I confess. I am a hoarder. Not in the “dysfunctional, keeps 14 years of daily newspapers and ten thousand empty yogurt containers” sense. More in the “deferred gratification” sense. I can keep my Birthday presents, unwrapped, for days. I can hang on to a box of perfect truffles for weeks. It’s not about the having; it’s about the satisfaction of knowing that I could have if I wanted to.
It drives people nuts! Especially office colleagues, who come by to see the same chocolate bar on my desk, day after day…until someone invariably declares it abandoned and finds it a better home. Or, on Christmas morning, when everyone has ripped open their gifts and the post-present frenzy is setting in, and I still have a lovely pile of wrapped parcels to look forward to.
The problem with this is that I can sometimes hang on to things for too long: until they are past their prime, inedible, not drinkable, too big, too small, out of fashion, dried out, freezer-burned, old…
I was down in the wine cellar on the week-end (the wine cellar being cool corner of my basement with some IKEA wine shelves), looking for something to serve with the lemon pound-cake cupcakes the nine year old was busy making. Dusting off bottles in the far corners, I came across a 1992 Trebbiano (more than likely past its prime) and it occurred to me that it might be time to inventory my holdings.
This is a small sampling of what I found:
Assortment of dessert wines 1994-2007 – while dessert wines can get better with age, the older ones may be reaching their peaks, if not past them. I will have to start consuming (twist my rubber arm).
A 1995 Vino Santo di Montepulciano – I last tasted it in 2007 and it was fantastic. This wine is a dessert wine and, if memory serves, it had a honey quality on the palate and a nutty finish. I visited Tuscany with my sister so will keep it to enjoy in a few years with her.
A 1999 “Vino per la messe” that my late uncle bought for me at The Vatican, where he worked for 40 years. Any Catholic will tell you that Mass wine is not of the finest vintages and any eleven year old white wine will suffer…but it has sentimental value so I put it back on the shelf. Hoarding…
A 2005 Vernaccia di San Gimigniano – just looking at the bottle reminded me of the fun the then-6 year old had running up and down the steep street, in and around the Medieval towers….shame to drink it. The good news is that this wine is sometimes called a “red wine from a white grape” so it usually ages well. I will open it in the summer of 2011.
A 1994 Chateau des Charmes Late Harvest Riesling – this one caught me by surprise and I first thought it was a Vidal. The Riesling grape is a thick-skinned grape, with high acidity. Sweet or table wines made from this grape therefore age well. I decided to chill it and try it with a lemon cupcake from GeekSweets (@geeksweettweets). The wine was a deep, almost amber colour in the glass with little on the nose. In the mouth, however, it had plenty of life left. I tasted honey, and roasted nuts and an almost woody note; it had a definite raisin quality. The pairing with the Whiskey Sour cupcake (lemon cake and whiskey lemon curd, topped with meringue) was amazing. while I might have thought the wine was part its prime on its own, the lemon brought back some of the crisp, green tang of the younger fruit. It was still a sweet wine, but much more complex. Just goes to show you what a good pairing can do for a wine.
1989 Veuve Cliquot Ponsardin La Grande Dame – this one is a keeper. A good champagne can age for many years and this one is waiting for the perfect occasion. An evening with friends on Le Pont des Arts in Paris, looking out at Notre Dame, comes to mind. I think the widow would approve, don’t you?
1992 Trebbiano – the cap on the bottle showed seepage of an unappealing nature. The cork was somewhat spongey and hard to extract. The wine itself, when opened, was the colour of whiskey. When tasted, it was somewhere between a white port and wine vinegar. Although not drinkable, it was not as awful as the cork implied.
The moral of this story is that not all wines improve with age; not all wines are meant to.
Most wines today are bottled and drunk within a year. Winemakers know this and therefore most wines you buy at the LCBO can be drunk right away. However, some wines will not be harmed if they are cellared for a few years; others will, in fact, improve. But still others will suffer if kept. The conditions under which you cellar a wine will also affect the aging: a nice cool Canadian basement (the unfinished part) is often a good location with a stable temperature at around 16°C (just be careful of the humidity). Bottles should be kept on their sides, with the neck slightly angled to maintain contact between the wine and the cork.
I must issue a caveat here: while there are some general guidelines, the decision to cellar a wine should be made on a bottle by bottle basis (how ‘s that for “Ottawa bureaucrat-speak?”). The best person to tell you how long to keep a wine is the person who made it. The growing conditions of a particular vintage, the manner in which it was created, all have an effect on the final product. The LCBO will usually have an image of a bottle in their catalogue that will indicate if a wine should be drunk, aged 3-5 years or longer.
Another clue is the type of cap: a screw-top is an easy way to spot a wine that is not intended to keep. If you are not sure, ask an LCBO employee; they always have at least one or two experts in the store. Still not sure? Contact the wine broker or the vineyard. Your own palate is often a good judge, too: a wine that you find high in alcohol, high in tannins and fruit is probably a good candidate for cellaring.
Bubbly should be drunk. And please, anyone who can have a bottle of it in the house and not drink it is just odd. You could hold on to good champagne for a few years but, really, why? Just drink it (or give it to me, I’ll take care of it).
Beaujolais Nouveau, as mentioned in my last post, is meant to be consumed right away, not just in terms of taste but also tradition. And why mess with tradition?
Still white wines such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio etc, are usually best drunk sooner rather than later, although those that have been oaked could be aged 3-5 years. But, as mentioned, this is very general rule. Some whites from Burgundy or Gewürztraminers or Chenin Blancs, grapes with higher acidity, can stand the test of time remarkably well. White wines will lose their fresh, green tinge as they age, becoming golden yellow. They will also lose some of their crisp fruitiness and floral notes will be muted, with creamier vanilla notes coming through.
Red wines are the ones that one usually thinks of when one thinks of aging wine. Some wines, such as Pinot Noir and Zinfandel are lower in tannins and fruitiness and should be drunk within a few years. Others, such as Merlot, can be cellared for 5 years or more. The wines to age the longest are usually wines such Cabernet Sauvignons: big, bold reds with lots of spice, fruit and alcohol to sustain them. As red wine ages, precipitate will form in the bottle so I like to decant them before serving. An aged red wine will lose some the red colour (hence the precipitate) and you will see a light orange tinge in the glass. The body of the wine will be softer on the palate, the fresh grape flavour will turn more to cooked berries, the wood notes blending to create a more leathery, earthy wine.
Dessert wines (such as Sauternes, Riesling Ice Wines, and Vin Santo) are exceptions to the white wine rule. These wines have a higher sugar and alcohol content and ageing them brings out the complexity. My preference is to cellar these for a few years to bring out the golden hues and round out the flavours …just not 16 years!
Whatever you do, remember that wines, young or old, will change over time and the wine you love today may be weak and boring tomorrow. Similarly, the wine you find aggressive today may be just perfect in five years. If your pocket-book will allow, buy two bottles of a wine you like: drink one now and cellar the other; it’s fun to see how a wine can change over time.
So, be a hoarder, it can pay off. Just don’t put your bottles away and forget them. I did.