I am sure we could search century-old cellar journals and find early versions of the longstanding question of when is the best time to open a bottle of wine. It’s really rather a conundrum because if you pull the cork too early you’re left with a tannic, acidic wine. Open too late and most likely nothing is left except a dried-out fruitless wine. And worse, if you open years past the appropriate life of the wine you’re stuck with a bottle of vinegar.
I wish there was a magic calculation to come up with the right date to open our slumbering bottles. But that magic formula doesn’t exist. So, I offer these general guidelines for those who are questioning whether to pop the cork, or not.
Many wines are saved long past their viable life simply because of the owner’s perception of the wine label. I am asked a lot to quickly survey a collection and to offer advice regarding when certain wines are (or will be) ready to drink. A recurring theme is that the attractive French Bordeaux label leads owners – many of whom receive the bottles as gifts – to think they have a wine that should be aged longer than is necessary. A general rule is French labels stating the general and broad category of “Bordeaux AC” are best consumed within one to two years.
Opening any bottle that has been aging is a hit or miss proposition, especially if you only have one bottle. If you are serious about collecting I recommend buying by the case or at least three bottles. This helps you to determine exactly where the wine is in its maturity and offers you the opportunity to taste it in stages. If you have a case, open one bottle soon after you buy it so you have an indication of where the wine is in the aging process. Take notes and re-visit another bottle later to see how the wine is changing.
Red wines generally agewell because of tannins, the chemical substance that creates the pucker power in a young red wine, which has preservation properties. But keep in mind it’s a myth that a harsh tannic, unbalanced red wine only needs to be kept long enough to become a great wine. The same wine five years down the road will likely still be harsh and unbalanced. The same is true of the widespread thinking that young red wines in balance will not improve or change with time.
Color is one of the best gauges for red or white wines. If you are looking at a young red wine (depending on the grape) it will generally have a more purple rim color. As the pigments oxidize they are precipitated along with the tannins becoming more ruby and then gradually a brownish color. Storage conditions, the grape and method of production can also have color impact.
- 2010 Swinto Old Vine Malbec, Argentina (about $40 retail) to keep for a couple of years.
- 2007 Bell Vineyards Clone 6, California (about $80 retail) to taste now and until perfection, approximately 8 to 10 years.