How to Open (and Taste) Older Wines
The first time I realized I loved older wine came with a jolt. It was a joy-filled revelation and deeply personal celebration — akin, perhaps, to the realization that you're holding a winning ticket with 80-1 odds for a horse in the Kentucky Derby. In my case, I was at my father-in-law's home in Carlsbad, California, holding a glass of 1995 Château Cheval Blanc, an extremely rare Saint-Émilion red from the region's most prestigious winery.
It was an astounding wine — 15 years old at the time — with many aromas and flavors that were new to my developing palate. The wine held such depth and intrigue that I was rendered speechless, which is unlike me, and opened the door to a snide remark from my father-in-law. Had I been more confident, more advanced in my knowledge of older wine, however, I might have shot back a quip about it being served too warm and perhaps decanted too long.
More than a decade later, having tasted my way through thousands of older wines, I've gathered a handful of best practices regarding opening and tasting older wines. There are no hard and fast rules, and it can be a bit of a dance to ensure the best possible experience. But talking about the wine is part of it.
What Is an Older Wine?
This is a bit of a sticky question, because the very idea of what makes for an "older" wine depends entirely upon the grape in question. Not only that, but where the grapes were grown, how they were harvested, crushed, fermented, and aged all have a profound impact on the wine as it rests in the bottle over many months, years, and decades — ideally stored undisturbed in a dark, cool place.
Generally, red wines have the greatest aging potential, particularly those made from classic French, Spanish, and Italian varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, and Sangiovese. With white wines, there are many from around the globe capable of long-aging, like Chardonnay, Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Sémillon, and Sauvignon Blanc — especially those aged in oak, which imbues those whites with a richer structure. And structure is a balance of well-built tannins and very good acidity, which a wine needs to age and develop intricate and complex flavors over time.
Many whites are considered old just three to five years after bottling. But others, like certain New World Chardonnays, Alsatian or German Rieslings, Champagne, sweet Sauternes, and especially whites from Burgundy's hallowed terroirs — such as the rare and expensive whites from Montrachet or Corton-Charlemagne — could still be "young" after ten years in the bottle.
As whites edge their way into the twilight of their years, properly stored, they can offer a dazzling set of fireworks for the palate: once tart and tangy citrus, orchard, or tropical fruit becomes overripe or caramelized, while youthful floral, nutty and sweet baking spices turn dried, toasted, and savory.
With reds, by the time they've aged about ten years in the bottle, youthful, exuberant fruit expressions begin to wane, and secondary flavors and aromas emerge. Vivid, ripe flavors become overripe, even baked, while delicious oaks spices that were once chocolatey, vanilla-driven, or cinnamon-kissed now offer more savory notes, such as cigar box and tobacco. Mineral notes of wet or crushed stones can turn deeply earthy.
As all these flavors continue developing, they lean towards umami flavors as well, with heady, rich truffle notes or an iron-like rusticity, or appear as brown spices and black teas. And beyond dry table red and white wines, entire books have been written about sweet wines such as Port, Sherry, Madeira, and Marsala — wines that finally become "old" after three, four, five, or six decades and then some!
How to Open (and Taste) an Older Wine
Most wine professionals will argue for Ah So Wine Opener or The Durand — a patented device featuring a two-step process for removing older, fragile corks. But I have found — to my erudite horror and repeated disbelief — that an inexpensive model like the plastic Le Creuset corkscrew, which awkwardly hugs the top of the bottle as you simply twist and the cork magically lifts, works nine out of ten times. Whatever your chosen device, follow these three steps:
First: Make sure the wine is at the right temperature.
For older reds, that would be about 56 degrees, and a bit cooler for whites. Chilling below 50 degrees could effectively render any delicate nuances moot until the wine warms. And, ideally, any sediment will settle if you can stand the bottle upright in a cool wine cellar for several hours before opening.
Second: If there is a foil capsule, carefully remove it.
Wipe away any noticeable debris with a damp cloth, as you don't want that making it into your glass.
Third, gently remove the cork and immediately pour a bit of wine into a glass and taste it.
You might even stick your pinky finger into the neck to sweep up any bits of cork or sediment clinging to the glass. Once you do pour, take a small sip, swirl the wine around, and notice if your senses are firing on all cylinders or if you're a touch disappointed. The reason you taste first is to decide if the wine needs decanting at all — it may not. If the wine is open and giving (firing on all cylinders), and you decant it, it could rapidly decline. Only when the wine is very tight — not expressive — decanting could help open it up.
If the wine is unpleasant, smelling old and musty, tasting nothing much and primarily astringent, or just rank to the taste, don't overthink it — that wine didn't last. Sadly, it happens a lot.
To Decant, or Not to Decant? And What About Glassware?
In the spring of 2022, Gary Rieschel — a strategist and investor in high technology, and a serious wine lover — invited me to a mind-blowing tasting of older wines. Rieschel's winning $260,000 bid during the 2019 Auction Napa Valley event opened the keys to the cellars at Napa Valley's Beaulieu Vineyard, and included tastings featuring their flagship Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet going back deep into the 1960s. Longtime BV winemaker Jeffrey Stambor participated, along with Trevor Durling who currently helms the cellar.
In talking and tasting with them during a seminar arranged by Riedel's VP of On-Premise Sales Anne Koziara, I learned something about decanting older wines — chiefly, not to do it. Not unless there is noticeable sediment floating around, but even then, standing the wine upright a few hours before serving will see much of that settle out.
Even before we talked decanting, Koziara wanted to talk about how glassware can dramatically change the experience of drinking an older wine. To demonstrate, we sampled a spate of Georges de Latour vintages out of eighth different shaped glasses. Vintages from 2016 and the early 2000s, going back to the 1990s, 1980s, 1970s, and the oldest — a 1965 Georges de Latour Cabernet, which was alive and kicking, laden with minerality, cured meat, bacon fat, and cigar box notes. Just wild!
It was clear, too, that the aromatics were completely different depending upon the shape of the glass. I noticed that if the glass had a deep bowl that narrowed toward the top, the wines just sang out, teasing my nose with arias of aromas, and enchanting with rich lullabies that were seductive, beckoning me to sip again — the glass serving as both sipping vessel and decanter. If the bowl was too shallow, and the opening too wide, everything was lost ... as if the wine had nothing much to offer.
"If you open many bottles of older wines, you want to taste them right away," Koziara added as we sniffed and sipped. "You want to see if the wine is really tight or really open."
Durling offered that, as tasters, it was important to "define what 'expressive' or 'closed' means to you. Closed could mean the wine is not offering up much in the nose or the palate. It could be just very tight because the cork was more impervious." And in that case, Durling suggested decanting to capture sediment "while exposing the old wine to as much oxygen as possible, but in a gentle way, to liven it up."
You'd want to take care in opening and decanting an older wine because it is very delicate, especially one over 30 years of age. Like the fragile pages of a newspaper unearthed in a time capsule, that might crumble if handled indelicately, wine too may crumble if haphazardly emptied into a decanter, or tossed about in a car on the way to a restaurant, or even given a good shake of some misguided information about old wines needing a royal amount of air to open. Don't believe it!
How to Talk About the Wine's Taste
The experience of sipping an aged wine is similar to opening a time capsule. Imagine that one person closed the lid on that capsule, then buried it. And 50 years later, you're holding it, and you remove the capsule — in the case of wine, the foil — and open it. When you take off the cork, which may have been put there by a winemaker five decades earlier, wine that was last teased by particles of air in the 1960s or 70s is met with a blast of air from 2022. Contained within that old fermented wine are the scents and even the textures of another century.
One quick pour and one delicate swirl has the power to reveal the ephemeral dust of another era, the sweet and savory aromatic bursts of sagebrush, chaparral, and roses long gone that had been growing around the vines, burrowed deep into the soils of wine country. It is an awesome power. It is the power of time travel through the senses, and I felt it in that bottle of 1995 Cheval Blanc. It took me to a place I'd never been, but it took me there.
It was a power I soaked up in every single sniff and sip of those Georges de Latour wines (thank you, Gary!): The 1965 that smelled of cigars and cured meats and even dates, like those that may have been grown on a Napa farm in those days, and earth on a hot summer day, cooled by a light rain. In a 1976 Georges de Latour I could smell and taste Rutherford's famous dust. BV's first, famous winemaker André Tchelistcheff coined the phrase "Rutherford dust" in an attempt to explain the elusive mineral component in Cabernet that seems only to come from grapes grown in Rutherford, California. It was there in the wine, a bit of 1976-era dust. And a 1995 Georges de Latour told a story rich with the smells of a long-forgotten county fair, with dust kicked up and the air sweet with red licorice.
So, if you find yourself in the fortunate position of owning older bottles, and the time comes for you to open them, carefully wipe away any debris and remove the cork from a bottle that is (hopefully) a cool 56-ish degrees to the touch. After you pour a taste into a deep-bowled glass that narrows at the top, then sniff, sip, and decide it's good and ready to drink — talk about it.
Waste no time in talking about that wine. And keep tasting it. Taste it frequently, in small sips, over half an hour or an hour, and talk about what you notice. It's not the words that matter. There is no test, and accuracy won't get you bonus points; rather, it's about why you're drinking that wine in that moment. There could be a great story about obtaining it or a special memory.
If I could go back to Carlsbad a decade ago, after sipping that '95 Cheval Blanc, instead of getting caught up in my lack of understanding, I wish I had at least muttered a thank you to my late father-in-law for what turned out to be a watershed moment in my life.
How to Buy Older Wines
In the wine industry, older wines are commonly referred to as "Back vintage" wines, and they are great for celebrations, anniversaries, or any personal curiosities. But, if, like so many people, you haven't collected wines and stored them for decades, you can buy them. Wine auction houses like Zachys, Acker, and Brentwood offer ample opportunities to bid on older wines. Companies like WineBid and Benchmark Wine Group offer marketplaces to buy older, rare wines that professionals have inspected to ensure the wine's provenance. You could also call your favorite winery and ask if they keep a library of wines.