Thursday, March 12, 2009

Wine Q&A: Which Wines Are Best for the Cellar?

Q: Recently I’ve been inspired to start collecting wines and have accumulated a couple of cases. That may not seem like much, but it has been tough to resist drinking those wines. I’d like to get more serious about collecting, but am curious about a few things. What criteria do you use when selecting wines you think are suitable for cellaring? And how do you know when a wine is ready to drink?
- Roger

A. Tucking wines away for future drinking can be a rewarding experience. To wine geeks like me, there is nothing quite like sipping a fine wine that has been aged to perfection. All the bite is gone and what greets you in the glass is luscious and smooth liquid gold – at least that’s what you envision.

But there’s a risk. You can make reasonable guesstimates as to the future prospects of a wine, but such as it is with an item often referred to as a “living thing,” many factors come into play that can spoil your fun.

There is a lot of bottle variation with wines kept over time. Even the same wines stored under identical conditions will sometimes not age and taste the same when opened side by side and these differences cannot easily be explained. A bum cork often assumes the blame, but it is sometimes not as simple as that.

There is also no exact science when it comes to assessing when the wine is ready for consumption. It is disappointing to open a wine you’ve invested some time in and discover you’ve jumped the gun. But it’s even more distasteful to wait too long and end up with a wine that has gone off and is virtually undrinkable.

That being said, I recently attended a tasting of 12 Okanagan wines that had been stored at least a decade and most of them were still quite lovely, which was a delightful and encouraging discovery.

When deciding how much time to put into a bottle, consider that as wines age, they lose their freshness. Dominant fruit flavours begin to melt away and are replaced by secondary flavours – more earthy, mineral or flinty, spicy and nutty characteristics. Sweetness also fades, while acid and alcohol become more noticeable. So if you like your wines zippy and bright with fruit-forward character, drink them sooner rather than later. I recommend buying a bottle to taste immediately before investing in more to put away. A wine that ages well should taste good on release, meaning you should also be able to drink it young. Unsavoury characteristics will not improve over time.

Wines shouldn’t taste better or worse with aging, just different.I personally seek out wines that exhibit good fruit character and complexity both in the nose and on the palate. I prefer those without a great deal of alcohol and aren’t excessively oaked. In reds, some tannin is desirable but the wine should not be bitter, which suggests unripe fruit.

Experts suggest that you can evaluate the wine’s age-ability by opening and decanting and tasting it at different intervals over several hours. While this method won’t mimic true aging, it will give you some idea how a wine may develop over time. Aerating the wine will open it up some and reveal some of the various layers that may be hidden in a tightly wound young wine.

Keep in mind that your cellaring conditions will affect the wines you store. Ideally, you want a climate-controlled environment if you’re putting serious money and time into your collection. Apart from that, chose a cool, dark, quiet, dust- and odour-free location in your home and store the bottles which have corks on their sides (this is not necessary for wines sealed with screwcaps). It is preferable that you take them out of the box.

Examine bottles before purchase for signs of any leakage. Bottles that appear to be seeping should be avoided, but if you notice this in ones you’ve already acquired, drink them immediately – hopefully they’ll still be good.

Wines kept for extended periods may have to be professionally re-sealed as corks can shrink and disintegrate over time.

Look for literature on the wines you invest in for clues on recommended aging periods and make note of when you think they should be opened. Have some fun by setting dates for the “big reveal” and invite your friends over if you’re willing to share.

In Focus: Disgorgement and Dosage
These two elements are involved in making of traditional sparkling wine. At the end of the process, a plug of yeast has to be removed from the bottle and this is called disgorgement. The neck of the bottle is isolated and frozen allowing the plug to be easily kicked out. Following that a "dosage" of sparkling wine is used to top up the bottle, and it is corked. The dosage is often blended with sucrose which will determine the sparkling wine’s overall sweetness.

1 comment:

Shea said...

I agree that proper storage conditions are very important.

However, I don't think wines get more acidic or alcoholic with age, unless they were never meant to age in the first place. I think aging requires a certain knowledge about what should/can age and what should/can not. I also believe that some wines, while obtuse and backwards upon release, will open up dramatically in 10+ years. Any true wine afficionado owes it to themselves to taste a wide variety of properly aged wines with excellent provenance. Only then will this hole mysterious world come into focus. Just my opinion :).