Drink or lay down and how to cellar those you keep

Given all of the images of wine cellars out on the internet, people often get the impression that most wines should be held for many years before popping the cork and enjoying the contents.  However, in reality 90% of wine that is released by the wineries is ready for consumption when it is released and 99% within 5 years of release.  Only 5 to 10% of wines will improve after a year of cellaring and only 1% will continue to improve after 5 to 10 years of cellaring.

In order for a wine to benefit from aging, it requires a high acidity level.  Acidity adds to a wine’s vibrant, full-bodied texture. It fades with age, so cellared wines must start out with a high level of acidity. Wines with low acidity (<0.65g/100ml), like Pinot Grigio, will become flat much sooner and lose most of their flavour in a short period of time.

The second characteristic of a cellarable wine is a significant amount of tannin.  Tannin is created by allowing the grape skins, seeds and stems to remain in the juice after processing.  Additional tannin is created when the wine is stored in wooden wine barrels (French Oak or American Oak).  Bold tannins give wine the structure to age well.  Tannins create the dryness in wine and can make the wine somewhat bitter. In a young wine they can make your mouth pucker up, somewhat like a sip of a strong black tea.

Without tannins and acidity, there is nothing to be gained by keeping a wine for more than a year or two.  When a wine is kept beyond its prime it begins to lose its flavour and becomes very acidy.

Wine reviewers and vintners can give you suggestions as to how long to retain a particular wine.  Why guess when you can take advantage of their free advice.

If you are going to store wine, whether it be for a week, a month or a decade, there are some dos and don’ts to consider  to help ensure that wine tastes as good as it should.  You don’t need to have a wine cellar or even a wine fridge to store wine but there are some things to keep in mind.

Most importantly all wine should be kept in the dark.  Both sunlight and incandescent light can harm your wine.  Think of wine as being like fabric.  Fabric exposed to sunlight can bleach out the colour and eventually cause the material to rot.  Light has a similar effect on wine, causing the wine to begin breaking down, resulting in lost flavour and spoilage.

If you have a means of chilling your wine, the experts have differing opinions but generally speaking it seems safe to store them anywhere between 45 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit, although 55 degrees is believed to be about the perfect temperature.

If stored at a temperature over 70 degrees Fahrenheit, the wine will age more quickly than expected and therefore begin losing flavour and aroma.  It is also beneficial to keep your wine stored at as consistent a temperature as possible.

Traditionally wine is stored on its side.  This is done in order to ensure the cork remains wet.  If a cork is allowed to dry out, over time it will shrink and allow oxygen into the bottle.  Once wine is exposed to oxygen, it quickly spoils leaving you with an undrinkable surprise when you open it. 

Even though not all wine has a cork any more, another reason for laying a bottle on its side is to allow for the equal distribution of the sediment that is often found in a wine with high tannin content.  During the aging process the tannins can solidify and drop to the bottom.  With the bottle lying on its side, the solids are distributed more evenly, keeping the flavour of the wine consistent from the first glass to the last.

Once you have placed your bottle in its resting place, whether that is in a wine cellar, wine fridge or even a closet, it should not be disturbed until you retrieve it to drink.  You don’t want to shake up the tannins that have been slowly settling in the bottle.

One final no-no and my pet peeve is never store wine in an open wine rack in a kitchen.  Kitchen designers seem to love including a wine rack in the end of an island or even worse, next to the stove.  I admit these wine racks often look very enticing and professional but resist the temptation to slip a bottle of wine into one.  The kitchen is the brightest room in the house with the greatest fluctuation in heat and humidity – a total wine killer.  The only time wine should appear in the kitchen is when it is being poured into a glass.

Lastly, when you go to serve that bottle of wine, both reds and whites should be pulled from the fridge or wine cellar about 20 minutes before opening to be allowed some time to warm up a little.  On the other hand, if your wine has been stored at room temperature, even most red wines should be chilled for a few minutes before serving.

Sláinte mhaith

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