To open or not to open? That is the question.

Though wine is subjective and personal, there are recommended timeframes based on the acidity, structure and balance to help us predict the best time to open that bottle.

A similar version was printed in the August 2020 issue of Taste & Flair

There is a common misconception that all red wine gets better with age, but this isn’t necessarily true. In fact, most wines are meant to be drunk within 1 or 2 years of production and are not meant to be aged for the long term. I hasten to add that if you are not used to drinking mature wines, the complex flavours may not be so pleasing to the untrained palate. Intricate chemical reactions involving a wine's sugars, acids and phenolic compounds (such as tannins) can alter the aroma, colour, mouthfeel and taste of the wine in a way that may be more pleasing to some tasters, but can be downright unpleasant to others. Conversely, some wines such as those from Bordeaux are notoriously renowned for needing a minimum amount of aging up to 10 years before the wine could begin to be appreciated, so it’s no wonder that many people get confused as to when to open their wines.

To further complicate matters a fine Bordeaux or Burgundy will appreciate in price over several decades, but a Californian Zinfandel or Chilean Merlot may render itself worthless after just a decade. So how do we determine when best to drink your favourite bottle of vino?

What happens when wine is left to age?

The first thing we notice when a wine has some age on it is the colour. Red wines often lighten in colour around the rim and turn from a purple vibrant colour to a more brick red and eventually tawny or brown colour. Conversely, young white wines tend to be lighter in colour, evolving from a light lemon colour to a golden, and eventually amber colour as it ages.

The real fun begins when tasting the wines. When wine is served young, we often taste primary flavours of fruit such as blackberry in Cabernet Sauvignon and plum in Merlot or freshly-cut grass and juniper berry in Sauvignon Blanc or citrus in Riesling. Sometimes, secondary notes from the winemaking techniques are also tasted, such as vanilla from oak-aging or buttery nuances from malolactic fermentation, however, when a wine ages, we notice different aromas and flavours will emerge. These flavours, often referred to as tertiary flavours stem from the development of the wines and the reactions occurring in the bottle over time. The primary bold fruit flavours would become more subdued and the tertiary flavours that were originally overpowered would emerge to the forefront with flavours ranging from dried fruits to honey, to barnyard, mushroom, leather and even cigar box and tobacco. Texturally, wines also alter with age such that white wines seem to get oilier and more viscous, whilst reds tend to soften and mellow into a silkier mouthfeel due to compounds and  softened tannins that fall to the bottom as sediment.  

Wine is constantly evolving

Wine is in fact inconsistent and can be rather unpredictable. So inconsistent in fact, that from when fermentation ceases, the wine is in a constant state of change. It is common for a fine wine to pass through times when it is drinking beautifully, to times when the flavours are ‘muted’ - often referred to as the ‘dumb phase’ or ‘hibernation stage’.  What we mean when referring to a wine in its ‘dumb’ or ‘hibernation’ stage is that the wine is unexpectedly ‘closed’ or ‘shy’ such that the highly anticipated opulence, flavours and power never emerge as expected. It could very well be that the wine is in fact declining, but when the bottle in question is projected to have several years of life still left, we could only blame it on passing through its hibernation stage and we expect the wine to bounce back better than ever, which is usually the case. Unfortunately, there is no explanation for this stage and we can only guess whether it would last months or even years, so unless you would have enough experience drinking this particular wine and vintage, you’d be forgiven for being disappointed at the quality of a wine you expected so much from. Unfortunately, this is a stage that cannot be predetermined or exacted but must be accepted as part of the beauty of wine.

Chablis Grand Cru Chateau Grenouilles usually benefits with 5- 8 years of aging
How can I tell whether this wine should be aged?

Though wine is unpredictable, there is a method to understanding the aging potential of wine. The acidity, structure and balance of a wine are generally good indicators of the wines potential to improve in the bottle. Though there are always exceptions to the rule (but that is for another discussion), this usually means that it is sadly the more expensive wines that are often made with the intention of aging. White wines with potential for aging are generally limited to the grape varieties Riesling, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc. Oak is often a component in the wine-making technique that facilitates the aging process.

The historically famous red wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Barolo have always been known to need at least 10 years in the bottle before even considering them, but nowadays winemakers are changing their winemaking styles to produce wines more approachable in their youth. One of the most famous estates on the left-bank Bordeaux, Château Latour, have even stopped selling their wine en-primeur (where one would purchase wines when still in the barrel, but receive the wines 2 or 3 years later), but instead are releasing their wines eight years after production so that it can be consumed immediately after release - the latest release being the 2012. I was lucky enough to have already tried this 2012 vintage earlier this year, and though I agree that the wine is definitely at an interesting and drinkable, despite youthful stage, I would definitely leave it in my cellar for another couple of years before opening it, but that’s my personal taste.

The vintage year indicated on the bottle is often another reliable gauge of the aging potential of a wine. Comparing the well-known and fabulous 2005 Bordeaux vintage to the less spectacular vintage of 2007 (which was marred by too much rain and cold spells) I would choose 2007 for a dinner I’d hold tomorrow over the 2005, but I’d definitely choose the 2005 for a dinner planned in 20 years’ time. This stems from the fact that the better vintages tend to produce more muscular, structured, and powerful wines that need years to soften and open up to reveal their full potential. So, do not overlook the lesser vintages which are found at cheaper prices, but instead choose them for short term aging and you could be pleasantly surprised.      

If you’re still unsure whether to pop the cork of that fine wine you’ve been safeguarding for ever, there is still one method to help you decide - wine critics. Renowned wine critics including Jancis Robinson, James Suckling, Antonio Galloni, Robert Parker, and Neal Martin not only rate many wines that have potential for aging, but often suggest the best drinking windows based on their previous tastings of that wine.

The good news is that you’re always right

There is some good news about aging wine: regardless of what many people assume, there is no single right time to open any particular bottle. Whenever you decide to drink a wine is the right time. It is important to understand that wines do not build up to a peak of development and then drop off into oblivion. The fact that a wine is constantly evolving also means that a wine will continue to develop along a gentle arc, of which different but equally delicious flavours can be enjoyed along the way, from youthful energy to that steady, middle-age maturity, to elegant fragility.

It is therefore subjective to one’s personal taste whether the wine is preferred during it’s flamboyant youth or sophisticated development. It could also simply boil down to the better wine pairing, such that a more youthful wine can be better suited to the Tomahawk you’ve been dying to grill.

The same applies for white and sparkling wines. Sparkling wines that can age are usually denoted by a vintage year indicated on the bottle in-which the vintner believes a fantastic wine has been made. So, if it’s a vintage Champagne, Franciacorta or Cava, the fizz is often aggressive in it’s youth, but begins to soften as the wine ages. When young, the citrus flavours tend to be more tart, refreshing, and punchy, but with time the tertiary flavours of biscuit and brioche will spring to the forefront, enveloped in a delicate and creamy, tingling of the mousse.

It’s all down to personal choice

Do not let anybody tell you when to open your wine. Though there are recommended time frames, it all boils down to personal choice, and the best way of learning how you best prefer your wines along the curve of maturity is through trial and error.

The next time you visit your favourite wine merchant, I suggest you buy a case of your favourite wines (if you’re unsure it has potential to age, ask your merchant) and store the wine carefully, opening one bottle every year (of every other year) and take note of the experience. At worst it’s a bit of fun, but at best it’s an enjoyable experiment that allows you to understand your palate and will only give you more insight in choosing the right time to open some of the other big boys.

There will be times when a wine is accidently discovered in one of your grandparents’ cupboards that will be expected to be well past it’s drink by date, but one mantra I always follow is to never throw a bottle of wine away. I always open the wine and taste it. At worst its vinegar, but sometimes it’s a beautiful and unexpected discovery. Don’t forget, wine is unpredictable!

How to store wine for aging

Now that you’ve decided on a particular bottle (or bottles) of wine that is worth aging, it is important to set the right conditions to avoid spoilage.

1. Keep the wines away from any direct sunlight

The bright UV light coming from the kitchen window is not your wines friend.

Keep at a constant temperature.

2. Temperature variations are a wine’s worst enemy. The ideal temperature is between 10 and 15 °C, but no great harm will occur to wine stored between 15 and 20 °C. It’s the temperature variation which destroys the wine most.

3. Keep the wines humid

In Malta, humidity is not such an issue since it’s the drier countries that dry out the corks. At worst the humidity in Malta may destroy the labels (which you can wrap in clingfilm to avoid), but the wine should remain intact.

4. Vibrations and movement

When wines age, sediment tends to fall to the bottom and may cloud the wines if the wines are moved around rapidly or left vibrating.

5. Keep the bottle Lying down

To avoid the corks drying out, most wines are stored lying down so that the wine remains in constant contact with the cork. Screwcap bottles do not need to be stored sideways.