July 4, 2011

Bottle Age/Bottle Ageing *

    Wine continues to develop after bottling. Some ageing, about 3 months, is needed to overcome bottle shock. After a certain point, most wines will begin to deteriorate. Varies by wine type, quality and storage conditions. Can range from 3 months to 20 years or more, although 1 to 4 years is more typical. Wines that benefit from prolonged ageing are rare.  
Quite possibly the most common question I hear is “How long should you age a wine?” The answer is simple: That depends. In truth, the majority of wines are ‘ready’ when you see them on the store shelf. The exceptions to this are few – and usually expensive. Still, there are a number of things to keep in mind as you contemplate whether to open any bottle.

Bottle ageing occurs in stages. At the winery, once the wine has been bulk aged sufficiently, it is bottled and either prepared for shipping or ‘binned’ in the cellar for further ageing. Some wines are shipped immediately: light whites, early drinking reds, ros├ęs. Others require more time to integrate. Some of the bigger, classic red wines will spend years in the cellar before release. (Have a look at the vintage dates in the Spanish wine section next time you’re shopping.) Port and Champagne also spend a lot of time in the cellar – again, a matter of years.

Another factor to consider is ‘bottle shock’.Wine doesn’t take well to being forcibly slammed into a bottle and then shut off from the world. And with good reason. These days most wineries will ‘sparge’ the bottle with nitrogen before filling, which forces out all of the air. This establishes the chemistry inside the bottle and, once corked, the wine must come to terms with its new situation. Simply put, the wine must deal with disolved oxygen and sulphur. This is a complicated chemical process (and I never did have much of a head for chemistry), but suffice it to say, through a process called ‘redox’, the wine will integrate and  reintegrate these two chemicals until it reaches a point of stasis. How long does this take? Research suggests it should be accomplished in about three months. So if possible, check the bottling date and make sure that at least three months have passed. Since you likely won’t find a bottling date, or be able to decipher the code, it’s not a bad practice to lay in a wine for a couple of months before opening it. This, by the way, also gives the wine a chance to settle down after the trauma of transportation.

What about those wines that do age? Almost any red wine will show some benefit from additional cellar time. But how do you determine how much time? Just ask Clive Coates. According to this Master of Wine, a wine will remain at its optimal drinking point for the same period of time that it took to get there. Thus a wine that took three years to mature should drink nicely for the next three years. A wine that took ten years to reach drinkability will keep for another ten years. And a wine that was release one year after vintage probably should be opened by its second birthday.

The main thing to keep in mind that all wine has a limited life span, and a wine that is over the hill is a waste of money as well as a disappointment. Far better to say “I really shouldn’t be drinking this yet” while you enjoy that 8-year old barolo than to say “I really shouldn’t have opened this  –  it’s dead”. So always err on the side of youth.

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