How Long Does the Average Person Hold a Bottle of Wine?
There is a significant amount of conflicting survey data on this topic, but erring on the side of caution… well over 90% of all wine in the U.S. is drunk within a week of purchase. Since more red wine is drunk than white in the U.S. and Cabernet Sauvignon is the most popular varietal, it is a shame more wine enthusiasts don’t experiment with aging at least a few bottles.
I have seen other figures thrown around that affect this thinking, i.e. 95% of all wine is made to drink within a year of purchase. As a percentage of all wine produced, this may be close to the truth, but as a percentage of all wine labels, it is significantly off the mark. As usual, the 80/20 rule roughly applies here… much less than 20% of the companies producing wine in the U.S. produce over 80% of the wine by volume, but this still leaves plenty of room for the many thousands of wineries producing under 10,000 cases per year that comprise a large percentage of the selection we see at the local wine shop, or grocery store.
So, many of the red wine labels you see at your local wine retailer over (let’s say) $15 USD/btl are likely to be candidates for at least 3-5 years of bottle age.
The Dividing Line
Why should wine consumers care? Who should be holding wine? Think of it these ways:
- If you are a foodie, drink wine with meals and prefer wine that accompanies a dish well…
- If you pay attention to different varietals, vintages and/or wine regions, you obviously recognize and appreciate different wine profiles…
- If you recognize structure in wine (tannin, acidity, phenolics)…
- If poorly balanced, bad wine gives you a headache and you try to be aware…
- If texture (mouth-feel) in wine (silky, soft, plush, velvetty characteristics) is something you seek out…
You should own at least a 30 bottle wine fridge!
What Makes Aged Wines More Enjoyable
When the appropriate wines are chosen, age improves wine. Which wines are appropriate for aging? Any wine with multiple structural components… enough tannin (cotton feeling on gums), acidity (stimulates saliva) , phenolics (depth of flavor), fruit and/or sweetness (sugar) is a potential candidate. Most of us can usually identify these general categories. Though, the additional analysis that can make a significant difference is the balance between these components. Here is a brief look at how each of these components may evolve in an aged wine:
- Can add a nutty character to aged whites such as Sauternes, or Sparkling and an apricot character to German Riesling
- Improve viscosity (richness/thickness) in all sweet wines
Percentage of alcohol never changes in the life of a bottle of wine, but it can become more integrated and less noticeable. Although, I have rarely seen it.
Phenolics (depth of flavor)
Working with wines that are heavily extracted, or made from over-ripe fruit is hit, or miss for a winemaker. This is an area where age can have a dramatic effect, sometimes adding layers of textures or flavors. A higher level of phenolics often accompanies over-ripe fruit, which can be lower in acidity. This lower level can effect the “vibrancy” of the wine, in other words – eliminating freshness, allowing candied flavors and eliminating “bite”.
In reasonably balanced wines (get into that later), fruit flavors almost always diminish over time. Most of the exceptions to this rule have come from California in my experience, but in general, this rule does apply. I drank a 1993 Beringer Reserve Cab Sauv last year that was wonderfully fruit-forward after 22 years in the bottle!
High acidity in a wine is critical to successful aging, but winemakers walk a fine line with this component:
- Too much acidity and the wine is sharp, unpleasant and feels like it is burning a hole in your stomach
- Too little and wine tastes “flabby”, grape-juice-like and will not pair with food
This is the astringent character found in red wines and the primary change agent. Tannin can be harsh, grainy, fine, mouth-filling, etc. The character of tannin in wine can be affected by varietal type, terroir, vintage variation, the amount of stems and skins used in the maceration stage and more. Red wines with no tannin rarely age well and the maturing of this component is the key to enjoying soft, silky, round, or velvetty red wines when aged.
Determining balance is one of the KEY evaluations made by a wine professional. Evaluating young, fine wines upon release for potential ageability requires experience to determine whether to expect greatness, or just another so-so vintage… but that shouldn’t stop the average wine enthusiast. The average consumer rarely has the opportunity to evaluate $100 – $1,000 USD/btl wine. The decision should be simply: do you think this wine will taste better in five years? Often, when faced with this simpler evaluation, my answer is YES!
The most common, but misguided statement in the wine industry is: “Give this wine time in the bottle. It will come together!” This is rarely the case. A wine may “close”, or “open” over time (release, or hide its character), but if it is too sweet, or has too much acidity upon release, time in the bottle is unlikely to change that. The one exception is tannin, which will always soften over time. This is due to a chemical reaction that creates a sediment in the bottle that can be filtered out when poured. Always filter, when pouring a red wine older than five years. The sediment resulting from resolved tannin is not pleasant to drink.
My Wine Cellar and Yours
I store over 500 bottles of wine in environmentally controlled cellars. I rarely drink wine younger than five years, unless I am dining out. I now find it difficult to drink both:
- Harsh, young wines
- Easy drinking – flabby, no tannin, no acid wines
Try setting aside a few better bottles for special occasions. Use the information above to choose the right wines and enjoy unique, amazing wines. As you gain experience, you will find age can improve wine you never considered for aging, like Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauternes and many sparkling wines (especially Champagne).
I wish you much good wine shared with many good friends!
“Age appears best in four things: old wood to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust and old authors to read.” ― Francis Bacon