How long will that bottle keep?

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Recently a friend mentioned that she was moving and needed to pack up and move her bottles of wine. The conversation moved on to what exactly she had, how long she’d held onto them and where they were stored. I think she read the fate of the content of those bottles in the look on my face and she said she’d email me photos of what she had so that I could access the potential loss. Although many of the bottles could be well beyond their ‘best before’ date, there were a few in there that may prove interesting, but much depends on how and where they were stored. I’ll take a look at what she had and comment at the end of this post.

So how long will a bottle of wine keep, and if you don’t have a wine fridge or cellar, where should one keep it? Unfortunately there’s not a simple answer to the first part of that question but we can lay down some very general rules. The second part of the question is much easier to answer, but I’ll come back to that a little later.

Pinot Grigio, Vinho Verde, Moscato d’Asti and Sauvignon Blanc. Just chill and serve!

As a huge generalization, you could say whites will last one to three years, and reds two to five years plus. Once you get into some of the finer reds, such as a higher end Cabernet Sauvignon or Nebbiolo, some of these will still be drinking in the 10+ year range or more. Again, this is a huge generalization and should be used purely as a starting point in guiding you as to what to drink now and what will last a little longer.

Bearing in mind that many people buy wine based on need/desire rather than investment, we can break our wine purchases down into two or three categories. If you live in Ontario, take a look into your local LCBO store around 5 or 6 pm on any weekday and you will see a line of customers stretching through the store. Many times I’ve had an urgent text message from a friend saying they are about to head to a friend’s for dinner and need a wine recommendation so they can pick up a bottle on the way. This is how most people buy their wine, primarily basing their purchase on what they will drink with dinner tonight, and because of this mode of ‘purchase and drink’ you will find that most wines on the general list at the LCBO have been made to be drunk now, or at least within a year or so of purchase. Of course, as with any rule there will be exceptions, but this is a good guideline to start off with. To simplify this rule even more, you can separate reds from the whites and remember that most whites are designed to be drunk very young, particularly wines such as Vinho Verde, Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc.

To make this process even easier, the LCBO have a little bottle icon on the product tag on the shelves in front of the wine. If the bottle is standing up, drink it now. Leaning to the right? It can be enjoyed now or held for a little while, maybe a couple of years or more under ideal conditions. And if the bottle icon is laying on its side, this bottle would be best stored carefully to develop further in the bottle.

Armed with this information, you can now see that probably 95% or more of the wines at your local store are not made to last. The wineries and the retail stores know your buying habits and stock the shelves accordingly!

Now let’s take a look at the other 5% or less. Leaving beer and liquor out of the equation, the LCBO have two other sections of wine displayed – Vintages, and then usually somewhere in the Vintages section that glass-doored cabinet that’s always locked! The Vintages section is usually broken down further into regional sections and a Vintages Essentials section. It’s easy to make the assumption that wines in the Vintages section are more expensive or are the sort that you can keep in the cellar for future generations. Unfortunately, again it is not that simple. You will find many wines there in the $15 range that are made to be drunk now. Again, use the bottle icon as an initial guide to whether you are buying a ‘keeper’ or a ‘drinker’, along with the basic red and white rules. Their Vintages Essentials section are primarily wines to drink today.

Three bottles from the locked cabinet that will be kept for a while longer.

You will find in this section bottles of wine that are starting to get into the $30 plus range, even up to $70 or $80. (Beyond that they tend to be in the glass-doored cabinet). Are these keepers? Possibly. Again, use the red and white guideline, the reds keeping longer than the whites primarily due to the tannin content (a natural preservative found in the skins and stems of red grapes) and the generally more complex structure of the wine. The little bottle icon will also guide you.

With the above information you will be able to decide which bottles you want to drink with dinner tonight and which one you may want to hang on to for a special occasion.

Now you’ve figured out which wines you will be buying as ‘drinkers’ and which are ‘keepers’, let’s take a look at where you will be storing them. Although that fancy ornamental wine rack looks totally cool and fits nicely on top of the cupboards in the kitchen, that is about the worst place you could possibly keep your wine. While you’re cooking that wonderful roast in the oven and frying up a storm on the cooktop, you’re also ‘cooking’ your wine and infusing it with some interesting odours. Ideal storage conditions are in the 12-14C temperature range, dark and vibration-free. Unfortunately, without a wine fridge, most people do not have anywhere that is consistently in that temperature range, especially if you live in a condo. So the next best thing is a constant temperature, which is why you should not keep wine in the kitchen, where the temperature can vary by more than 10C throughout the day. As cool air sinks, nearest the floor is the best place for your wine if you don’t have a house with a cool basement. Strange as it may sound, under the bed can be quite an perfect spot! Again, this is referring to a condo rather than a house where the bedroom is on an upper floor. This location obviously won’t compare to the temperature of a wine fridge, but in my condo I have found that the temperature varies by only about 1C, it’s relatively dark, and being on a solid concrete floor is also vibration-free.

In addition to looking for consistently cool, dark and vibration-free, one last thing to be aware of is odour. Although a wine bottle is virtually an anaerobic environment, a cork does allow in microscopic amounts of air, and if you store your bottles next to the kitty litter or cans of paint etc., there is the potential for those odours to penetrate into the wine, which I assure you will not improve the flavour! And while on the subject of corks, yes, keep those bottles on their sides.

One last place not to keep your wine is the refrigerator. Generally they are too cold, not 100% vibration-free and also tend to be low in humidity, which would cause a cork to dry out if the bottle is stored for a significant amount of time.

Lastly, let’s take a look at a few bottles from my friend in the first paragraph. The Greg Norman Estates 2002 Chardonnay would have been drinking for two or three years easily. Beyond that, I’m rather doubtful that this wine would have very much aging potential. Chardonnay, being a fairly neutral grape variety, gets most of its structure and flavour characteristics through the winemaker. If this was heavily Oaked, then it may have a longer life, but ten years would be pushing the envelope, especially under non-ideal storage conditions.

The next is a Riddoch 2001 Sparkling Shiraz from Coonawarra, Australia. Unfortunately this one had about a two-year window of drinking opportunity. I have a feeling there won’t be much sparkle left in this bottle.

One of the most interesting in the collection is a 1993 Cardinale Meritage from California. This is actually a blend from four regions and really had potential under the right conditions, with some claiming a drinking life of 15 – 17 years. Under less than ideal conditions, the aging would have been accelerated, so this would certainly be borderline, although an interesting bottle to open.

Lastly is a Torres Gran Sangre de Toro Reserva 1995. As with the Meritage, this one surprisingly had aging potential, but without those ideal conditions I fear this one will be rather tired and well past its prime drinking day. As with all of these wines, the only way to find out is to open them up and taste. Good or bad, it will certainly be an interesting exercise in aging potential, or lack thereof!

In wrapping this up, I just wanted to cover off a question a friend had asked on the Facebook page about what is ‘reasonable’ in terms of age. The answer to this really depends so much on the wine and conditions it has been kept under. Reasonable to me for a moderately priced bottle of wine would be 5-10 years. A Madeira could keep for up to a hundred years or more. There are huge exceptions to these ranges, but they really are the exceptions, and many of the ‘elite’ wines that are made to last will never appear on your local wine store shelves. Some of these are made in such small quantities, they don’t even make it out of their country of origin.

One last piece of advice, if you find a wine you love and feel that it’s a keeper and buy a case, be sure to pull a bottle out and try it at least six months to a year prior to when you figure it will be in its prime. Wait any longer and you are risking that it has matured faster than expected and potentially already be past its best drinking days. But if it tastes fabulous, then get drinking and enjoy!

Wine Labels

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I love wine labels, and admit that I have purchased a bottle or two based entirely on the label design. Sometimes that worked out well, but there were other times… well, let’s just say their investment in marketing paid off – at least for the sale of that one bottle anyway! Fortunately this isn’t usually my primary criteria for purchasing wine, but it does add a little excitement to the purchase.

Many decades back, when the shelves of your local wine store were dominated by Old World wines, you had to know your geography in order to know exactly what you were drinking. The labels primarily stated who made the wine, where it was from, the vintage and whether it was red or white. That bottle of vin rouge from France could have contained any of a wide variety of grapes if you didn’t understand the terminology on the label and regions in which it was produced. Unless you know what grape varieties are grown in the Southern Rhone, that bottle of Côtes du Rhône would be a mystery wine. (See below for what is actually in this bottle.)

Fast forward to today when the shelves are equally balanced between Old and New World wines, the process of grabbing your favourite bottle of Pinot Grigio is far easier. With most New World wines of a single grape variety, the name is right on the label. Even some blends will have that on the front label, with the dominant variety being the first stated, as with the Campbells Shiraz/Durif (90% Shiraz / 10% Durif).

But with the proliferation of New World wines on the shelves, producers are having to become more and more creative in their labeling and branding to stand out from the crowd, especially those from new or lesser known wineries. Some even go as far as creating a complete ‘lifestyle’ around their brand, including special events. My current favourite in this category is ‘Ladies who Shoot their Lunch’, which even has its own branded website apart from the main Fowles Wine brand. The site not only includes information on the wines, but scheduled tasting events, food pairing & recipes, and an option to join their mailing list under the guise of The Hunt Club. Top marks should go to their marketing team for innovation.
(www.ladieswhoshoot.com)

On the other end of the spectrum, and yet still standing out for its simple and creative design is Charles Smith Family Wines / K Vintners. Your basic Pinot Grigio is highlit as just that – Vino Pinot Grigio. (Although in this case, the Pinot in the bottle is anything but basic – bursting with so much flavour you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d picked up a Gewürztraminer or Torrontes.) Charles Smith carries this theme throughout his range of wines, with similar black & white graphics and names like Kung Fu Girl Riesling, Boom Boom! Syrah, Eve Chardonnay and The Velvet Devil Merlot.
(www.charlessmithwines.com)

Although my current wine purchases revolve around far more than what’s on the label, the constant changes in names and labels designed to grab your attention makes for an interesting wander down the isles of your local wine store. And for those of you who are curious, that Côtes du Rhône will generally be a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre. And at $15.95 CDN makes for a great every day French red.
(m.familleperrin.com/web/9D9RD89ZZT)

Semantics in wine…

Exploring the world of wine is like learning a whole new language, one in which not only are some of the words completely unfamiliar, but even some of the familiar ones are now attached to properties that do not initially make a whole lot of sense. How can a drink that is made from fermented grape juice smell like a cigar box or coffee beans? When thinking of drinking a glass of red wine, it’s hard to imagine that the smell of the forest floor or leather is going to enhance the experience. But yes, these words and smells are often there, even if initially hard to discern, and if you work hard at it, maybe one day you too will be able to find them. Whether that will add to your enjoyment of the wine is a personal experience. It will certainly add to your vocabulary.

In my early exposure to the study of wine I discovered three words that I needed to modify my use of. Those three words are ‘I don’t like…’ followed by either a country, region or particular wine. “I don’t like Chardonnay” or “…Pinot Noir” were two of mine, and just a few days back I heard from a colleague “I don’t like Italian wines”, although to her credit she was quick to qualify that, stating it was more out of lack of knowledge or what is actually available locally from that country.

So what’s wrong with those three words? Primarily that it is a huge generalization, setting one up to be proven wrong very easily. Even just a few weeks into my wine studies, I discovered that a French Syrah could taste different just from one small region to the next! And given that there are literally thousands of wineries throughout the world, it would be virtually impossible to make a realistic statement beginning with ‘I don’t like…’ in the above context.

One of my goals in this blog is to encourage my readers to explore the world of wine. Don’t give up on a particular wine or country after one just one bottle. If you don’t like that bottle of Chardonnay, try one from another region or country. A Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand tastes completely different from a Sauvignon Blanc from France. If you have found you don’t like ‘Italian’ wines, try one from a completely different part of the country. A wine from Southern Italy can taste completely different to a wine from the North, even when using the same grape variety.

So how did I personally modifying those three words ‘I don’t like’? Well, it now reads ‘I have yet to find a (insert wine / country) that I like’, which leaves it open for me to keep exploring until I eventually find one that I do like. And I encourage you to do the same.