Unopened bottles

Writing about wine for a living is a rather rare occupation, and it often leads to cocktail party interrogations about — you guessed it! — wine.

Probably the most common query I have heard over the years is "when should I drink this special wine?"

The questioner is often wondering about a particular bottle from a certain vintage, that may commemorate a birthday, anniversary or other special event.

This is a more complicated question than it may seem. I say opening a special bottle makes any day special. But that begs the question.

Why should we let wines age in the first place? Aren’t they almost always designed to be delicious upon release? How do we determine if a wine improves over time?

Great wines, and some merely good wines, can indeed improve with age. This applies to all types of wine — dry, sweet, sparkling, still, white, red. They improve because their components slowly oxidize and meld together. Aromatics gain intensity and complexity. Fruit flavors mellow and in red wines tannins soften and smooth out. In older wines, tannins may even fall out and form a crust, which is why they must be decanted.

The best way to determine how any wine will age is to learn something about the track records of the grape, the blend, the region and the winery.

I know certain grapes have a better chance for long-term cellaring. Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir are two that can improve over decades. Syrah and Zinfandel, on the other hand, are generally best within five to eight years of the vintage. White wines with high acid content, such as true Champagne, can round out and acquire a palate-pleasing nuttiness over time. Sweet white wines, especially Riesling, are also good candidates for aging.

But many wines are simply best drunk young. Rosés, Pet-Nats, oaky Chardonnays and very ripe, high-alcohol wines have little chance of long-term improvement. Lighter red grapes such as Grenache, Gamay and Sangiovese are probably not going to dazzle you after the first few years — I’ll make an exception for Chianti Classico Riservas.

People might pay close attention to vintage reviews, thinking a wine from a great vintage is probably going to age particularly well. But it's simply not true that every wine from that vintage is going to be great. And as for great vintages in the U.S., as often as not they are ripe, fruity, forward and delicious, but not especially age-worthy.

When evaluating a young wine for aging potential, I look for most of all for balance and complexity. Does it show complex aromas? Is the fruit ripe but not jammy? Are the acids in balance and the tannins free of bitter flavors? Does the wine add flavor interest all through the finish, or does it tail off? And how does that half-empty bottle taste on the second or third day after being opened? The best young wines may actually improve after 24 or more hours.

Here in the Walla Walla Valley are three pioneering wineries with quite different track records as far as “ageability.” I base this on having tasted both young and old versions of a great many wines from Leonetti Cellar, Woodward Canyon and Cayuse. Yes, the grape and vintage play a part, but most of all it is the style of the wine, the winemakers' choices, that seem to determine optimal drinking times.

Leonetti quickly built a world-class reputation with lusciously rich red wines marked by generous barrel flavors of toast and caramel and mocha. The style has tightened up and evolved under the guidance of second generation winemaker Chris Figgins, but I still find that these are wines best enjoyed within the first decade.

Woodward Canyon reds are almost polar opposites. They can seem hard and tight upon release, done in a reductive style that seems meant for slow aging. Those wines have lifespan of more than 20 years. That doesn't necessarily mean you have to wait that long, but it does suggest that you give a young Woodward Canyon red a good decanting for an hour or two before tasting.

Cayuse is working with different grapes, in The Rocks District American Viticultural Area and farming biodynamically. This is a whole different ballgame.

Christophe Baron's Cabernet tastes nothing like those from Leonetti or Woodward Canyon. His Syrah and Grenache and Tempranillo reflect the terroir of The Rocks District’s cobble-strewn soils more than the standard flavors those grapes show elsewhere.

Cayuse wines are often high in pH which has led to criticism that they will not age well. My own experience has proven otherwise, In fact, even at 15 years of age, I have yet to find any Cayuse wine that was over the hill.

So to answer the question: There is no best way to decide when to drink that special bottle. Go ahead and open it and judge for yourself.

Remember, it's always better to drink it a year early than a day late!