Wine: Aging, Cellar Conditions, and Drinking Window
- Understand how wine ages
- Know which wines can be cellared and which should be drunk early
- Learn the proper way to store wines, avoiding conditions that would ruin a bottle
- Understand the maturity period of your wines. Avoid turning your wines into vinegar!
- Not all wines will improve with age. Most wines are best enjoyed within 5 years of harvest.
- Elements of a long-lived wines: high tannin, good fruit concentration, and good acidity.
- Wines should be stored horizontally, label up, at constant 13°C or 55°F, away from sun, UV exposure, and in the humidity level of 60-75% RH.
- Fluctuation in temperature / exposure to heat is the number 1 killer of wine.
- Each type of wine has a different maturity period. Many everyday wines will go from young to past-prime, skipping the developing phase. Keep track to avoid drinking them too late.
- A bottle, once ruined, cannot be saved. Proper storage is critical.
The Life Journey of a Wine
How does a bottle of wine age?
A bottle of wine does not gain wrinkle.. rather it becomes smoother as it ages.
As we mentioned in the wine tasting lesson, tannins act as the natural preservative. With time, tannins molecule would amass and solidify, becoming sediments instead of remaining in liquid form. The falling out of these tannins as a wine ages explains why a wine would lose color and its aggressiveness. It becomes rounder and smoother on the palate.
Will all wines improve with age?
Not all wines get better with age. Only wines with good tannins, fruit concentration and acidity will improve with age. Without these elements, a wine will just go from young and perfect to past-prime and stale.
Red wine types that are meant for early enjoyment: Beaujolais (Gamay), Valpolicella, Carignan, and table / box wines.
Red wine types with aging potential: Well structured Bordeaux / Cabernet Sauvignon, Barolo (Nebbiolo), Amarone, Tannat, well structured Syrah and Zinfandel.
Proper Wine Storage
Why is it so important to store a bottle laying down?
Storing the wine horizontally allow the wine to touch the cork, keeping it moist. When cork dries up, oxygen can attack the bottle thorugh its dry cracks, oxidizing the wine (turning it into vinegar).
Insider Tips: The criticality of having the label facing up
When searching for a wine, this would enable you to see the brand and avoid unneccesary flipping. This way, there is less chance of damaging the label.
But most importantly, all the sediments will form on one side. When serving or buying a developing / mature bottle, I like to look where the sediments are. It reveals bottle storage condition. The degree of sediments also advise me if decanting is necessary as well as make it easier.
Practical knowledge: Sparkling wines can be stored vertically, standing up. Carbon dioxide in the sparkling bottle that will coat the wine, protecting it from oxidation.
Why is constant temperature important?
Like us, a wine prefers a comfortable environment where it can rest and sleep. Too hot, aging will be accelerated and flavors could be cooked. Too cold, certain aroma molecules and certain texture could be lost. The optimal storage temperature for all wines is 13°C or 55°F.
Fluctuation in temperature will damage the cork. The cork will shrink or expand with the change in temperature. This will let air comes into the wine and in the worst scenario, seepage could occur.
Practical knowledge: Before buying a mature wine, check for seepage. Check if the cork has popped up. Look under the cap to see if there are signs of wine leakage. Seepage implies the wine has gone through extreme heat and could very well be damaged. Avoid buying any bottles with seepage.
How can having a wrong humidity ruin a bottle of wine?
The cork will dry up when humidity is too low. Oxygen will attack the wine via the dry cracks in the cork, this will cause accelerated aging and potential oxidation.
If storage condition is too wet, label could be damaged and molds could form on the cork.
Humidity in the range of 60-75% (ideally 70%) is recommended for proper wine storage.
How would exposure to UV and sunlight ruin a bottle?
Producers of long-aging wines have historically prefer bottles that come in a dark color. Having said that, there is no medium, a strong UV sunlight could not penetrate. The sunlight will destroy the organic compounds which give a wine its extensive aroma profile as well as its structure.
Practical tips: When building your cellars, avoid using fluorescent lights as they give off UV light. Opt for incandescent or sodium vapor lights.
What are hints that a wine could be damaged?
Color is usually the first hint. A young wine should never be brick or brown in color. This is sign of oxidation and heat damage.
Smell / aroma is another. Notes of sherry on a dry red is another sign of heat damage and unintended oxidation.
What are my best options if I do not have a wine fridge or wine cellar at home?
Find the coolest place and darkest place at home. It could be in your closet or under your bed. Avoid storing it near a fridge, or washer / dryer, or stove where fluctuation in temperature, heat, and vibration would ruin your wines.
Practical tips: Despite offering a cool environment, refrigerator is not a friendly place for wine storage. It is designed to cool food quickly, stripping away heat and moisture. The low humidity will dry up the cork causing unintentional oxygen attack. Its constant vibration will also ruin a fine wine.
Maturity of a Wine
Wine like a person has a life journey. When young, it can be aggressive and tannic. With time, it develops, losing its hot temper and gaining more elegance. When mature, it is complex and well-rounded. A wine will expire. In the world of wine, we call this stage "past-prime". It is a nicer way to say it is past its drinking window and is no longer enjoyable.
It all starts with a Good Bottle...
Our final words -- it is important to avoid buying a bad bottle of wine. No matter how great the storage condition is, it cannot revive a damaged bottle.
In short, store your wines properly and track their maturity to avoid losing value on your wine investment!
Last but not least, if you are cellaring investment grade wines that could be auctioned off in the future, it is best to keep them in the original packaging (usually wooden cases). Do keep track of your storage history from purchase to sales. Wines with sub-optimal storage condition are often sold at discount.