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Should I drink now, or cellar and wait?
How do I know which wines should be enjoyed right away and which should be allowed to age? Is that something that the label would indicate? –Aspiring Cellar Hound
You’ve just touched on an age-old frustration that plagues collectors and fanatics everywhere. Unfortunately, there are no obvious clues printed on wine labels to indicate when a wine will be in its prime. Nor can anyone know for certain without continuously tasting. Nor is everyone’s definition of “prime” the same. Many variables affect a wine’s ageability—from the grapes used to the character of the vintage to the type and size of the barrels to even your own storage conditions at home. Knowing which wines merit cellaring is something that comes with experience, but it also has a lot to do with personal preference.
Believe it or not, most of the world’s wine is intended for immediate consumption. So if you’re buying entry-level or supermarket-quality bottles, I wouldn’t think twice about cracking them open now. Other wines that are typically early-drinking include Albariño and Vinho Verde, Muscadet, Gamay, Vermentino, and New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. The bottles that might need more consideration are reds based on Cabernet Sauvignon (like Bordeaux), Syrah (like Côte-Rôtie), and Nebbiolo (like Barolo), which have strong aging potential due to their high tannins that make them feel harsh in their youth. The French call them vins de garde (“wines to keep”) because those tannins will break down over time, developing into a more pleasant, silken texture later on. At the same time, vibrant fresh fruit flavors morph into more mature dried fruit flavors, and aromas like tobacco, mushroom/truffle, leather, walnuts and coffee become more pronounced. Great Burgundy is also gorgeous with a bit of bottle age, as is off-dry German Riesling.
But the rules are changing. Domaine Laroche in Chablis defied expectations in the early 2000s by bottling its Grand Crus under screw cap (a closure associated with early-drinking wines). Beaujolais—a region still largely known for simple, fruity reds—produces some bottles that absolutely withstand cellaring. And regions that have historically produced vins de garde are now using techniques that make wines more approachable in their youth. While that’s good news for pop-and-pour consumers, it may affect those wines’ ageability over the superlong term.
It really comes down to trial and error. If you have the luxury of being able to buy multiple bottles or even a full case of a given wine, try this experiment: open one now, another in two years’ time and a third a few years after that. Observe when you liked it best and if you think it has the stuffing to go even further. It takes a little patience, but there are plenty of other wines to enjoy in the interim. You are the master of your own stash, so you get to decide what you want to drink now and what you want to put away for a while.
Have a wine situation? Send your questions to Food & Wine's Decantress at firstname.lastname@example.org