Keep in mind that not all wine benefits from aging and in fact, most of the wine produced today worldwide (more than 95%) is intentionally created to be drunk upon release or soon thereafter. This is even more applicable with whites than reds, but as usual, there are exceptions to this rule.
Whites that certainly age well are Bordeaux wines from the Sauternes/Barsac region, which are mostly dessert wines that develop remarkable complexity over time. Wine collectors are still drinking whites from this region that are over a hundred years old! Other whites that may age well include German Reisling, Burgundy grand cru and premier cru (1er) white wines, and a few others that have enough structure (often acidity for whites) to fend off oxidation for up to 35 years or more of bottle age. These wines also develop beautiful complexity in bottle.
Wine that is stored at room temperature ages significantly faster than wine stored at proper temperature. You might think this is a good thing but it’s not and here’s why: age worthy fine wine that is stored in the proper conditions develops complexity over time. This is especially true of Classified Bordeaux (also Burgundy, some Italians and a handful of Californians). Laying a wine down in a cellar that is temperature and humidity controlled will allow you to age a wine for decades (in theory, but even generally age worthy wines are not all are suitable for ageing more than twenty or thirty years).
Wine should be stored at 55F to 56F for optimum aging. If you anticipate aging a wine for more than five years, I also recommend storing in 70% humidity, which will help prevent the cork from drying out and thus leaking and causing premature oxidation due to cork failure. So often a ‘wine cooler’ will do the job if it is set at the correct temperature as long as the wine is not aged for many years. For longer term cellaring, humidity control is a must.
Other considerations for storage include: no light, especially sunlight, which can penetrate the bottle glass and change the proteins in a wine producing off flavors and aromas; and minimal vibration, which allows the wine to settle naturally without constant shaking of phenolic compounds that will try to solidify with bottle age and possibly change the balance of a wine over time. So the rule is do not store wine in a warm place, or someplace that is subject to light (especially sunlight) or continual vibrations. Storing wine, particularly fine wine, any other way will impede its development in the bottle and yield disappointing results while also causing the value of the wine to decrease. Now you understand why provenance is so important.
The more you know about wine, the better your wine drinking experience will be. There are over 1000 compounds in wine that we can taste. Then throw in all of the available olfactory options (our sense of smell) and the possibilities expand exponentially because we are able to identify more aromas than tastes and our sense of taste is, to a great extent, based on what we can detect with our nose. So, all of this stuff in the film “Sideways” about swirling the wine in a glass, putting our nose into the glass to take in aromas, taking the wine in and drawing air in over our palette to open the retronasal olfactory function is actually real and appropriate when tasting wine.
Let’ start with some fundamentals about serving temperatures. Indeed it is common to think that red wine should be served at room temperature, and that is correct if you lived in Europe 200 years ago. Back then, room temperatures averaged about 60F so today’s room temperatures of 72F to 75F degrees are too warm and will quickly throw the wine out of balance. For most reds, 62F to 65F degrees is a safe start and as you get further into wine, there are precisely prescribed temperatures for most regions and varietals. If temperatures of red wines are too warm, the alcohol will evaporate quickly; temperatures that are too low will affect the tannins, making them seem harsh.
With white wines a cooler serving temperature is better so a 43F to 53F degree range is a safe bet. White wine’s acidity will taste less tart at cooler temperatures and because alcohol evaporates faster at higher temperatures, the sometimes delicate nature of a white wine may become out of balance and seem flabby or lack the perception of freshness at higher temperatures. These basic guidelines also apply to rosé wines and sparkling wines although the later may be better served on the chillier side of the scale. White wines that are served too cold, like from your relatively cold refrigerator, can mute flavors and aromas that would otherwise likely be very pleasant to experience so don’t over-chill white or rosé wines either.
It is extremely important to use appropriate glasses, which at first glance may seem like a marketing ploy but really has some serious consequences for not using the right beverage container. Over the years there has been an enormous amount of research done to come up with the correct shape – shapes that enhance specific wines or varietals. At the forefront of this research and manufacturing is Riedel (pronounced REE-dl) from Austria. Their glasses range from starter sets at Target to their sommelier series at around $120 per stem. These types of glasses are designed to best express the wine it is intended for; some of them concentrate aromas properly while others pour wine on the tip of your tongue because more taste receptors are in that area. While there are a large variety of glasses made by Riedel and others, it is my belief that if you enjoy wines from most every wine region in the world, two to four glass designs should be more than adequate. In other words, I don’t believe I need to own a special glass designed just for Zinfandel, New World Shiraz, or Oaked Chardonnay. If you have a good red and a good white wine glass then that’s a perfect place to start. If you also often enjoy red Burgundy, Champagne, or dessert wines, you may want to add to your collection eventually. For most people buying a Bordeaux-shaped glass and a white wine glass (Chardonnay perhaps) will do everything you need them to.
As you have no doubt surmised by now, I can’t express enough that using good quality wine glasses will make a huge difference in your wine experience. The stemless glasses available should be saved for picnics in the woods because a wine glass should always be held by its stem – never by its bowl. The reason: you don’t want to warm up the wine in your glass via body temperature. Buy whatever wine glasses you like but minimally, do buy glasses designed for reds and glasses for whites. I have other expensive glasses that break if you look at them wrong and have stopped using them because they cost $90 per stem. I buy Schott Zwiesel glasses that are made with titanium crystal rather than lead crystal because they are very durable, properly shaped, feel good in the hand, and look great (they also ring as nicely as lead crystal so no one will think you’re serving up fine wine in a glass container). When I do break one, it costs me $10 or so to replace one, which is very reasonable, and I don’t worry about it.
As stated, the glass should be handled by its stem. The wine will benefit from aeration after being in bottle for some time so learn how to swirl the wine in your glass. The key to this technique is only pouring wine up to the widest part of the wine glasses I begged you to buy. There is adequate room in your glass now to get oxygen to the wine, unlocking its aromas and flavors, by swirling. The nose of a fine wine will change many times while in your glass, which for me is part of the thrill to take in dark fruit and then a few minutes later smell a huge concentration of vanilla or tobacco, or lead pencil. Make certain that you take the time to inhale the wine, over and over again – really it will change with time. So much is missed in the wine experience by not taking this crucial step – after all our taste is entirely tied to our olfactory experience. You’ll be surprised at what you learn about wine over time by just using your nose!
Decanting is a difficult subject and is often a matter of personal taste. The only time I use a decanter (an essential piece of equipment to own that will enhance your wine experience) is for the purpose of separating the sediment that will often be found in older, mature wines from the wine itself. As wine ages in a bottle its tannins attach to phenolic compounds, including color molecules, which explains why red wines soften and become lighter or amber colored with age. This process form solids in the bottle – of course they have nowhere to go. When I have wine that is over 8 years old or so, I decant it to separate these solids because to pour them into a glass will usually cause bitter or undesirable flavors.
Here’s how to do this: carefully open a wine that has been standing in the upright position (in your temperature controlled cellar) for at least 24 hours (this takes planning) which lets the sediment settle to the bottom of the bottle. In one fluid motion (no pun intended) pour the wine into your decanter without allowing it to wash back and forth in the bottle, while you hold a flashlight (some use a candle but I don’t like adding temperature to the wine) underneath a part of the bottle you can see – so the label is on its side and you can see through the entire bottle. The light source should be held close to the neck of the bottle. As you begin to see sediment moving toward the neck, stop pouring the wine into the decanter. This will keep solids out of your glass and maintain the integrity of your wine.
I immediately pour the wine into my glass from the decanter and here’s why: if you’re waiting for your wine to peak with flavor and aroma, you may miss it if it is sitting in a decanter. If you pour it into your glass you will definitely catch the peak (this applies only if the wine is mature and ready to drink; more below on this). One can only estimate when a wine will peak in flavor and aroma after it is open and if it’s sitting in a decanter, you may very well miss it!
Other people, and again this is personal preference, will put younger wines into a decanter and attempt to tame it. Unruly tannins are usually the problem in these cases so by aerating the wine for a number of hours (or even days) in a decanter throws the wine out so far out of balance that eventually it can become drinkable. For me, if you have to go to such extremes then either the wine is not ready to drink or is flawed. I recognize that not everyone likes mature wines (thus the attraction to Beaujolais) so, here’s to everyone and anyone that loves wine regardless of what it is!
Here is another item of personal preference: many people enjoy wine with food and most of the time I do too. There is a lot of information available to guide us in terms of food/wine pairing and it’s really fun and interesting to see how the two can beautifully complement or even add to each other. When I enjoy wine with food however, I open a bottle of wine that ranges from ‘everyday’ to a mid-priced wine (under, say, $100).
When I am drinking 1st Growths, very high scoring wines or very expensive wines, I do not want food around for a couple reasons. First food can be a distraction and secondly it can interfere with (positively or negatively) the true taste of the wine. At the very most I will have available some triple cream Brie and water crackers – a very neutral food source. Certainly you can combine great wine with great food and be delighted but for me, I want to savor and contemplate what’s in my glass, not what’s on my plate. The most pure expression of the varietal and terroir is what thrills me the most.