Aged vs. Young Wine
The figures vary, but most studies show that at least 95% of all wine by volume is consumed within 48 hours of purchase. So, what is going on when you read about a 1985 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti selling for $9,600/btl, or a 1986 Chateau Margaux for $440/btl at auction? Why are these wines so expensive and what makes them special? I will only touch on the idea here and save the deeper treatment for a future article. The bottom line is: these wines tend to be softer, fuller, more complex and balanced. For those interested in experiencing older, aged bottles and discovering the difference for yourself, it is time to review how to store and serve the wine for maximum enjoyment and protection of investment. It is necessary at this point to make a couple of quick statements: all wines are not made to age and some labels tend to age well in a given age range. Just because the wine is older, does not mean it is better. If you would like to purchase a couple of special bottles for entertaining (lets say), you will need to spend time on some serious research, or find an uninvolved party with wine training to help.
A small group of white wines can age well too (common example: Mosel Riesling), but the vast majority of aged wines are red. So, what is the criteria for extended storage of red wines? The critical elements:
No Light, No Vibration – Light and movement speeds the chemical reactions that age wine prematurely.
Consistent 55 F Degree Temp – The best temp environment for slowing the chemical reactions and allowing a slow aging process without “shocking” the wine. Temps over 80 deg. for days, or over 90 for hours can “cook” wine and add unpleasant “stewed” fruit flavors.
Near 70% Humidity, Bottles Stored on Side – This will ensure the cork does not dry out. If you have opened a wine with a crumbling cork, you will understand.
If you are looking to age a bottle well for over ten years, these conditions are critical. When done properly, this is part of what is called “good provenance”. It is best if you purchase aged wines from re-sellers, or auctions that guarantee good provenance. You will be able to taste the difference.
This is where many people connect with an image of the tuxedo-wearing sommelier with the towel over an arm and the haughty attitude. Whether you are interested in this type of wine experience, or not… I won’t share my opinions about this part of the service experience. Instead, I will focus on the treatment of the bottle and the wine to ensure the best quality product is being served.
Stand-up Your Bottle(s) Two Days Before Serving – This will make it easier when it is time to serve. As tannin oxidizes with age, it often leaves behind sediment that can be very unpleasant. Allowing the sediment to settle is helpful.
Two-Prong Cork Puller vs. Corkscrew
Cork Pullers of this type cost roughly $6-$25. Some of the more expensive ones are a little handier, but there really isn’t much difference. Save your corkscrew for young wines. Anything over 10 years of age, I would open with this cork puller and save yourself the embarrassment of fishing crumbled cork out of your wine while serving guests.
Mylar Pour Spouts
These cost around 50 cents each, but will save much expensive wine from dripping on the table/floor. Basically, these are no-drip spouts and they work great.
Most wine enthusiasts have a Vinturi to aerate young tannic wines. Filtering your aged wine when pouring to remove the sediment is a must. It is easy to just pull the screen out of your Vinturi and use it. Other utensils are specifically made for this purpose. Any way you go is fine. Just trying to simplify…
Simple Glass Decanter
Look below in this article for comments on the controversial topic of decanting older wines. Wines like those mentioned above can benefit from what is called a “soft decant” to help the wines “open” and realize their full flavor profile. Personally, I highly recommend it. If you are transporting the bottles to taste with friends, just pour the wine immediately back in the original bottle… softly and pop in the cork. In this way, the group can see the original label when served. Look for a decanter with a lip, like the picture above. It will make it easier for the pour back in the bottle, without spilling.
Decanting Older Wines
You are unlikely to find two Somms who address this issue alike. This is my opinion:
There is a huge difference between what is called a “splash decant” and a “soft decant” as described above. The splash version is rough treatment of the wine for maximum agitation (have a laugh and Google the Mollydooker “shake”) and is intended to introduce as much surface area of wine to as much air (oxygen) as possible. This type of decant is meant for wines like young Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. This will soften the tannins slightly (dry, cotton-mouth feeling), prior to serving.
This technique is used with older wines to speed the “opening” of the wine. I have sampled older wines that tasted so closed on pour, they were virtually tasteless… but after 20-30 minutes, they blossomed into great wines and beautiful flavor profiles. Granted this is the extreme, but it does happen often enough. The other advantage can be what is called “blowing off” odd odors. Some older wines can develop unpleasant odors in the bottle that just require five minutes (or so) to dissipate. The soft decant can resolve this issue.
I prefer to decant most red wines, if I have the time and patience. Even lighter red wines like Pinot Noir. This is again a controversial topic in the Somm community. This treatment serves the same purpose for lighter wines as it does for older wines.
Don’t be nervous about serving older wines to guests. It can be a great shared experience and the cornerstone of a memorable dinner party. I hope this information will help you feel more comfortable and inclined to investigate aged wines.