John JuergensGive Us Fresh Wine

Many people hold on to wines indefinitely they received as gifts or they brought back with them from their visit to a winery while on vacation. These mementos hold a lot of sentimental value and people rightly want to preserve these treasures for some future special occasion to help recapture the essence of those experiences. But frequently they are disappointed when that special occasion finally arrives.

A question I often get is, "How long should/can a wine be stored before it is really good?" And a companion question is, "What is the oldest bottle you have in your collection?" There seems to be this lingering notion that all wine has to be stored and aged for a long time before it "good", and the older it is, the better it is. But the truth is that a lot of good wine and memories have gone to waste in the closet or the rack as the wine reached and passed it peak. In order to answer these questions, we need to understand why we store and age wines in the first place.

The reason we age anything, whether it is beef, cheese, or wine, is that we hope to end up with a product that is better than what we started out with. What actually happens to a wine during the aging process is a little bit of a mystery, but, in general, we are talking about a breaking down of certain components and a blending of other components that results in a product that, it is hoped, has aromas and flavors that are more pleasant than the freshly made wine. Aging also tends to impart a greater complexity of flavors in a wine just as it does with beef and cheese. Ultimately, this aging process ends up with vinegar and a brown sludge, and the trick is to find the point of this degradation process at which the various components are at the ideal combination or balance. Doesn’t sound too romantic, does it?

Back in the old days, before the advent of modern wine making techniques, wine makers were pretty much at the mercy of mother nature and the weather when it came to the quality of the fruit, which directly affects the drinkability and aging potential of the final product. Most of the wine produced back then started out rough, harsh, and very tannic or puckery, and, therefore, it had to be stored for varying lengths of time to allow for the breakdown and blending action, which made the wine suitable for drinking.

I doubt that the wine makers back then actually wanted to age their wines, but it was a necessity. Some years the wine produced was so harsh that it took decades to smooth out into a drinkable product, and some might never have come around. That's why we occasionally hear about wines selling at auction that are still good or even superb that are 50, 75 or even more than 100 years old, but it costs a lot of money to hold wines this long.

Not long ago I read an evaluation of a French wine made in the 1870's, which stated that the wine still needed a few more years in the bottle! I don't know whether that was bragging or complaining, but it is stories such as these that perpetuate the idea of the need and benefit of long aging periods for wine. I don't know about you, but I sure don't want to have to wait that long for a bottle of wine to be ready to drink.

In this age of fast food, ten minute oil changes, and instant, worldwide communications, few people want to buy a wine this afternoon and have it for dinner maybe 10 or 15 years from now. They want it for dinner tonight. The wine industry, always willing to oblige, modified its grape growing and production techniques some years back to make wines that are ready to drink when released to the market, although many can still improve a bit over the next few years in the bottle. To be sure, the industry still produces some very complex and highly priced wines the old fashioned way, which need considerable time to age before they reach their potential.

But the rule of thumb for American wines and many of the middle price range European wines is to hold on to a red wine no more than 8 to 10 years from the date of harvest, and a white wine no more than 3 to 5 years. Beyond that you are taking a chance of losing the wine since very few wines below $30 are made to be aged longer than this. I have even tasted $50 California wines that were basically dead after ten years, i.e. stripped of their fruit flavors.

Of course, there will always be exceptions, but after losing about $400 worth of great California wine because I waited too long, I don't keep any wines longer than about seven or eight years. I would much rather drink a wine that might be a little "young" and short of its potential than one that is over the hill. Red Zinfandel wines are a prime example. Although they will hold up for five to six years, they really are at their best within the first 2 -3 years of being bottled.

I went to an upscale wine tasting down around Columbus a couple of weeks ago and witnessed a ridiculous spectacle that illustrates my point. Some of the guests were trying to show off by bringing samples of some of their older American wine holdings. The oldest was a 1976 red Zinfandel and the others were Cabernet Sauvignons that were about 15 years old. Although the owners swooned over these venerable survivors, there was a small group of us who recognized them as simply tired old has-beens that had been stripped of just about every nuance of fruit. One of the wines was so far gone it had the color, smell, and taste of a severely rusted nail. I don't believe that any amount of self-deception or wishful thinking could have resuscitated these old geezers.

The funniest, or saddest scene, was the guy who brought one of these wines. Four hours after opening one of his beloved antiques, he was sitting in a corner of the room still nursing a glass of brown wine trying to convince anyone who would listen that it was still coming around, and that the layers of complexity were slowly working their way to the surface. I don't believe we should ever have to work that hard to enjoy a wine, but to humor him I smelled and tasted it again. The wine wasn't just tired, it had passed out by this time. I told him he should do the right and noble thing, and put us out of its misery. I thought he was going to attack me with the empty bottle.

So, to all those people who believe you have to hold on to a wine for an indefinite length of time before you drink it, take note: Those days are over for the most part. Thank goodness! If you have been holding on to a bottle of wine from your wedding ten years ago, especially a champagne or sparkling wine, you better check it. You can tell if it has a brown tinge or a sediment even through the green glass by holding it up to a bright light or by shining the sun through it. If it has any junk floating around in it at all, or looks at all dark or brown, it's gone. Just keep it with your other treasures and don't ever open it because you will be very disappointed. And that nice fruity wine you brought back from your vineyard tour in Pennsylvania or North Carolina last year, drink it now and enjoy it while it still resembles what you had at the winery.

In the brilliant words of actor-comedian Steve Martin, "Bring us some fresh wine. No more of that old stuff!"

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