For me, this is the toughest of all commonly asked consumer questions about wine. That is to say, this is the toughest one to answer in a straightforward way that is useful to the questioner in practical terms. To be clear, the problem isn’t that this is a dumb question. On the contrary, it is a question that every novice wine-lover should ask.
After all, everybody is somewhat aware that wine is unique by comparison to spirits or beer in an important respect: Wine holds the potential to develop in a positive way after we purchase it, though it can also be degraded if held too long.
When we come into possession of our first few bottles of serious wine, we’re put on the spot: There’s no owner’s manual, and the decision of when to open the bottles is thrust upon us, and we don’t want to mishandle something that rightly strikes us as a rather big deal. We want to open the wine at its apogee, or at any rate to avoid misusing a bottle that was a valued gift, or a keepsake from a memorable trip, or just a conspicuously expensive purchase.
There’s also an intimidation factor if we’re considering opening a bottle to share with a friend who knows something about wine. Open it too early and we’ll be accused of “infanticide.” Open it too late, and we’ll be charged with malpractice for letting it turn to “old bones.”
However, the importance of the question doesn’t make it any easier to answer in a helpful way, for reasons that I’ll explain here.
Nevertheless, if you have fallen in love with wine and are starting to accumulate a little stash of it, you can’t avoid the question any more than I can. And though I may not be able to resolve it for you, I believe that it is really important for you to understand what we are up against when encountering it.
For starters, any answer on an optimal time for opening bottles is very dicey because of the inherent nature of wine as a fundamentally agricultural product. Since any wine’s capacity to improve with age is significantly affected by the peculiarities of the growing season in which it was produced, every vintage of every single wine has a different ageing trajectory. Knowing that you loved a bottle of Château So-and-So at 6 years of age doesn’t do you much good, because a bottle of a particular Bordeaux produced in 2013 will crack up before the same wine from the same estate made in 2010, due to the differing character imparted to the two wines by the differing growing seasons.
And it gets worse. Wine is an agricultural product, but it is also a work of art, in the sense that the winemaker’s decisions will likewise play an important role in determining how any bottle ages. If the winemaker macerates the grapes aggressively to pull lots of tannins from the skins and seeds, it will probably take a lot longer to soften than a wine that was crafted more delicately. However, if the aggressive maceration pulls out too much tannin, the fruit may not survive long enough to counterbalance it, and the wine will turn overly dry and astringent relatively early. Add to this the firming effects of oak, which some winemakers use much more liberally than others, and you start to see the complexity of the problem. Yes, you liked Château So-and-So at 8 years of age from the 2005 vintage, so you figure that you’ll crack a bottle from the adjacent vineyard, Château Joe Blow 2008, at 8 years too. Only to find that Joe Blow made very different winemaking decisions--and that the bottle you just opened is much too young or old.
But you should be able to get expert advice, right? From the person who sold you the wine--or maybe a writer like me, who should know vintages as well as producers’ winemaking styles?
Well, maybe. Except that there are roughly 400,000 wines available for sale in the USA alone, and they all change with each new growing season, so this is a lot to ask of a retail consultant or a writer. Even if I happen to have zeroed in on the particular wine in question for you, and tasted a barrel sample of it before it was bottled, and then tasted a pre-release sample at an en primeur event (where wines are shown to the press prior to commercial release), I’m still only able to advise you based on conjectures that involve a perilous amount of guesswork.
I believe I’m at least as good a guesser as the next guy, but the sad fact is that there are vintages when almost all of us guess incorrectly. For example, this is true of the 1988 red Burgundies, which were very tight and firm when released but were thought by many writers to be a sure bet to blossom with time--but mostly never did. I know retailers who ultimately gave up on the wines and sold them off for less than their initial purchase price just to unload them. I bought a few just to see what would become of them, and most never shed their hard exterior, though a few turned out beautifully. But only after more than twenty years of bottle ageing. The 1986 red Bordeaux look distressingly likely to follow the same line, and I’ve got a bunch of them sitting in my basement that I’d now very much like to sell to you.
I’ve had some really good 1986 Bordeaux, but also some that were hard as nails with no redeeming fruit, and looking back at reviews of the wines from when I bought them doesn’t prove very enlightening about these divergent outcomes.
This points to yet another complication, namely, that maturation curves are idiosyncratic for many particular wines. Some soften slowly, peak briefly, and then decline precipitously. Some soften quickly, hold steady in a delicious state for a long time, and then decline only gradually. Some start out invitingly soft, but quickly begin to lose structure and freshness. Tasting barrel samples or pre-release bottles can marginally enhance the quality of my guess about the trajectory of your particular wine, but in all honesty, it will remain a guess, because every wine is a one-of-a-kind object, and a moving target as well.
Worse still, you are yourself a problematic variable in the equation. If you want me to tell you when to open your wines, I not only need to know all that I can about each one of them, but I’ll also need to know a lot of subjective information about you:
• How do you like your wines to taste? Are you someone who values primary fruit notes, or who would willingly sacrifice these in favor of secondary flavors and “bottle bouquet?”
• Are you sensitive to tannin and acidity, so that I should tell you to let your wines round out with time, or do you like firm, structured wines?
• Do you like your Champagne frothy and energetic, or do you prefer it soft and toasty?
• Do you like your Sauternes thick and sweet for pairing with desserts, or would you rather have it leaner and drier and more complex for pairing with cheese years from now?
• You are perhaps fairly new to this, so do you even know the answers to these questions?
• And how do you tend to drink your wines? Cocktail-style, so that softness is valued, or do you only drink reds with food, which makes them enjoyable at a much earlier age?
Even after I’ve learned which wines you are holding, and have also gotten a grip on your personal preferences, there’s also the issue of your storage conditions.
Let’s say that you and your friend split a few bottles of a second-growth Bordeaux from 2012, and you’d both like to know when these wines will hit their peak. You have a good cellar that keeps your wines at a constant 55 degrees in a subterranean basement, whereas your buddy needs to keep his wines under the bed in his apartment. Even if I were clairvoyant in my guesswork about the particular wine you bought, and even if I understood the personal preferences of the two of you perfectly, your differing storage conditions would likely make me give you answers that are a full decade apart. Maybe more.
Bear with me--I’m almost done. But there’s another complicating issue to consider, which is that ageing can have different purposes for different wines.
With Old World wines like Barolo or Bordeaux, the point of holding onto bottles over time is predominantly to get their tannins and acidity to soften, and perhaps integrate their oak. By contrast, most bottles of Pinot Noir from California or Shiraz from Australia are actually quite soft and rounded in texture when the wines are released for sale. Nevertheless, I’ve learned over time that it is still very beneficial to hold them for at least six or seven years from the vintage date. If opened too early, the sweet ripeness of the fruit is just about all that they show. But they can become much more interesting over time, as secondary aromas and flavors make something complex out of something that started out juicy but boringly simple. Syrah from California is another example of a wine that doesn’t need time to soften, but usually needs time to become interesting.
Which brings us back to the problems we encountered earlier. I can only tell you when you’d be best off opening your California Syrah when I’ve learned when it will be old enough to become interesting for you, and that will also be affected not only by your personal preferences, food-pairing practices and storage conditions, but also by the particular wine’s vintage, and producer, and individual ageing trajectory.
To conclude, the point of all this isn’t to overwhelm you with difficulties, but rather to impart a healthy respect for some unavoidable challenges that we confront as wine lovers. Viewing this in a positive light, it is worth noting that the flip-side of these challenges is actually quite exciting, since wine provides us with a chance--at least a chance--to participate personally in the development of something great from something that started out being merely good, and to tune our wines to our preferences based on how we age them.
Think about it this way: If you buy beer, you can never make it any better by how you handle or store it. You can only skunk it by letting it get too warm or keeping it too long. If you buy a bottle of vodka, you can’t even do that, since the stuff is effectively inert, and can’t be made any better or worse regardless of how you treat it over time.
Wine, by contrast, is a living thing, and as stewards of the bottles we buy, we can be as important as the grape grower or the winemaker in determining the character of the finished product when we reach for our corkscrews--or elect not to.
Yes, we’ll make some mistakes, but there’s no such thing as an opportunity for creativity without a risk of error.
Moreover, we can minimize our errors over time by tasting, reading, and being more attentive to our personal preferences. With time and experience, all of us can become better guessers about when to open our wines, and how to handle them once we open them. For example, I’ve learned that I happen to like wines that are a little too young much better than those that are a little too old, so I now prefer to err on the early side when opening. Also, I’ve learned never to decant an older wine without tasting it first to determine its forcefulness or fragility. Likewise, when planning to open an older wine, I’ve learned to prepare foods that are moderate in robustness, since I can’t be sure in advance how robust the wine itself will be.
I still make mistakes, to be sure. But I still love to pull out an old bottle without really knowing what it holds in store for me. And I’d much rather have a shot at an exhilarating discovery from a bottle of old wine than a perfectly predictable shot of lifeless vodka.
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