Don't try to age wine without a proper "cellar." This is one of the most stern and immutable rules of wine appreciation, and frankly, it's backed up by substantial experience. I've lost count of the number of times that I've participated in the eager anticipation of uncorking a prized older wine, only to be brought up short by the disappointment of a dull and brownish fluid that's been "cooked" or oxidized before its time by improper storage.
There's a good reason why the conventional wisdom strongly advises that wines meant for long-term maturing be kept under pristine storage conditions, lying undisturbed on their sides in a dark, cool place, ideally at a constant temperature of 55F (13C). Wine kept at room temperature - even in an air-conditioned environment - won't mature as long or as well as properly cellared bottles.
The subtle chemical changes that occur over time in ageworthy wines are accelerated by warmth, and wines kept under hot conditions in particular seem to be disproportionately subject to cork failure, oxidation and the loss of fruit that occurs when a wine is "cooked" by excessive heat. While very high heat and sharp changes in temperature are most damaging, the risks to wine in storage increase significantly when the temperature rises much past 70F (20C).
But let's be realistic: Most wine lovers can't justify the expense of a built-in or free-standing wine-cellar unit that can hold our treasures under optimal conditions. Even undersize units are pricey, and for anyone who's even halfway serious about wine, a cellar that holds less than 100 bottles is hardly worthwhile.
Is there any way - other than depending on the kindness of wine-loving friends who'll share an occasional bottle - that most of us can enjoy the pleasure of a mature wine that we've cellared at home? It's a question worth asking, because a carefully matured wine can offer an unmatched tasting experience ... and a significant economic benefit that can easily be appreciated by a quick perusal of auction prices for older collectible wines.
Well ... maybe.
Let's accept that you're not going to be able to mature fragile wines for decades without a cellar. But if you're willing to accept some risk of disappointment, it's certainly possible to put away ageworthy wines and enjoy their development over a reasonable period of five years or more, maybe even a decade if you're lucky.
If you want to give it a try, here are a few simple tips that may maximize your chances of success:
Start with ageworthy wines. From Beaujolais to White Zinfandel, many wines simply aren't meant to be aged and won't benefit from cellaring. Sturdy, well-balanced but tannic red wines are most likely to reward aging: Bordeaux (and Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet-Merlot blends from other parts of the world); the better Rhone reds (and similar Syrah/Shiraz or Grenache-Syrah-Mourvedre blends); and Northern Italian reds, particularly the Nebbiolo-based Barolo and Barbaresco and their neighbors, are likely to hold up well for several years even under less-than-perfect storage, gaining mellow complexity as their astringent tannins "resolve."
Dessert wines, particularly Vintage Port, are reasonably "bulletproof" in the cellar, and the ultimate ageworthy wine may be Madeira, which is naturally oxidized and tends to keep well under the worst circumstances. It's really the only choice if you want to put aside a wine for decades without a cellar.
White wines tend to be more fragile. Even the exceptional whites that are intended for cellaring can be risky under adverse storage conditions. Don't even try with White Burgundies; quality Riesling and Loire Chenin Blancs may hold up a little better, but check them often to ensure that you enjoy them before oxidation takes its toll.
Store your wine as carefully as your environment permits. Devote a special wine rack to your treasures, and put it in the coolest, darkest part of your house. A basement corner may be just right, or a closet in a quiet room. The kitchen is almost certainly the worst choice for wine storage, and resist the impulse to display your beauties in high-traffic places like the living room or dining room. Keep the wine rack away from heater outlets or locations where your wines might bask in direct sunlight.
We put these theories to the test with yesterday's Thanksgiving Day dinner, pulling out a dusty bottle of a decidedly modest yet potentially ageworthy 1989 Bordeaux - Chateau Plagnac 1989 Médoc, ranked as a Cru Bourgeois in the traditional Bordeaux classification - that had been stored on a wine rack at room temperature in my office since I purchased a few bottles in 1994 for a princely $9.99.
Fresh from the wine store a decade ago, the wine was fruity - typical of the ripe, lush 1989 vintage - but quite tannic. Two years later, the tannins remained, but I still found plenty of spicy black-cherry fruit and good balance. At that point, I put the last bottle away and forgot it ... until yesterday.
Handling the bottle carefully, to avoid shaking up any sediment in the bottle, I dusted it off, removed the capsule, and was reassured to see that the cork was in its normal position, not pushed out by possible excess heat; the bottle was normally full and there were no signs of leakage. Assuming that the wine would be mature at best and possibly fragile, I did not want to allow it "breathing" time, but I did decant it, pouring gently into a clean pitcher, taking care to leave the dregs with their murky sediment in the bottle. (In fact, the wine had not thrown excessive sediment - just a bit of very fine, feathery stuff in the bottom.)
All the signs were good: The cork was firm and tight, and while it had become somewhat stained by wine on the inside end, the red staining had not crept along its full length. The wine's color was appropriate, with a clear edge and no real sign of the bronze or bricky color that hints at geriatric status in an older red. It smelled good, too, with a touch of the "barnyard" character that's typical of Bordeaux produced by Cordier, a family of wines that until a recent corporate selloff included Plagnac, Meyney, Talbot and several other familiar properties. The wine was clearly mature, showing a lot of the "torrefied" characteristics of black coffee and toast that typify older Bordeaux; but tart black fruit remained, too, and the wine was well balanced, subtle and complex ... a treat.
My full tasting report is below, but to make a long story short, despite its lack of ageworthy cachet, the wine had not merely survived sub-standard storage conditions but showed very well, proving entirely appropriate for a festive holiday table.
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Chateau Plagnac 1989 Cru Bourgeois Médoc
Very dark ruby in color, black at the center, this wine still shows a clear edge. A distinctly earthy, barnyardy aroma dominates the wine's aroma at first, but it blows off to reveal more typical mature-Bordeaux scents of black coffee and dark toast, with a core of plum and cranberry fruit still clearly showing on the nose and palate; firm acidity provides balance, and barely perceptible tannins seem fully resolved. Mature, fine, but probably unlikely to improve with further aging. U.S. importer: The now-defunct Seagram Cheateau & Estate Wines Co., NYC. (Nov. 25, 2004)
FOOD MATCH: Quality beef, simply prepared, would be its natural companion, but the resolved tannins and mature flavor profile made it a workable match with Thanksgiving Day roast turkey.
VALUE: This is what aging wine at home is all about: This bottle cost $10 in 1994; two bottles sold at auction last year for $57.50 each.
WHEN TO DRINK: Fully mature and not likely to reward further aging, even under ideal cellar conditions.
FIND THIS WINE ONLINE:
For a glimpse of the market for 1989 Cru Bourgeois Bordeaux, try this search on Wine-Searcher.com.
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Friday, Nov. 26, 2004