The right time to open wine
Just as with children, no single age is best. They all have their pleasures and challenges.
Special to the Seattle Times
Picks of the week
Kenwood 2010 Vintage White; $8
Kenwood 2009 Vintage Red; $8
A nicely matched pair of summer sippers from Kenwood Vineyards. The white is two-thirds sauvignon blanc, a third chardonnay. The red is mostly zinfandel, with a field-blend style that includes three other hot-climate grapes. Both are fruity, full-bodied and nicely balanced, with moderate alcohol and no rough edges. They feature screw-cap closures for freshness and convenience. (Young's-Columbia distributes)
WHEN IS the right time to open a bottle of wine? Whether you are a serious collector with hundreds of bottles of fine wine in your cellar or you just keep an extra case or two on hand, you have probably asked yourself that question. Here are some guidelines to help you:
First and foremost, there is no magic time when any wine is guaranteed to be perfect. Just as with children, no single age is best. They all have their pleasures and challenges.
If you have three or more bottles of the same wine, you may taste it at several stages of life. It's a good idea to open the first bottle as soon as possible, after allowing a little time for the wine to settle if it has been recently bottled or shipped. Once you have tasted a wine in its youth, you'll have a better idea of how it may age. A quick and reasonably accurate way to test any young wine is to leave a quarter of the bottle untouched, put the cork in it overnight, and try it again the next day. If it retains freshness and balance, that is a very good sign.
Red wines most often are the ones expected to age, but only a small percentage of them actually improve over time. Among less expensive wines it is often the white-wine grapes that age more reliably. Cool-climate, high-acid white wines, such as riesling and sauvignon blanc, that have been fermented in stainless steel and not exposed to oak barrels, can last a decade or more. That said, the flavor of older white wines is not for everyone. We are all born with different palate preferences, and part of the learning curve for people studying wine is to dissect their own palates and figure out where their taste buds naturally take them.
For red wines to age well, they must be balanced, and that sense of balance should be evident from the beginning. That is why tasting them young is important; it gives you a good read on the future. It is a mistake to assume that rough and tannic wines, oaky wines or wines with high levels of alcohol will somehow magically smooth out over time. They won't.
In a balanced wine, the fruit, acid, alcohol, tannins and new-barrel flavors are seamless and proportionate. Nothing should be missing, and no component should dominate (or worse, obliterate) any other. It's much like a good audio mix — you want to experience everything at the appropriate level.
Wines must be properly stored in order to age over a long time. That means you should make sure they haven't been damaged before you buy them, and once you do, you must keep them away from direct sunlight, vibration and radical swings in temperature.
Most red wines will retain their primary fruit and barrel flavors for a couple of years after being released, then gradually soften and move into secondary fruit flavors (like pastry). Over still more time the color will lighten, and hints of brick or mahogany will show. If a wine is brown it is most likely over the hill. Even well-aged reds may develop flavors that are not especially interesting or complex.
But the best advice was given to me years ago and has stood me in good stead:
It is always better to drink any wine a year early rather than a day late.
About Wine Adviser
My column is all about sharing the joy of exploring all the world of wine. I want to guide people to make inspired choices, and encourage them to try as many different styles of wine as they can. I will always seek out the best wines at the best prices. Wine Adviser runs on Sunday in Pacific Northwest Magazine.
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