Sip or Save: When Should You Drink that Bottle of Wine?
By: Kristine Hansen
Searching for a red wine to sip with turkey at Thanksgiving? In need of a not-too-sweet white wine to pair with ham at Christmas? Or perhaps, during the blur of holiday shopping and festive parties, you’d prefer to wrap presents with a glass of wine in hand, or unwind with a flute of bubbles beside a crackling fire. All those impromptu gatherings—maybe even one at your house—this time of year could also necessitate uncorking a bottle.
The holidays are an opportunity to pull out your best wines from the cellar, whether a beautifully aged Barolo or that finally ready-to-drink Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. As any wine enthusiast knows, cellaring wine is also about collecting wine. Trips to wine regions and purchases from your favorite local wine shop have likely resulted in an impressive stash.
This time of year, a celebratory feeling hangs in the air and time is spent, probably more than any other season, with family and friends. It’s the perfect season to “break out the good stuff.” But how do you know what to sip now and what to keep in the cellar, for later?
First, it’s important to understand the process of aging and how it makes a wine better. There are definite reasons why you ought to resist the temptation to immediately uncork a bottle of wine once it falls into your hands for the first time. Giving the wine time to age “loosens” its nuances and makes it taste less constricted (or “tight”) on the palate.
Why Wine Should be Aged
Many wines, especially at higher price-points and featuring certain grape varietals, are not meant to be opened immediately. Instead, they are designed to be cellared for a few years, maybe even a decade or two, before realizing their full potential. This does not mean the wines are undrinkable right when they are released to consumers; it only means they are not at their best. What does their “best” mean? In a few words, the finish should be long (not quick) and linger on the palate. The mouth feel becomes rounder and softer over time. Often, you’ll unearth new aromas and flavors after a few years in the bottle. This is what makes the process of aging wine so exciting: in a way, you are uncovering a brand-new wine.
It’s important to understand the process of aging the wine. This may even help you be more patient as you wait for your favorite wine to “open up” (wine-speak for evolving over time to become more expressive).
So what’s happening while the bottle is in your cellar? In a few words, the wine’s composition is changing. It’s becoming smoother and softer on the palate. Some examples of how the wine’s character is changing—for the better—include lessening in acidity, eschewing yeasty aromas and moving into less astringency.
How to Age Wine (and For How Long)
It’s important that you have a temperature-controlled area in your home to age the wine. Ideal temperature falls between 55 degrees and 65 degrees Fahrenheit. You should also place the wines horizontal, on racks. Why? This way the cork is less likely to dry out. You want to keep that cork moist.
Here are some quick and easy guidelines for how long certain wine-grape varietals should age:
- 3-5 years: white Bordeaux (France), Chardonnay (California or France)
- 5-7 years: Chenin Blanc (France), Merlot (California or France)
- 7-10 years: white Burgundy (France), Syrah (California or France)
- 10-15 years: white Rioja (Spain), Semillon (France), Cabernet Sauvignon (California)
- 15-20 years: Champagne (France), Barolo (Italy)
- 20+ years: Sauternes (France), Riesling (Germany)
When to Drink Aged Wine
Your next question is undoubtedly, “Okay, but when can I open the bottle?” Your favorite wine critics—or even the winery itself—will suggest a timeline, such as in five to seven years or ten to fifteen years. Some winemakers even target twenty years for aging their wine, which is ideal for marking a wedding anniversary or commemorating another important event in your life. Aging, however, is not an exact science. Every vintage develops differently. While the wine is aging, it is still “active” and evolving—and not always at the same pace vintage after vintage.
Wine drinkers seasoned at aging usually buy at least a half-case of a wine they intend to age. This way a bottle can be opened at intervals, say every year after the first five years have passed. By taking good notes you can assess its progress and know when it’s “ready.” It’s also fun to witness in real-time how aging affects a wine’s quality. You may find that a wine tastes better at seven years than at ten years; a fact you can only ascertain through tasting. Remember, not every prediction turns into fact. Some of the work is left to you, as the owner of the wine — not the winemaker, wine specialist, or wine-shop employee (wherever you purchased the wine).
Ideal Times to Drink Red Wines
As a general rule, wines that are “picnic friendly” (light, fresh and youthful) do not benefit from aging. Some red-grape varietals you do not want to age include Beaujolais Nouveau (France) and Rosé wines. These should be consumed within a year of their release.
Red wines that really blossom after aging include Zinfandel, which has the highest alcohol content of any red wine (between 14% and 16%, typically) and are from California. A close second is Cabernet Sauvignon, whether that’s a sole variety (common in Napa Valley and some parts of Sonoma County, as well as California’s Central Coast) or a blend. France’s Bordeaux region also relies heavily on the Cabernet Sauvignon grape when crafting wine. You’ll find some excellent examples from world-renowned wineries that include Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Latour and Domaine de la Romanée–Conti.
Other red wine varietals you should consider aging are Merlot and Syrah. Most Pinot Noirs are not meant for aging. You should drink those within three years of their release.
Ideal Times to Drink White Wines
Contrary to popular belief, white wines can also be aged—just not every varietal. These are more multifaceted than red wines because the end result may look like a completely different wine. What was once the color of straw is now a golden, honey-like hue. Note that if you see the wine start to resemble a brown shade in the bottle, it should be drunk immediately and removed from the aging process.
White Wines You Shouldn’t Age
For white wines, you want to look for wines aged in oak, not stainless steel, and featuring more vanilla and toasty notes than tropical-fruit notes. Generally speaking, this means Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand (often aged in stainless-steel)—as well as California—and Vinho Verde (Portugal) are two great examples of white wines not to age. Instead, for non-aging white wines, you should sip a wine within two years of its release.
What Chardonnays should you open now and not save in the cellar? A general rule of thumb is that the more tropical-fruit notes on the palate, and the less oakiness you detect, the more likely this is a “youthful and fresh” wine.
White Wines You Can Age
French white wines tend to do well with aging. The most popular example is Sauternes, a rich, sweet wine rooted in the Graves section of Bordeaux, France. Three grape varietals are in each bottle of Sauternes: Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadelle and Sémillon. Chenin Blanc as well as white Bordeaux (folding in Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon grapes) perform well after an aging process. Another French white wine that’s conducive to aging—and included in most serious collectors’ cellars—is Haut Brion Blanc, a wine from Château Haut-Brion. White Burgundies also age well.
German Riesling are advised to age for between ten and fifteen years, but some will cellar for up to 30 years (yes, they can hold up that long). At the end of this time, you will likely find the wine to be more balanced and less acidic on the palate. In recent years, New York’s Finger Lakes Rieslings have improved in quality so much that they are also recommended to undergo an aging process.
Champagnes and Sparkling Wines
Ushering in a new year, whether it’s a quiet evening at home or a jubilant gathering with friends, deserves a special bottle of wine. Often this means Champagne or a sparkling wine from California, Crémant from France or crisp Spanish cava. All three of these sparkling wines benefit from aging, although cava the least, especially if it’s a lower price point. (This category of bubbles has tremendous swings in price as a whole, unlike Champagnes — which are typically sold for upwards of $75.) For Champagne, there is no maximum for the number of years in the cellar. Champagne houses in Champagne, France, have a literal library in the cellar going back as far back as they can, sometimes 100 years. Of course, that is longer than the average human lifespan, but it should inspire you to think of aging wine as “in it for the long haul.”
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About Kristine Hansen
A wine writer since 2004, Kristine Hansen has contributed travel and wine coverage to Wine Enthusiast, Travel and Leisure‘s website and Conde Nast Traveler‘s website as well as ArchitecturalDigest.com. She has visited many wine regions (including Bordeaux and Napa Valley) and is author of Wisconsin Cheese Cookbook: Creamy, Cheesy, Sweet, and Savory Recipes from the State’s Best Creameries (Globe Pequot Press).