“NO MORE OF THIS OLD STUFF…LET’S SPLURGE! BRING US SOME FRESH WINE!” –STEVE MARTIN, THE JERK
With the beginning of a new year, we are programmed to start fresh. The holidays are indulgent, with excess decorations, food, drink...and stuff. New Year’s resolutions are promises to change; we are bombarded with deals on gym memberships, and tons of ads luring us to after-holiday sales…all to help us keep the promises and to get rid of the excess. I found myself wanting to get rid of more than the wilted poinsettias and holiday pounds this year. For me, 2012 brought a desire to get rid of excess wine. I’ve decided to drink my cellar.
My “cellar” is a mish-mash of wines I’ve collected over the past eight to nine years. While I am passionate about wine, I’m by no means a collector of anything, except for this random cellar I’ve accumulated. It’s random because, even as a wine professional and sommelier, I have little desire to store or age wines. The wines I’ve decided to keep are either gifts, expensive, sentimental, or an experiment to see how they age.
It is a common misconception that wine improves with age; in fact, a very small percentage is designed to be aged. I am often asked, “How do I know when my wine is ready to drink?” Most often, depending on the type, vintage and storage history, my advice is to drink now rather than save. There isn’t an exact science to figure out how long to age wines. It is trial and error, with experts making guidelines on when to drink wines based on prior experience and historical research. Aging wines can be rewarding if a wine starts off extremely tannic, tight, and closed, rather than smooth and fruity. Most age-able wines are big, rich, red, very expensive, and from Italy, Bordeaux or Burgundy.
The reason for aging wines is to allow them to soften and develop more complexity. Choosing wines and aging them or not is completely based on personal preference. You must first know what you like to drink in terms of style, varietal, region, etc. before you start deciding whether or not to cellar them. Maybe you like a very fruity, rich, tannic Cabernet. Why would you age it and lose the delicious fruit that you enjoy? If it is earthy flavors and soft tannin you are after, then age that monstrous Cabernet.
Most wine is made to be drunk upon release. I’m sure you’ve noticed more wines nowadays are finished with many other methods than cork: screwcaps, zorks, glass stoppers…all of which are super easy and quick to open. These wines are especially meant for drinking NOW. They are fruitdriven and made to be palatable and ready to go. So, at the suggestion of the wineries who made them, enjoy (don’t save)!
Allow me to remind you that wine is an agricultural, natural, perishable product that constantly develops, changes and evolves. Wine is made from grapes. Grapes are harvested once per year. Climactic conditions are different every vintage, which means the same brand made from the same type of grapes from the same plot of land will taste different from year to year. Some brands are made on a large scale with strict methods to guarantee consistency; these brands still vary slightly depending on vintage. If you tend to drink the same brand and type of wine on a regular basis, you’ve probably experienced disappointment with a change in vintage at some point. This is the time to find a new favorite; do not make the mistake of getting stuck on a particular vintage. That 2001 Pinot Noir you still have a few bottles of…it’s going to taste extremely different today than when you had it back in 2004, and probably not very good.
“We are better people from the wines we’ve drunk and not the bottles we collect.” -Michael Engelmann, Master Sommelier, when asked what is the most valuable lesson he’s learned as a sommelier, Decanter Magazine, January 2012 Resisting the urge to save things, especially if they are sentimental, can be difficult.
Wedding gifts of wine, especially Champagne, seem to be the toughest for people to part with in my experience. The most extreme example I’ve encountered has been Champagne stored inside or on top of the fridge…for years. Most Champagne is “nonvintage” or “multi-vintage,” a blend of wines from several different years. These wines are fabulously balanced, and meant to be drunk upon release. In most cases, they will not improve. Ask yourself if you’d rather enjoy it or ruin it. Seems like an easy decision, but wine is usually not thought of this way.
It doesn’t pay to be sentimental when it comes to wine. My bottles that hold fond memories are the ones that will be the toughest to decide when to open, and I may not open them at the proper time due to the emotional attachment. So, what about storage? It is easier than you may think to ruin wine for good, and once the damage is done, there’s no going back. It starts with the ride home from the store, or party where you received the special bottle as a gift, or whatever. Treat wine like groceries. Temperature fluctuation is the worst enemy of wine. The two most horrible, yet common, places where I’ve seen wine stored is above the refrigerator and in the highest cabinet above the stove. Remember: heat rises, and the problem with heat is it literally “cooks” wine. It is understandable why many people do this, especially those with young children. But please: choose a dark place like a closet, and follow the below guidelines.
Storage tips, should you choose to keep wine:
-Maintain constant temperature, but not too cold or hot
-Keep from vibration -Keep from direct sunlight
-Store bottles horizontally/ on their side
Drinking my cellar, so far, has been a 50/50 return. Half of the wines have been incredible and rewarding, ready to drink, with beautiful balance, fascinating complexity, and incredible length…exactly what should happen when an age-able wine is stored properly and opened at the prime time. The other half have been corked, or have lost too much fruit to be as enjoyable as they would have been in their youth. Although a fun and enjoyable experiment which will take most of the year, I’m looking forward to starting out fresh... most likely in 2013. What is my new year’s resolution for 2012? To only store bottles that I believe will truly improve over time.