Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Aging wine. Is it worth it?

Read a wine site or blog on the internet and most will give you the short answer: no.

I completely disagree; but I also think it depends on exactly what you mean by 'aging'.

Very few bottles of wine, even fine wine, will improve with long term aging. By 'long term' I am talking about decades, rather than years.

However, even modestly priced wines will improve with careful aging, IMO. "Careful" is the key word. Here are some great tips from for storing wine, for those of us not blessed with an actual wine cellar:

1. Keep It Cool

Heat is enemy number one for wine. Temperatures higher than 70° F will age a wine more quickly than is usually desirable. And if it gets too much hotter, your wine may get “cooked,” resulting in flat aromas and flavors. The ideal temperature range is between 45° F and 65° F (and 55° F is often cited as close to perfect), though this isn’t an exact science. Don’t fret too much if your storage runs a couple degrees warmer, as long as you’re opening the bottles within a few years from their release.

2. But Not Too Cool

Keeping wines in your household refrigerator is fine for up to a couple months, but it’s not a good bet for the longer term. The average fridge temp falls well below 45° F to safely store perishable foods, and the lack of moisture could eventually dry out corks, which might allow air to seep into the bottles and damage the wine. Also, don’t keep your wine somewhere it could freeze (an unheated garage in winter, forgotten for hours in the freezer). If the liquid starts turning to ice, it could expand enough to push the cork out.

3. Steady as She Goes

More important than worrying about achieving a perfect 55°F is avoiding the landmines of rapid, extreme or frequent temperature swings. On top of cooked flavors, the expansion and contraction of the liquid inside the bottle might push the cork out or cause seepage. Aim for consistency, but don’t get paranoid about minor temperature fluctuations; wines may see worse in transit from the winery to the store. (Even if heat has caused wine to seep out past the cork, that doesn’t always mean the wine is ruined. There’s no way to know until you open it—it could still be delicious.)

4. Turn the Lights Off

Light, especially sunlight, can pose a potential problem for long-term storage. The sun’s UV rays can degrade and prematurely age wine. One of the reasons why vintners use colored glass bottles? They’re like sunglasses for wine. Light from household bulbs probably won’t damage the wine itself, but can fade your labels in the long run. Incandescent bulbs may be a bit safer than fluorescent bulbs, which do emit very small amounts of ultraviolet light.

5. Don’t Sweat the Humidity

Conventional wisdom says that wines should be stored at an ideal humidity level of 70 percent. The theory goes that dry air will dry out the corks, which would let air into the bottle and spoil the wine. Yes, this does happen, but unless you live in a desert or in arctic conditions, it probably won’t happen to you. (Or if you’re laying down bottles for 10 or more years, but then we’re back to the matter of professional storage.) Anywhere between 50 percent and 80 percent humidity is considered safe, and placing a pan of water in your storage area can improve conditions. Conversely, extremely damp conditions can promote mold. This won’t affect a properly sealed wine, but can damage the labels. A dehumidifier can fix that.

6. See Things Sideways

Traditionally, bottles have been stored on their sides in order to keep the liquid up against the cork, which theoretically should keep the cork from drying out. If you’re planning on drinking these bottles in the near- to mid-term, or if the bottles have alternative closures (screw caps, glass or plastic corks), this is not necessary. We will say this, however: Horizontal racking is a space-efficient way to store your bottles, and it definitely can’t harm your wines.

7. Not a Whole Lot of Shaking

There are theories that vibration could damage wine in the long term by speeding up the chemical reactions in the liquid. Some serious collectors fret about even the subtle vibrations caused by electronic appliances, though there’s little evidence documenting the impacts of this. Significant vibrations could possibly disturb the sediment in older wines and keep them from settling, potentially making them unpleasantly gritty. Unless you live above a train station or are hosting rock concerts, is this likely to be a problem for your short-term storage? No. (But don’t go shaking your wines like a Super Bowl MVP about to spray a bottle of Champagne around the locker room.)

So Where Should I Keep My Bottles?

If you haven’t been blessed with a cool, not-too-damp basement that can double as a cellar, you can improvise with some simple racks in a safe place. Rule out your kitchen, laundry room or boiler room, where hot temperatures could affect your wines, and look for a location not directly in line with light pouring in from a window. You could also buy a small wine cooler and follow the same guidelines: If you keep your wine fridge in a cool place, it won’t have to work so hard, keeping your energy bill down.
Perhaps there is a little-used closet or other vacant storage area that could be repurposed for storing wine? If you have a suitable dark, stable space that’s not too damp or dry, but it is too warm, you might consider investing in a standalone cooling unit specifically designed for wine. There are some inexpensive systems for small spaces, but in most cases, this is getting into professional wine storage.
When is it time to upgrade your storage conditions? Ask yourself this: How much did you spend last year on your wine habit? If a $1,000 cooling unit represents less than 25 percent of your annual wine-buying budget, it’s time to think about it more carefully. Might as well protect your investment.
One other piece of advice from collectors: Whatever number you’re thinking of when it comes to bottle capacity, double it. Once you’ve started accumulating wines to drink later, it’s hard to stop.
Read more: Constructing a Cellar provides details on professional wine storage, including cooling units, insulation and more.

If I Want to Buy a Wine Cooler, What Should I Look For?

Wine coolers are, at their most basic, standalone units designed to maintain a consistent temperature—sometimes one suitable for serving rather than long-term storage—whereas a wine cellar is a cabinet or an entire room that stores wine in optimal conditions for long-term aging: a consistent temperature (about 55° F), with humidity control and some way to keep the wine away from light and vibration.
Units vary in how much access you’ll have to your bottles, so consider both how well you’ll be able to see what’s inside, and how easy it will be to grab a bottle when you want it. Are the bottles stacked? Are there shelves that slide out? Consider the size and shape of the bottles you collect, and the way the bottles fit into the racks—are they very wide, tall or unusually shaped, if they’ll even fit at all?
The door itself is something to ponder. Is it more important for you to see the bottles or protect them from light? Is the glass clear, tempered, tinted, double-paned or UV-resistant? Make sure the door opens on the correct side for where you’re placing it—not every unit has reversible doors. Some models have locks or even alarms.
More expensive units may have multiple temperature zones, which is a nice feature if you want to keep your reds at one temperature and your whites at a cooler, more ready-to-drink temperature. Humidity controls are also helpful. Do your best to find a unit that is quiet—you’d be surprised just how loud the things can get. The more you spend, the better the materials should be, such as aluminum shelves that will conduct cool temperatures better than plastic ones, or a rough interior that will be better for humidity than a smooth one

All excellent suggestions. I currently own two small wine coolers, where I keep my wine that I plan on aging. I have stickers on the bottles of the year I plan to open those wines. In most cases, I've picked a year somewhere in the middle of the time recommended by the winery. In the case of one particularly pricey Italian Barolo, I plan to open it in 2019, for my 15th wedding anniversary. Barolo needs to age anyway, so that works out pretty perfectly.

I also have a "beverage centre" where I keep my other wines; wines that are ready to drink now, or some that are going to be kept to 2014 or 2015. This is not a wine cooler, hence the temperature and humidity are not perfect for storing wines long term, but for a couple years they will be perfectly fine.

My passion for aging wine begins on last year's trip to Quails' Gate. Now, it's not like I was unaware of aging wine before that, but I didn't really have a system set up to properly age my wine. I tried to buy older vintages if they were available, but if they weren't, I pretty much drank what I could get.

Our story begins at the tasting room, where we tasted everything they had for us. It was all good, as usual, some better than others of course. The Merlot they were tasting was from 2009. It was perfectly fine, but not something we'd need to buy. Merlot is generally not our thing anyway, and this one wasn't the best we'd ever tried. So we went on our way, down to the Old Vines Restaurant for our lunch reservations.

Lunch was amazing. And, during lunch, we ordered a wine flight of "library" wines; older wines that were only available from the restaurant library, not in the wine store. They consisted of a 2006 Cab Sauv, 2006 Pinot Noir, and this little beauty:

2005 Merlot.

Holy crap. I wouldn't have believed this was the same wine as the 2009 vintage if I didn't see it for my own eyes. The '05 was smooth and balanced, and exhibited none of the overpowering tannins that prevailed in the '09. It was, to borrow a word from SNL, scrumtrulescent.

What a difference 4 years can make. Now, of course, the 2005 growing year may have been much better than the 2009 year, but the enquiries I've made to people who know suggest that wasn't the case. The big difference was simply the extra four years in the bottle.

We left the restaurant with half a case of wines from their library, and for Xmas, I surprised Tracey with a full case of library wines from Quails' Gate.

Best. Present. Ever.

Of course, the library wines are much more expensive than the newer stuff; if you can find the '05 Merlot, it will run you about $55. Good luck finding it though. At Xmas when I ordered the case they had sold out of the '05, so I had a couple bottles of 2006 sent down and they were both fabulous also. Those were also $55/bottle. If memory serves, the case cost me about $800, and 10 of the 12 bottles were from the restaurant library.

So I now have a bottle of 2008 Merlot in one of my coolers, waiting until 2015 to break it open, and hoping that it's close to as good as the 05 and 06 were. We'll see.

If I can find a bottle of the 2009, I'll put that one away until 2016 and we'll see if the aging turns that bottle from average to exceptional as well.

The newer Quails Gate Merlot's retail for $24.99, if memory serves me correctly.

Rating (05 and 06): 8.5/10
Rating (09) 6.5/10

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