Wine’s “Best Before” Date

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As a follow-up to my blog “To Age or Not to Age” from January 15th, I have put together a list of generally accepted retention times for common varietals of white and red wine. However, proper storage methods need to be followed in order to best achieve these results.  Refer to Wine Storage Options for information on how best to retain wine.

The information provided here refers to the length of time a wine can be retained, not the length of time a wine will necessarily continue to be enhanced.  In certain instances some vintages may be retained longer while others should be drunk shortly after purchase.

White Wine

There are a several white wine varietals that age well. The most renowned is Chardonnay, which gets its ability to age from a combination of higher acidity paired with oak-aging.

Sémillon is often blended with Sauvignon Blanc in the white blend of Bordeaux. Sémillon has been shown to age gracefully and develop interesting nutty flavours over time.

Riesling is Germany’s aromatic and often subtly sweet white has proven to do well during aging. As it matures it turns a rich yellow colour with aromas of petrol.  It may sound disgusting but tastes wonderful.

White Rioja or Rioja Blanca is a white wine that begins with citrus and mineral flavours but then becomes increasingly rich and flavourful with age.

Chenin Blanc wines from France’s Loire Valley have produced some great choices of wines suitable for aging. There are also some new options from South Africa that are making a name for themselves.

Fortified dessert wines tend to age longer than stilled wines. Sherry, Madeira and some Marsala have shown to improve in flavour over decades.  There are several botrytized white wines such as Sauternes and Riesling that age nicely for up to 30 years.

Drink Within 1 to 3 Years

  • Albariño
  • Chenin Blanc
  • Gewürztraminer
  • Grüner Veltliner
  • Moscato
  • Pinot Gris/Grigio
  • Prosecco
  • Dry Riesling
  • Sauvignon Blanc
  • Torrontés
  • Verdicchio
  • Vermentino
  • Vinho Verde

Drink Within 3 to 5 Years

  • Alsace White
  • White Bordeaux
  • Oaked Chardonnay
  • Oaked South African Chenin Blanc
  • Sémillon
  • Trebbiano
  • Oaked Sauvignon Blanc

Drink Within 5 to 10 Years

  • Oaked Grüner Veltliner
  • Kerner
  • Muscat
  • Oaked Albariño
  • Sweet Loire Valley Chenin Blanc
  • Hungarian Furmint
  • White Bordeaux
  • Burgundy Oaked Chardonnay
  • Chablis
  • Auslese German Riesling
  • White Cotes du Rhône
  • White Rioja/ Rioja Blanca

Drink Within 10 to 20 Years

  • High quality Chablis
  • Beerenauslese Riesling
  • Ice Wine
  • Late Harvest Riesling
  • Sauternes
  • Rutherglen Muscat
  • Vendage Tardive Alsace

Some red wines with high acidity and high tannin are perfect to lay down and age for a few years.   Here are some red wines that are known to age well:

Cabernet Sauvignon has a high range of variability because there are a wide range of quality levels and regions. Look for wines with deep color, a higher level of acidity, balanced alcohol levels and noticeable tannins.

Merlot will age in a similar manner as Cabernet Sauvignon. Wines become softer and often smokier with age. Right-bank Bordeaux wines are a great place to start when looking to find cellarable Merlot.

Monastrell/Mourvèdre has extremely high tannins and colour. In the Bandol region of Provence, France, this grape doesn’t usually fully develop its taste until after at least 10 years of aging.

Tempranillo is one of the best varieties for long-term aging.

Sangiovese is another top-notch grape variety to age long-term because of its spicy acidity. Over time it will mellow out and produce sweet fig-like notes.

Nebbiolo grapes produce wines with incredibly high tannins that softens and seems to sweeten over time.  Barolo and Barbaresco are great examples of wines made with Nebbiolo grapes that age extremely well.

Red Wine

Drink Within 1 to 3 Years

  • Beaujolais
  • Dolcetto
  • Gamay
  • Lambrusco
  • Primitivo

Drink Within 3 to 5 Years

  • Barbera
  • Cotes du Rhône
  • Garnacha
  • New world Merlot
  • Petit Syrah
  • Most Pinot Noir
  • Crianza Rioja
  • Viognier
  • Zinfandel

Drink Within 5 to 10 Years

  • Most Cabernet Franc
  • Carmenere
  • Chianti
  • Grenache
  • Malbec
  • Old World Merlot
  • Pinotage
  • Reserva Rioja
  • Sangiovese-based wine
  • Syrah
  • Tempranillo

Drink Within 10 to 20 Years

  • Amarone
  • Bandol
  • Barbaresco
  • Barolo
  • Red Bordeaux
  • Monastrell (aka Mourvèdre)
  • Brunello di Montalcino
  • Douro reds
  • Most Cabernet Sauvignon
  • Dulce Monastrell (sweet red)
  • Nebbiolo
  • Red Port
  • Some Sangiovese
  • Some Tempranillo

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To Age or Not to Age

In the past I have talked about how and where to store wine but today I will tackle the issue of understanding the time wine needs to reach its peak and the length of time a wine can be cellared before it begins to deteriorate. 

The experts have conflicting views on this topic as the choices are somewhat based as much on opinion and perception as science.  The one point that everyone seems to agree on is that most wine isn’t meant to age; in fact only 1% of wine should be cellared for a long period of time.  Most wine is released within 2 years of the grapes being harvested and then drunk within 6 months of purchase.

As long as the wine is stored properly it won’t expire in the same manner as a carton of milk.  It just means that there is no additional benefit to aging it.  Generally, experts agree that there is a common misconception that aging a mediocre wine will transform it into something extraordinary when in fact it only become an average aged wine.

Some experts suggest that wines priced around thirty dollars and under are meant to be drunk within five years or so of purchase. After that time the wine may actually start to deteriorate and lose many of its qualities.  Even the majority of wines priced over thirty dollars should be consumed within five years.  However, my thoughts are that there are many factors that go into determining price and therefore a price threshold cannot be arbitrarily used to determine when a wine is suitable for cellaring.

More importantly, I find that vintner and reviewer notes are very beneficial when determining which wines to hold and which to drink.  Most quality wines are made with aging in mind but so are some less expensive ones. It is the structure of a wine that determines how long it will last, not the price.

If you buy your wine directly from a winery you have an opportunity to ask the producers of the wine if the bottle you are buying will benefit from aging. They are the best people to ask how long they think it will last and should be able to give you some indication of the wine’s cellaring potential.

The winemaker’s techniques and style can have a large effect on how long you can age a particular wine. Not all wine is made in the same way. The structural elements are key to determining whether a wine will age well or not. 

In red wine, acidity is an essential characteristic of highly rated, great tasting aged wines.  As wines mature they lose acidity so there needs to be a high level of acidity in order to cellar it.

Tannin levels need to be moderately high but not so high that they overshadow the other flavours in the wine. You should still be able to taste the fruit, along with the grip-like sensation of tannin and bitterness on the front sides of your tongue.

The amount of volatile acidity (VA) must be low.  VA will cause wine to degrade quickly. It causes 2 types of aroma compounds to become too high.  One smells like acetone (nail-polish remover); the other aroma smells like bruised apples in a white wine and a nutty brown sugar-like note in red wines. VA should never be higher than 1.2 grams/litre (g/L) in any wine, and lower than .6 g/L in most age-worthy wines.

Most age-worthy wines need to have an alcohol level between 12% and 14%.  This is necessary to prevent the oxidization that occurs in the bottle from degrading the wine too quickly.

In white wine a high level of acidity is necessary for longevity while alcohol levels need to be low to medium.

Aged wine isn’t necessarily better than young wine, it is just different. Time in the cellar can have a great benefit in transforming the wine from something fruit-forward with a tight structure into a mellow, yet complex drink. The colour, smell and taste of a wine will change. Reds lose their colour while whites gain colour and take on a deep golden hue. Acid and tannins drop away and fruit flavours become savoury, soft and rounded. Decanting aged wine has the benefit of letting the aromas and flavours mix with the air to bring out the very best.

Drinking a well-aged wine has a romantic appeal. An old wine gives us a way to re-experience a past year that had special memories, or maybe just to sit and reflect on life in general.  Also, when a wine that was meant to be aged is drunk, the aging of the wine helps create flavours and textures that would never be experienced had the wine not undergone aging.

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Wine Storage Options

I have read articles that have suggested that there are two types of “wine people” – those who collect it and those who buy it to drink. 

In my mind a collector is someone who purchases elite wines as an investment.  In other words, this is someone who buys wine with the intention of later reselling it for a profit.  The cellaring requirements for these collectors could range from a few weeks to many years, depending on the situation.  Generally speaking, these individuals will need space to store a significant number of bottles at any one time.

Wine drinkers, on the other hand, I see as being those who purchase wine for the pure enjoyment gained from consuming it.   Some of whom follow the ‘just in time’ manufacturing process whereby a bottle of wine is purchased on or about the date it will be consumed.  Others like to keep some wine on hand ahead of when it will be consumed, to be prepared for occasions that come up unannounced.  Cellaring requirements in this situation range from not being required at all to where a wine fridge with space for ten to twenty bottles will provide sufficient storage.

However, I would like to suggest that there is a third category of wine people that I would categorize as a longer term wine consumer.   Like the collector, long term storage capability is essential as these individuals purchase both wines that are drinkable in the present, like the wine drinkers described above, but they also purchase wines that need to mature and won’t be at their optimum for several years in the future.  Unlike the collector, the pedigree of the wines purchased are less likely to be on the list of famous wine producers, and more likely to be less expensive but good quality wines.  

Whether you are looking to retain a few bottles or a large number of cases, the storage requirements are the same; you need to have a sealed fridge with high humidity, consistent temperature, no UV rays, and minimal vibration.

Storage Unit

The temperature of the storage unit should be in the neighbourhood of 13o C or 55o F.  If you elect to construct a wine room or cellar, the room needs to be insulated with a minimum of R13 insulation.  The door must be well insulated and sealed to prevent the cold air from escaping. A simple exterior door will suffice but the sky is the limit when considering more elaborate options.

Cooling options range in size and cost depending on the room size and cooling option chosen.

The cellar should be designed in a way to allow for storage, display and tasting.  It has been suggested that when determining your storage requirements you should consider the number of bottles you think you would like to retain and then double it.  Otherwise you may find you quickly run out of storage and be forced (sounds harsh when considering wine) to drink your wine sooner than you intended.

Not all wine bottles are the same size so that must be considered when looking at racking solutions.  Typically Burgundy bottles are fatter than Bordeaux bottles; new world wine bottles (e.g. Australia, South America) may be longer than those of the old world ( e.g. France, Italy, Germany).

Depending on your personal preferences and budget, racking options can be either wood, metal or wire cable and be either custom made or created from modular kits of varying sizes and styles.  If a wood solution is selected, cedar or redwood is the best option given that the humidity level in the cellar will be relatively high.

Personally, on two occasions I have used modular racks that I purchased from Rosehill Wine Cellars.  I was able to incorporate the racks into the design so that they appear to have been customized for the space.

Return on Investment

A wine fridge will cost upwards from about $200 to in excess of $2,000. A cellar will cost from about $7,000, depending on design and materials chosen.

Some real estate experts say that home buyers looking at homes valued at $850,000 or more expect that the home will have at least a wine fridge.  However, a wine cellar may or may not add value, depending on the preferences of each particular buyer.

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A Private Wine Cellar

There seems to be a certain romantic flair to owning your own wine cellar.  However, there is a very practical side to this as well.  The price of wine has been increasing exponentially since before the year 2000.  As a result, many wines have become prohibitively expensive and even more so in the past couple of years with the U.S. imposing trade restrictions on wine imports.  This has resulted in reduced sales of, and decreased profit margins for international wine producers which have led to further increases in wine prices.

Many wines are now prohibitively expensive, even those that have been aged just a few years in the bottle.  The solution requires individuals to purchase cellarable wines at a young age and store them until they attain the desirable age for consumption.

The simplest storage option would be to purchase a wine fridge.  This provides a relatively inexpensive solution but is really only practical for short term storage for a minimal number of bottles of wine.

If you are looking to cellar more than just a few bottles for a significant period of time, I recommend doing what I have done, convert or construct a room for the purpose of storing wine.  Such a room needs to meet certain criteria necessary for the preservation of wine.  Things that need to be taken into account are temperature, light, humidity, odours, storage, and record-keeping.


Wine that is being stored for a long period of time should be stored at a temperature between 45 oF to 68oF or 7oC to 20oC.  Ideally the temperature should be maintained between 55oF and 57oF or 13oC to 14oC.

Temperature fluctuation between hot and cold can have more of an impact on wine than the actual temperature.  If the temperature rises and falls quickly with the change of season, negative or positive pressure can occur within the bottle.  This would place pressure and strain on the cork which can result in air seepage that would compromises the quality of the wine.


Colour, taste and smell are all impacted by light filtering into the wine bottle.  Therefore the storage area should not be infiltrated by outside light.  Artificial lighting should only be switched on when necessary and fluorescent lighting should never be used.


According to the experts the level of humidity of the cellar should be between 75% and 85%.  The higher than normal humidity level is required in order to prevent the corks from drying out and shrinking which could result in spoilage of the wine.

Such high levels can result in mold and other moisture related issues so I have opted to maintain humidity at a slightly lower level; between 62% and 65%.  I have maintained these levels for the past 10 years and have had no issues with either the wine or the building structure.  


Although wine corks prevent the wine from escaping from the bottle they don’t prevent gases from penetrating through.  Therefore things such as paint, sealant, cleaning agents or air fresheners should not be used or stored within the wine storage area.

Storage Position

Wine bottles should be stored on their side for a couple of reasons.  The most obvious of which is to ensure that the cork remains moist and doesn’t dry out and as a result shrink.  If the cork shrinks and allows oxygen into the bottle, the wine quickly spoils. 

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.

Once you have placed your bottle in its resting place, 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.


The wine cellar is pretty much rendered useless unless you have a way of knowing which wines should be held, which ones are drinkable, and the final date the wine should be consumed by.  This can be done in a couple of different ways. 

If you have a small collection, each bottle or shelf can be labelled with the “drink from” date and the “drink by” date.  For a larger collection the wine should be catalogued in either a cellar book or an electronic spreadsheet.  Cellar inventory books can often be purchased at stationery stores, kitchen supply shops or specialty book stores. 

Personally, I have used a spreadsheet for this purpose for the last dozen or more years.  In addition to tracking the consumption dates, I also track the label name, vintner name, varietal, country of origin, year produced, reviewer notes, and a few other facts.

The big advantage to having your own personal wine cellar is that you can drink wines of a vintage you would otherwise consider an extravagance.  It is very satisfying to open an aged bottle of wine that would have a current purchase price (if you could even locate one) in the hundred to two hundred dollar range knowing that you purchased it for much less.

Generally speaking, I am able to locate cellarable wines at my local liquor store at a cost ranging from $17 to $50.  When selecting wines to cellar you can spend as little or as much as you like.

However, when laying down a wine it is important to understand the difference between the length of time a wine can be cellared before it begins to deteriorate and the time it needs to reach its peak.  That is a discussion for another day.

Also a discussion for another day would be identifying and understanding the requirements for creating a proper storage facility.

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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.

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