The Wine Cellar Myth
Wine enthusiasts seem to agree that aging wine is the ne plus ultra of wine expertise.
But what if the whole enterprise was a folly, or worse, a marketing ploy to get consumers to invest in fancy wine accouterments and more? Maybe that’s too cynical a view. But here’s what we do know: Most wines do not get better with time.
In fact, only about five percent of wines improve with age, and only one percent taste better with more than five years of aging. So why do we feel the need to hold on to special bottles instead of just enjoying them?
A History of Wine Aging
There was a time when aging wines was beneficial. Up until the 1970s, most wines improved with some time in the bottle. It was tradition to lay down wines for several years, or even decades, to produce a balanced and complex wine. But if opened too soon, this type of wine was virtually unpalatable.
This ended once pioneering winemakers in Napa created a new wine style, one that was brimming with plump fruit and spices and tasted delicious from the first drop. The rest of the world quickly followed suit. That is not to say that aging wine is obsolete; it remains the tradition in several old-world wine regions.
Wines for the Cellar
Some producers in the world still age their wines in-house. In Italy and Spain, the word “reserva” or “riserva” denotes a wine that has been aged according to the winery’s cellaring program.
Certain regions are also known for the ageability of their wines, such as Barolo or the Left Bank of Bordeaux. White wines from Sauternes and the Rheingau in Germany likewise gain elegance and complexity over time.
If you’re not certain whether a wine is meant to age, the best source is the producer’s own tech sheet. The winemaker must have created it specifically to peak at some point in the future. Without the winemaker’s imprimatur, opinions by sommeliers or other wine experts is pure speculation.
Wine Cellar on a Budget
Assuming that your wine is intended to age, there’s no need to invest in an extravagant cellar. Here are a few simple tips to get you started:
- Use a cool area with limited light and minimal temperature fluctuations.
- Avoid spaces that are highly-trafficked or where the wine is likely to be moved or disturbed.
- Place corked bottles on horizontal shelving units.
- Catalog your collection and create an alert for when wine is at its peak.
For most people, an unused closet or basement area is actually ideal. The more utilitarian the better: those fancy cellars with poker tables and humidors are terrible for wine. Kitchens also can wreak havoc on delicate bottlings, so make sure to use a wine fridge if you enjoy your collection close by.
Tasting Old Wine
The biggest drawback to aging wine is how easy it is to miss the perfect window for drinking. Far too often, people hold on to wines through the years, only to find a dank specter of its former glory awaiting them in the bottle. If you think you may have waited too long to drink something, you probably have.
It’s also worth discussing the taste of aged wine. While we have experienced soulful, complex wines brimming with cigar box and chicory after many years of tender loving care, we’ve also tasted watery mushrooms and rotten beets. It can be a real throw of the dice to age wine for extended periods of time.
Final Thoughts on Cellaring Wine
And doesn’t this all have more than a whiff of elitism? Aged wines are expensive wines. Given that there are only a select number of aged wines on offer, with smaller and smaller subsets of people who could access or afford them, the whole endeavor becomes tied up in social status and class.
Everyone can agree on this: wine is meant to be enjoyed. If aging wine sounds enjoyable to you, then hopefully you will have found some great tips in this article. If, on the other hand, it makes you long for a drink, go ahead and open any one of the millions of bottles that taste delicious now. It’s the American way, after all.