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.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.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!