When you open a bottle of wine, how do you know whether you’re opening it at the right time in its lifecycle. Should you wait a few more years? Should you have opened it years ago? Does it matter when you open it?
Wine is a living thing. Even after the winemaking process is finished and the yeast has done its work of fermentation, after the wine is bottled it continues to mature and develop over time as molecules and components of grapes, acidity, sugar and alcohol interact and evolve and integrate. Some wines will become more mellow, better integrated and smoother after a few years (or in some cases, a few decades) in bottle. Others will start to fade away after a short time in bottle.
The key is getting to know the lifespan of different wine styles to get a better idea of when to drink, when to cellar and when it really doesn’t matter either way.
Let’s look at a few of the most popular wine styles and when they taste best.
Sparkling wine and Champagne
Most sparkling wines and Champagnes are designed to be enjoyed as soon as they’re released for sale. Indeed, most Champagne will have already undergone maturation in cool, dark limestone cellars cut into the ground underneath the winery for years before being made available for sale.
So by all means, open that bottle of sparkling or Champagne as soon as you want to share it. But if you like, you can cellar high quality sparkling wines for a few years – or for Champagne, even longer – when the wine will take on a richer, honeyed colour and nutty, toasty, grilled nut complexity on the palate.
Aged sparkling wine and Champagne is best enjoyed with food to help complement its complexity and depth.
White wines such as Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Vermentino and white blends are made in a fresh, fruit-forward style that rewards early consumption. Especially if the wine is unoaked, it is best enjoyed within the first two or three years after vintage to enjoy the vibrant fruit flavours at their best.
Other richer white wines can reward a little time in the bottle. Chardonnay, Viognier, Semillon (especially Hunter Valley Semillon) and sweet dessert wines can develop delightful characters of buttered toast, grilled cashew nuts, bush honey and baked bread with just a few years’ extra bottle age. The trick is to ensure that the cellaring takes place in a cool, dark quiet environment with consistent temperature and humidity levels. Any fluctuation in temperature or humidity can speed up the ageing process, pushing the wine past its best.
The high sugar level in dessert and fortified wines such as Port, Muscat and Tokay give them the staying power to reward years in the cellar. You’ll find that over time, dessert wines will gain a much deeper golden colour, and the sweet, unctuous fruit flavours will take on a more marmalade-like character with hints of grilled nuts and toasted wood (even if the wines are unoaked). Be careful, though. Once a dessert wine’s gone past its prime it will just taste of sweet, over-cooked apples – with the brown, oxidised character that you really don’t want to find in any wine, let alone dessert wine.
Next time you buy a dozen of your favourite wine, try putting a few bottles away and try one every six months or so to get an idea of how it ages. Once you get an idea of how old you like your wine, you can plan to store a collection of your own, knowing exactly the right time to open those old bottles. Or not-so-old bottles!
Although the majority of red wines released onto the market today are perfectly suitable to be opened and enjoyed immediately, there’s a lot to be said for the rewards of patience. With lighter-bodied reds such as easy-drinking Grenache blends, south-eastern Australian Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon from warmer regions and lower-cost Pinot Noir, you don’t have to wait. In fact, too much time and you risk losing the vibrancy of the fresh fruit characters on the palate.
But for more complex, richer red wines, a little – or a lot of – cellaring can reveal new layers of complexity, smoothness and depth in a wine.
Barossa Shiraz can be so big and bold on release that it takes a few years of cellaring for the acidity, tannins and fruit flavours to settle down and cooperate. And the famous Bordeaux-style red wine, Cabernet Sauvignon, can often be so tannic in its youth that it’s difficult to enjoy without getting that mouth-puckering sensation that leaves you with a dry mouth craving a piece of bread to balance the tannins. Cabernet Sauvignon is an ideal candidate for cellaring. The firm, chalky tannins will soften over time to a powdery texture, while the blackcurrant fruit with meld with any herbaceous or leafy characters in the wine. Aged red wines can tend to show an inky, iodine-like character that makes them fascinating to pair with food. The soft tannins and rounded, complex flavours will sing with food – and make you happy you waited!
- Red Wine
- White Wine
- Sparkling Wine