine down, not allowing it to develop further, and warm temperatures will cook it. Schulenburg said, “Temperatures should not fluctuate rapidly, ten degrees in one day is probably too much. But ten degrees over a season would be perfectly acceptable for short-term cellaring (up to five years)—57 in the winter and 67 in the summer.”
Consider purchasing large format bottles, such as magnums. They’ll not only age slower than standard 750ml bottles, you’ll also be less likely to open them until the right occasion. Another fun experiment to try: Set aside at least three bottles of one particular producer/vintage, and open a bottle after each year or so to see how it’s coming along. Collura advises people to pull wines from their cellar when the fruit is still singing and the wine, as a whole, shows vibrancy. “Nothing is more disappointing than opening a twenty-five-year-old bottle that you’ve been waiting to reach maturity, then finding out it would have been much better ten years ago.”
Straight to the Source
Volz seeks out older vintages for his restaurant. He suggests looking in the marked down bins at your local grocery for fantastic finds. Wine stewards will often mark down older vintages as new vintages are delivered to replace them. “Call the wineries direct and ask if them they’re sitting on any library wines. You may be able to buy a vertical (wines of consecutive vintages) to compare and contrast,” advised Volz. “Or you might be able to buy an earlier panned vintage…, like the 2007 Willamette Valley pinot noir which have aged wonderfully.” Other resources for obtaining older bottles can be found through your local wine shop or on sites such as winebid.com.
Aging wines is simply a chemical reaction—how oxygen reacts with the sugars, alcohol, acidity and tannins in each bottle—that changes its outward expression over time. One doesn’t need to be a rocket scientist to experiment in aging wines. Lay down some bottles, drink them over time and discover for yourself how the wine develops. Learn how the initial fruit characteristics eventually give way to more complex characteristics, showcasing minerality and earthiness, the true terroir. You might discover that just like people, some wines get better with age and some just get old. But there’s always an important lesson to learn from each.
Ken Collura was head sommelier at Bern’s Steakhouse in Tampa (the restaurant with the world’s largest wine list (500,000 bottles in stock). He moved to Portland to manage the wine program at Andina. He’s recently started his own business, Kenvino Enterprises, doing pop-up dinners, restaurant consultation and education.
Robert Volz, Oregon’s highest-ranking working sommelier, owns Pour Wine Bar. He is available for wine education programs, whether to a large corporate class or one-on-one