So you’ve just gotten back from wine country and you’re looking over your haul and thinking “How long can I keep these?” Or maybe you’re about to head to wine country and you’re thinking of stocking up your cellar with some interesting wines for down the road. The question in both of these cases could be an honest “When will these wines taste their best?” or it could be a “How long will these wines survive?”. You will hear all sorts of answers to this question and to be frank as a region we are extremely pessimistic about the longevity of our own wines, in most cases they will quite easily stand the test of time as easily as many of their international analogues. So let’s take a look at a few tips for getting the most out of your wine cellaring endeavours.
General Wine Cellaring Tips
Cellaring wine isn’t a particularly complicated process but it’s also quite easy to mess up if you don’t pay attention. The better you treat the wines while you’re cellaring them, the longer they will last and the better they will evolve. Cellaring is more about avoiding what wines don’t like.
Wines don’t like heat so a hot kitchen, un-airconditioned apartment, etc. will not do your wines any favours and will greatly shorten their life. Wine also doesn’t handle temperature changes well which makes these situations even worse. Sunlight is also bad because it has many long-term negative effects on wine, in addition to often being hot itself. Finally constant vibration or shaking are undesirable but aside from appliances this isn’t a particularly common problem.
Realistically if you want to keep wines long-term you’re going to want to be looking at a wine cellar in a basement, or a dedicated powered wine cellar. Being underground keeps basements typically cooler and stable in temperature, and well-powered wine cellars do as they say they will. Past this, a dark cool closet in a climate controlled house or apartment can also do the trick.
This isn’t to say other situations will hurt the wine you bought short term, even within say 1-2 years everything aside from a super hot apartment or a kitchen near the stove will probably be fine. But if you truly want to build a cellar for ageing there are considerations. If you want to see how suitable your area is for ageing you can pick up a cheap combination hygrometer/thermometer from Walmart to check the humidity and temperature where you plan to store your wine. Ideal humidity is as close to the 70-80% range as possible. The ideal temperature is as close to 50-60* F as possible, but even up to 70* won’t be detrimental to wine, it might shorten lifespan but it won’t ruin it either.
How long can I age THIS specific wine?
In general, if you are visiting wine country you have experts at your fingertips, simply asking at the winery should in theory get you a decent estimate of how long a wine will age. The reason this works is each winery has their own style, some make very easy drinking wines meant for rapid consumption, other gear their style more toward structure and ageing and some if not most wineries have a mix of both styles. Because of consumer expectations, it tends to work out that the premium wines are more structured and intense and handle age better while the entry level wines are softer and lighter and don’t handle age as well. There are many wines and wineries that prove this wrong however so it’s always best to ask.
Outside of this you can take a look at the wine itself. In a red if it is intense and flavourful, has a bit of fruit and a bit of oak showing, has strong tannins and a good richness it’s probably a good sign that it will age fairly well for some time in the future, maybe 3-5 years, maybe 5-10 years or in much rarer cases maybe even 10 years plus. For whites wine, you want to look at flavour intensity, richness, complexity and acidity. Oaked Chardonnay can often age quite well in the 3-5 year range from purchase, some even longer depending on the winery. On the other hand, things like unoaked Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer and a few of the other dry, fruit driven or neutral white wines are probably best drank much sooner. There are also the wines that age quite well but require a distinct preference such as Riesling, if you’ve never had aged Riesling don’t assume it will necessarily taste better with age.
One of the common questions asked in Niagara is related to ageing icewine, and it is one of the areas where I have seen some silly answers from well-meaning but misinformed winery staff. Icewine has everything you could want from an ageable wine, it has flavour intensity, it has decent acidity and it also a healthy amount of sugar which at the levels really boosts age ability. Now while some basic Vidal icewines won’t stand the test of time, many premium icewines, especially from Riesling or Cabernet Franc will more than stand the test of time. If cellared properly, a well-made icewine will age extremely well over time, it will change but it will still be delicious even 15, 20, 25+ years down the road. Some of Niagara’s earliest icewines from the late 1980’s and early 1990’s are still tasting amazing, and equivalent wines from elsewhere in the world are tasting great from even earlier times.
Does a screwcap or a cork make a difference?
In some parts of the world where screwcaps are the norm, I would say that it means nothing. In other parts where corks are the norm, I’d say it means everything. In Niagara, it varies from producer to producer. If you have a producer like Coyotes run who bottle everything under screwcap as a rule, it means absolutely nothing, some of their wines are absolutely phenomenal and will certainly age under screwcap. If however you look at some of the producers who do a bit of both, you will find that in Niagara many producers use one of two systems screwcaps on low-end bottlings or wines meant to be young, fresh and fruity and cork on high-end bottlings or wines meant to age. This is just producers catering to consumers preference and prejudice more than anything and you will really have to judge the individual wines. In the end, it really truly does all comes down to style and producer, if I look at the section of my cellar with rieslings in it almost every single one is under screwcap, if I look at the section with m chardonnays they’re almost all under cork, yet almost every single one of those rieslings will still taste great well after most of the chardonnays are past their prime.
So while there are no hard and fast rules to how long a wine will age it doesn’t have to be scary. Start out asking the staff at the winery for some advice and go from there. Most well-structured reds will easily go 3-5 years if not longer, and to be honest most well-made wines white or red will taste fine out to 3 years. The real questions start to be which wines will survive past the 3-5 year mark and for that it comes down to experimentation and bravery. That super intense, tannic, flagship wine that you spotted? Yeah it was probably built to go the length. That light and fruity Nouveau you grabbed in November? Not so much. Be realistic, treat your wines well and you may be in for some surprises, even wines you thought would never hold up may turn out great down the road. I recently had a basic 2004 Trius Merlot that still tasted great 11 years out, it was on the edge, but it tasted delicious, on the other hand I’ve had big full 2010 Reds that are already at the end of their life. My best suggestion is if you love a wine and want to age it, but a couple bottles and open one every so often, if you notice that’s it’s starting to lack, well then just make the rest a priority to drink soon.