Why Wine Needs Cellaring

By / Magazine / February 2nd, 2010 / 1

Wine is a difficult and finicky houseguest. We’re lucky that it doesn’t have its own voice, or the bottle would spend most of the time complaining and we would have to send it for professional counselling. It would always be going on about something or other. Wine gets “bottle shock” when first introduced to the container in which it will spend its life, rather like an unsuccessful first date that turns into a lock-down arranged marriage. Wine doesn’t like to travel and has to rest several weeks on arrival at its destination before it gets back its mojo (balance). It has no desire to go to Florida for the winter; it doesn’t like fluctuations of temperature or being jostled by vibrations from machines (clothes dryers, compressors, dishwashers, elevators, trains, subways or passing traffic, etc.). It abhors bright light and heat and does not like the smell of paint, solvents, detergents or household refuse (strong odours can, over time, seep through the cork and affect the flavour of the wine). Given its finicky disposition, wine, if truth be told, probably suffers from agoraphobia: if those bottles in your basement had their way they would rather be slumbering in the dark, damp cellar where they were born and not have to travel at all. But life is hard, and wines, like pets, are there for our enjoyment. And, like pets, wine responds best to kindly treatment rather than benign neglect or abuse.

My heart bleeds when I see where some people store their wines. I have been in kitchens that have wine racks installed over refrigerators, with bottles slowly cooking from the rising heat and being massaged into old age by the vibrations of the compressor. I have seen wines stored in terra cotta tubular tiles set into stone walls beside a fireplace in the den. I have seen wines stored in unheated attics that bake in summer and freeze in winter — rather like Madeira lodges, which encourage the oxidization of their wines this way. And I have to confess that my own parents used to keep the single ceremonial bottle of Manischewitz in the linen closet, at a temperature above the thermostat setting in the living room. So be kind to your wine. It will reward you for your concern.

Wine, like human beings, begins to die the moment it’s first exposed to air. Sad but true. It’s all a matter of time, and some of us live longer than others. Like us, all wines do not age at the same rate; some, because of their grape variety and their conditions of growth (soil, heat, length of time on the vine, extract, balance of sugar and acidity, winemaking technique and storage), will live longer than others. I have tasted wines that were over a hundred years old and still gave pleasure. On the other hand, I have tasted young wines that had become old before their time, dried out, lost colour, yet were still corseted with tannins.
In white wines it is the acid that gives structure and ability to age; think of acid as the skeleton of the wine, the frame that supports the fruit. In reds it’s the phenolics — colouring matter in the skins and tannins from the skins, pits and stalks — that preserve the wine. Tannins are that bitter compound you experience when you bite into a grape pit or stalk or chew on a grape skin. In the leather industry they use tannic acid to preserve hides. There is tannic acid in wine that has the same preservative effect. When a wine ages, the tannins soften and will ultimately, after several years, precipitate as a sediment with colouring matter. The bouquet becomes more complex and the fruit begins to dry out. Red wines lose their colour as they age, while white wines, ironically, become deeper in colour.

The good news is that most red wines will get better with some bottle age — except Beaujolais Nouveau and rosés, which are made to be consumed within a year of their vintage date. I wish there was a mathematical formula that could tell you when a wine has reached its peak of maturity, but there isn’t, and so we have to go by rough guesses. In my experience red Bordeaux is the most difficult wine to predict when to open. At three years after the vintage date it can taste lively and fruity behind its gripping tannins; a year or two later it can close down and go “dumb” before it opens up again after another three or so years’ cellaring. That’s why it’s worth buying a case of a Bordeaux château you like and opening a bottle every year to try and catch it at its pleasure peak.
The quality growth of a wine is not a bell curve; it’s more a jagged line that rises to a point, then plateaus for a year or two before going into decline as the fruit begins to dry out. As red wines age their acidity softens and the tannins and colouring matter begin to precipitate. That’s why you see sediment in bottles of mature wines. The bouquet also changes, becoming more pronounced, losing its fruity fragrance and developing more organic nuances of chocolate, coffee beans or leather. Really old wines develop tertiary bouquets of soy, balsamic vinegar and stewed fruits. That’s why grapes that are high in tannins produce cellar-worthy wines.

The major varieties are:
Cabernet Sauvignon (especially from cooler regions like Bordeaux )
Cabernet-Merlot blends (Meritage)
Nebbiolo-based wines (Barolo/Barbaresco)
Syrah/Shiraz (Rhône, Australia)
Tempranillo (Spain)
Sangiovese (Italy)

Cabernet Sauvignon is king when it comes to tannins, because of its small berry size. This means that the ratio of skin to pulp is high, and since tannins are concentrated in the skins as well as the pits and stalks, the resulting wine will be higher in tannin than, say, Merlot, which has a larger berry size.
While some white wines can benefit from cellaring for up to a decade, most should be consumed within a year of their vintage date. The exceptions are domaine-bottled white Burgundy (never inexpensive); Chenin Blanc from the Loire; Rieslings from cool-climate regions such as Germany, Austria and Ontario; some Rioja whites and sweet dessert wines (sugar is a great preservative) with good acidity (for example, Sauternes, Tokaji, Icewine); and vintage-dated champagne.

Fortified wines such as port, sherry, Madeira and Marsala are the “no-brainer” cellar choices. They have inherent longevity because of their higher alcohol content (20 to 22 per cent by volume), which acts as a preservative along with the residual sugar and acidity.

Generally — though I hate to admit it — the more you pay for a wine the more likely it will age well.

The eminent British wine writer Jancis Robinson has compiled a list of major grape varieties and their potential lifespan as wine. The spread she gives speaks to the different styles of wine the grape can produce as well as the effect of regional differences and winemaking techniques. For instance, a Cabernet Sauvignon made in California as an inexpensive simple red will have a life of four years, whereas a top-flight Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve from a great vintage can live for 20 years. Similarly, the Hungarian variety Furmint, when vinified as a dry white wine, should be consumed within three years of its harvest date, but when made as a sweet wine, it can live for a quarter of a century.

Aging Chart

Chardonnay (2–6 years)
Riesling (2–30 years)
Hungarian Furmint (3–25 years)
Loire Valley Chenin Blanc (4–30 years)
Hunter Valley Sémillon (6–15 years)
Cabernet Sauvignon (4–20 years)
Merlot (2–10 years)
Nebbiolo (4–20 years)
Pinot Noir (2–8 years)
Sangiovese (2–8 years)
Syrah (4–16 years)
Zinfandel (2–6 years)
Classified Bordeaux (8–25 years)
Grand Cru Burgundy (8–25 years)
Aglianico from Taurasi (4–15 years)
Baga from Bairrada (4–8 years)
Hungarian Kadarka (3–7 years)
Bulgarian Melnik (3–7 years)
Croatian Plavac Mali (4–8 years)
Russian Saperavi (3–10 years)
Madiran Tannat (4–12 years)
Spanish Tempranillo (2–8 years)
Greek Xynomavro (4–10 years)
Botrytized wines (5–25 years)


Tony Aspler, Order of Canada recipient, has been writing about wine since 1975. He is the author of 18 wine books, including The Wine Atlas of Canada and three wine murder mystery novels. The best concert he ever attended was Rush with the Tragically Hip as the opening band. His favourite comfort food is milk chocolate and his cocktail of choice is a Kir Royale. At home, he drinks wine (lots of wine).

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