I’ve been thinking about the benefits of aging this week: I discovered I’m eligible for a lifetime pass to the national park system for just ten bucks. That’s a great deal, and well worth waiting 62 years for.
There are other benefits to aging, of course. I don’t have to spend much time with a comb anymore. I can wear funny looking hats in public, and people just assume I’m an eccentric old duffer.
There are discounts at restaurants, although the senior menu is usually limited to things that old folks can digest.
I have fond memories of a time when a tweet was what birds did, and people didn’t talk on cell phones in movie theaters or while driving. People read books with actual paper pages… but I’m digressing.
Age can do marvelous things for some wines as well, but not all wines. And aging wine is a bit of complicated process – it must be stored properly, at the right temperature for the right period of time.
Most wine in this country is not aged. It tends to get consumed shortly after purchase. We are an impatient lot, apparently. But that’s okay – most wine is made to be consumed right away rather than stored in a cellar.
The wines that age well tend to be the pricier variety, made with grapes from coastal regions that produce higher tannins and more complex flavors. They may taste sharp when sipped immediately, but aging them softens those tannins and accentuates the flavors. Aged correctly, they become amazing.
Wines made with Central Valley grapes can be very good wines, but generally aren’t made for aging. I believe the term “fruit forward” describes the style – made to be consumed within a month or two of purchase, with pleasant, fruity flavors available right away. Leave them in the bottle for several years, and they spoil.
I had a friend give me a couple of old bottles of wine a year or two ago, but I’m afraid they aren’t the kind that age well. One is a Wine Cellars of Ernest & Julio Gallo California Cabernet, circa mid-1980s, although it is not dated.
I believe it is one of the earlier examples of varietal wines made by Gallo, and the California appellation indicates it is made predominantly of valley grapes.
The other one is also a Wine Cellars of E. & J. Wine, a zinfandel, and holds more promise. It is dated 1987, and says Northern Sonoma Vintage, although under the zinfandel on the label it says “of California” – which is usually where the appellation is listed. Somewhat ambiguous, but the back of the label says the grapes are “primarily” from vineyards in Northern Sonoma County.
I’m guessing the grapes don’t quite meet the appellation standard of 75 percent, so the California label was applied.
With a majority of Sonoma grapes, the wine may have been a candidate for aging, although 24 years is probably a stretch. And I doubt it has been stored in the right conditions. I may just keep it as a conversation piece.
Here are some guidelines on aging wine, gleaned from various web sites on the topic:
Having a wine cellar, or at least a place that is cool and dark, is essential. Heat and light cause wine to oxidize more quickly, and could cause you to wait five or ten years just to pour that $40 bottle of cabernet down the sink.
By cool, I mean chilly. The consensus seems to be somewhere between 50 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature should be consistent – you can’t turn off the unit when you go on vacation to save energy.
Humidity is good, too. Between 60 and 80 percent is recommended, which prevents the cork from drying out. Higher humidity could cause the label to get moldy.
The wine should be stored on its side, so the wine is in contact with the cork. This prevents the cork from drying out, which can cause air to get into the bottle, again speeding up oxidation.
One web site says you should avoid vibration, which stirs up the sediment in the bottle. I guess that rules out earthquake zones.
Once you have figured all this out, you need to choose the right wine. They will generally be more expensive wines, and reds more typically than whites, although some people age whites for a couple of years.
Getting advice at a wine shop is a good tactic, and there are magazines like the Wine Spectator that not only recommend wines, but how long to age them.
Another tactic is to buy a case of wine, drink a bottle right away and put the rest in storage. You then sample a bottle every year or two to judge how it’s doing.
If all this sounds like an incredible hassle rather than a fun hobby, you can buy wine that’s already been aged. Just make sure it has been aged properly.
For myself, I lack the patience, cellar space and personal income to age wine. If a wine sits on my shelf for more than a couple of months, it’s probably because it is the least appealing wine in the collection, and I’m avoiding it rather than aging it. And as I said, most wines are made to be sipped right away.