Proper storage necessary to keep your wines young

By By Stan Torgerson
March 6, 2002
Every now and again, I am reminded the hard way of my own advice. The latest such nudge came over the weekend.
Four of my favorite people were coming to dinner. The main attraction was veal shanks, a great favorite. They were to be cooked Italian style. How good could it get?
In my cellar was a magnum of Chianti Classico from the 1973 vintage. It had been there since the day I bought it and that was so many years ago I couldn't remember where and when.
My cellar fulfills all the requirements. It is dark, lacking in vibrations and the temperature is a constant 58-60 degrees. There was every reason to believe this wine, which by any standard was too old for a chianti, still had fruit and life.
But it didn't.
It proved again that the old adage, "All wine gets better with age," is just not true. I've known that for years. I've preached it for years. But every once in a while, I have to remind myself by opening one of the senior citizens. Nine times out of 10 the grand old lady therein has died.
There are red wines that age and there are red wines that don't. But even under the best of conditions, the wines that don't, won't.
Last week at the wine tasting, one of our regular wine lovers told me about a special gift she had bought for her husband, a bottle of Opus One.
This is an expensive wine, approaching $100 a bottle. In its good vintages, it is great. In its bad vintages, its still good although overpriced. It has aging potential, but only if it's stored properly. Write that on your wall because it is true of all wines. If you save this wine for a special occasion five years from now, and don't store it properly, there's a chance it won't be drinkable.
My chianti came out of the bottle brownish, almost like deep amber, rather than red. That's a sure sign that a wine is over the hill. The nose (bouquet) was like garbage. Another sure sign. The cork crumbled when I started to draw it another indication the bottle might have been leaking air and in a 29-year-old wine something to worry about. The wine itself was undrinkable.
When you pour a magnum (double bottle) down the sink, it is a sad moment. But I knew what was likely to happen at the front end. Chianti can't age 29 years. It just isn't stout enough to reach old age. There are chiantis that make it 10 years but no longer, except on rare occasions.
Red Zinfandels, marvelous as they are when they're young, should be consumed no later than their eighth year and earlier is recommended.
There aren't any 20-year merlots that will win prizes either. Not, at least, to my knowledge. And Australian Shiraz wines are also best when drunk before their 10th birthday and better if you drink them before their fifth.
On the other hand, cabernets can live for 30 years or more under proper storage. Some of the great Bordeaux have been opened at the age of 60 and are still very drinkable. The Pinot Noir grape from which French burgundies spring will also retain its bottle excellence for many, many years.
Wines with some sweetness and a high alcohol content, such as ports, can seemingly live forever. First of all, it takes vintage ports 10 years just to get to an acceptable drinking age. Before that, it has no nuances. It is just a bottle of sweet wine that is usually about 19 percent alcohol. I'm not drinking any of my ports that are younger than 1983 and the 1970s are still improving.
The same is true of French sauternes. One of the most prized wines in the world today is the 1967 vintage of Chateau d'Yquem. The d'Yquem is considered one of the greatest wines in the world today, but it takes not less than 15 years for it to peak out and once it does it holds that peak for at least 15 years more. The 67 is a classic and better by far than the day it went into the bottle.
But, for average wines, drink them, don't hold them. Unless you have proper storage conditions, don't kid yourself that you can keep the wines in that little eight-bottle wine rack in your kitchen until you can write your name in the dust on the bottle or stuff them in a warm closet someplace and not get them out for a couple of years.
I guarantee they will be not be as good as the day you bought them. It doesn't work that way.
Sunlight, vibrations, heat and age all conspire to spoil average wines. Even the Bordeaux, the cabernet sauvignons, the burgundies and other normally long-lived wines can't stand up to heat and light.
As for white wines, five years is the maximum for the average chardonnay, but some white burgundies, properly stored, will go for 10. The same is true of the whites as of the reds, except they're even more sensitive to the negatives which affect wine.
When you find a wine you'd like to remember here is a suggestion. Soak the label off and save it. One wall of my wine cellar is papered with literally hundreds of labels from memorable wines. My wife saved them over the years and then, using a small level, glued them in an orderly pattern that is both attractive and memorable.
If we had kept them on the bottles, the wines inside would now been undrinkable. By doing it through their labels, they're still as young, lively and wonderful as they were on the occasion for which they were opened. Trust me.

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