First-time wine cellar owners often dream of being able to select wines from their collections for decades to come. Unfortunately, unless you are buying delicate, heavy bodied wines from Old World vintners, you may find that your favorite wine may only be drinkable for a very short time.
Tony Leventhal, manager and cellar master of Vintage Wine Warehouse in Queens, New York, notes that most table wines today are New World wines. These are wines that are pressed and bottled in the US and include some wines from Australia and New Zealand, South Africa, and South America. They are usually inexpensive and are meant to be drunk young. “In the old days, you sat on them forever,” he says. “If you are going to be drinking wine under $20, you’ve got to drink it within a couple of years, give or take what it says on the label.”
John Rittmaster, a wine consultant at Prima Vini Wines in Walnut Creek, CA, agrees. “The statistic we use in the industry is that close to 90% of all wine purchased in the United States is consumed within 48 hours of the purchase.” This is a factor that depends less on the grape variety and more on market demand. “Given our proclivity towards immediate gratification, our domestic wine industry has geared its production towards making wines that can be consumed immediately and require no cellar time to taste good.”
This has influenced when grapes are harvested and what is added to the fermentation process. “Our tendency in Napa over the past decade or so has been to harvest Cabernet Sauvignon very late in the season when it is quite (even overly so) ripe making a wine that is out of balance towards alcohol, fruit and tannin,” Rittmaster adds. “The addition of a lot of oak makes a wine with a lot of flavor but oddly integrated. It may taste flamboyantly great as a young wine, but because it is out of balance, it won’t last as long. Once all that exuberant fruit fades, the tannin and oak will be all that remains.”
Rittmaster has observed the change in the industry toward producing young wines over several decades. “It is interesting how some inexpensive wines made simply a generation ago, or even two, have aged extremely well, almost in spite of themselves, while some of the New Wave of winemakers struggle to make a wine that will appeal in its youth and age, too.”
Yet, some wines do benefit from aging. “Probably 5% of the world’s production, both red and white, can improve with either some or a lot of cellaring,” Rittmaster says. “It isn’t so much the country of origin that determines a wine’s suitability to age; it is the wine’s physical make up. Some grapes have a more obvious tendency to require aging to mellow a bit, especially if they are thick skinned, well ripened, have lots of tannin and enough buttressing acidity. Cabernet Sauvignon is an obvious example. Bordeaux from France, South American Cabernet, American Cabernet, etc. can all age gracefully, provided they have the above ingredients in proper balance.”
It is essential, then, for wine enthusiasts to find out everything they can about the wines they buy. Look at the vintage, the quality of the grape, the age of the vines, and recommendations from the vintner. A mediocre wine won’t improve with age. It is far better to open a wine too soon than one that is too old. Therefore, you need to determine the optimum drinking age of all of the wines you buy.
Rittmaster has some suggestions. “White wines like German Riesling, French Vouvray, and Australian Semillon can age effortlessly for decades if they are in balance at the beginning,” he says.
Cabernet Sauvignons can be kept for two years and beyond, depending on the vintage and where they wine came from. Those from Bordeaux in France, Coonawarra in Australia, and even some from California’s Napa Valley do age well.
Rieslings are meant to be aged, for the most part. Those that come from grapes grown in the colder reasons of Germany can age for decades and are better if not drunk young. They tend to be a bit austere when young and develop a more rounded flavor over time. According to wine expert Joelle Thomson, Australian rieslings need at least three years aging before drinking, while New Zealand vintages may be kept for two to five years.
Wines that do not benefit from aging are Merlot, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay. Since there are many different styles of Chardonnay, treat each one as if it were a different varietal. All of these wines, in general, should be drunk young or only stores for under five years.
“The main thing, I think, is to decide first of all what your cellaring requirements are,” Rittmaster adds. “Many Americans who were raised on sweetened foods, Coke, and very intensely flavored cuisines, prefer their wines to be full flavored and intense to match. Why cellar a wine that will only become more subtle and complex as it ages when it simply tastes better to them in its youth? On the other hand, if you have the taste for the complexities and gossamer qualities of an older wine, buy a cellar by all means.”
Develop a relationship with your wine merchant or vintners. Find out as much as you can about the wine you buy. Then cellar and drink accordingly.