When is a Wine Ready to Open?

This past weekend I was at a birthday party for my friend’s oldest daughter. Along with the games, bouncy houses, controlled mayhem, presents and cake was of course… some good wine! Someone bought over a perennial favorite of mine, The Prisoner. This is a BIG Napa Zinfandel blend from Orin Swift that has a large cult following as it is not super expensive but packs a big punch.

It was the 2009 vintage, so it was still a little young but we decided to open it anyway. After we tasted it, my buddy who bought it over looked at me with an expression of confused disappointment and said “I don’t think this is that great?!”… and he was right. It had a good amount of fruit and a bit of spice, but that was about it. The Prisoner runs around $25-30, but at that point it tasted more like a $10-15 bottle of wine. It wasn’t bad, it was just sort of…there. The reason for this is quite simple; it needed more time.

So how are you supposed to know when a bottle is ready to drink? They say that only about 5% of wine in the world is actually meant to age. I find that number a little low, as it includes all the local international wines that never make it into the US. I would say of the wine the average US consumer purchases that number is closer to 10-15%. Still not a huge percentage, so most wines that you buy can be opened up right away and they will be ready to rock. But how do you determine what falls into the 10-15% that need aging, and how long do you age them?

The truth is there is no real rule of thumb as there are numerous factors that go into equation including region, varietal, time in oak, vintage, alcohol levels, etc. It also depends on your palate and how you enjoy your wines. If you like your wines with the fruit front and center, than you may not want to age your wines too long. Time tends to let the wine mellow out and allows the  subtle complexities to emerge. But if you are an old world wine kind of guy or gal, then you will need to let most of your wines age a bit longer so the secondary characteristics from the oak and terroir (fancy name for soil, earth and everything involved with it) can evolve and bring balance to the fruit, alcohol and tannins.

So as a simple guideline, here is what I would recommend. First off, reds need more time to age than whites, with most whites not needing any. Secondly, expensive wines need at least a couple of years of aging, probably more. Not because they are necessarily better wines, but if they have a high price tag on them they will probably be pretty tight and wound up in their youth… this is especially true of California reds. High end, cult Napa Cabs could use minimally 3-5 years and can age much longer while Pinots, Zins, Syrahs, etc. could be opened a little younger.

Quality European wines need a relatively long time to age as well. This is because they are typically not as fruit driven as California wine, so it’s all the complexities that make those wines delicious. Unfortunately, they take time to develop which is why the top Italian and French wines can age 5-10 years before they are truly ready to be enjoyed. Again, if you are looking for the fruit, forget about aging and open ‘em up! The worst thing that can happen is the wine may be a little more simplistic than you anticipated.

My final thoughts… When aging your wines, be sure to have them in somewhat of a temperature controlled environment. Ideally you want them at 55 degrees and 55-75% humidity or as close to that as possible. Which means leaving your good bottles above your hot stove for 5 years is more like cooking your wine than letting it age. Lastly, be sure to give your wines time to breathe. If you open up a bottle and feel like it should be a hell of a lot better than it is, leave it alone for a while or better yet decant it. If it is a well made wine it will get significantly better with some aeration. Remember… patience is a virtue.

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