The luxury of establishing and maintaining a well-stocked wine cellar is just that — a luxury. Like any other much-loved hobby, it pays terrific dividends to those willing and able to invest the time, energy, patience and money required. But lacking a full-throttle wine cellar does not mean you must deny yourself the opportunity to at least occasionally enjoy an older bottle.
First things first ... what wines are least likely to improve with time? The truth is that most wines are best consumed sooner rather than later. Inexpensive wines, the vast majority of white wines, virtually all rosé wines, wines in cans or boxes and many every day red wines are all made for consumption immediately, meaning within a year or two of release.
It’s a reality of the wine marketplace that it’s expensive for wineries to cellar their own wines. They pay taxes on that inventory, and it’s inventory that isn’t bringing in any cash. Wine publications and most wine buyers are fixated on what’s new; older wines held back for a late release are often viewed with suspicion. So the trend in recent years has been to make wines taste better younger.
On the other hand, a well-cellared bottle can bring supreme pleasure to a wine that may have been hard, even austere, when first released. On a recent summer evening, I selected a 1999 Columbia Winery Sagemoor Vineyard David Lake Signature Series Cabernet Sauvignon to share with a visitor. This was a special bottle for several reasons. The late David Lake was the first Master of Wine in Washington, and a good friend. The grapes in this wine were from one of the oldest vineyards in the state, planted in 1972. The vintage too was exceptional — a cool year in which the fat, fruity style so in vogue at the time was almost impossible to find. A number of important critics dismissed the vintage as one of Washington’s worst. I thought differently.
My review from the summer of 2003 (when it was released) noted that “in 1999 Washington state experienced one of the best vintages in its history, and the red wines have consistently shown taut, true varietal character. This tight-as-a-drum Sagemoor bottling wraps muscular, slightly stemmy fruit in hard earthy tannins.”
Fast forward to 2019. At 20 years of age, the wine was a revelation, beautifully structured, redolent with a lovely mix of mature fruits and barrel flavors, moving quickly from berries to cherries to figs to toffee to indescribable earth tones.
Yes, I sat on it for 16 years, and I wouldn’t expect everyone to be so patient. But you owe it to yourself to stash away a case or two of mixed bottles that have a good chance of improving with age. Red wines such as Syrah, Cabernet and Bordeaux blends are good candidates, as are dessert wines, fortified wines and sparkling wines.
Look for bottles that you can attach to a specific event such as a birthday, a wedding, an anniversary or the birth of a child. Store them safely, meaning away from sunlight and severe changes in temperature. Keep them under 70 degrees at all times (under 60 is best), and lay them on their sides if they will be stored for more than a few years.
Apart from what you purchase and tuck away, I encourage you to explore opportunities to taste older vintages from wineries here in town. Tasting rooms occasionally pour older vintages, and events such as last month’s Celebrate Walla Walla Valley Wine include library tastings from past vintages. Some local restaurants, such as the Walla Walla Steak Co., feature older bottles on their regular wine lists.
Older wines often need careful decanting and once opened may begin to change dramatically in the glass. Some take hours to breathe, some are instantly aromatic and compelling. And yes, some may be over the hill. Corks can disintegrate over time and occasionally fail. That’s the risk you take.
The ageability of any particular wine is a function of the grape(s), the vintage, the vintner and the provenance. The less a wine has traveled, the better its chances to evolve beautifully in the bottle. There is no perfect age for drinking any wine, and if there were, how would you know when it was?
Development over time is a continuum, from primary fruit flavors and unintegrated barrel and tannin components, to midlife wines with secondary fruit flavors and more complex aromas, to older wines with a range of herbs and spices and dried fruit flavors. Many wines just get old, but the opportunity to taste one that has actually improved should not be missed.
I can offer these very general guidelines for reds. Syrah and other Rhône varieties will drink well at six to 10 years of age, while Cabernets and Bordeaux blends often show best at 10 to 20 years of age.