Cellaring wine seems like such a European thing to do. We have romantic notions of cellars dug deep into limestone hills or excavated into the centuries old foundations of the villa passed down from generation to generation. A wine cellar slowly built up over years, an even layer of dust on the bottles, demonstrating the willpower of a different time. But in today’s world of the average Kiwi household, is this a distant fantasy?
“Wine improves with age” seems an obvious mantra to test. We’re taught that wines should be bought in their youth and tucked away with diligently recorded notes as to what day in the future, one will gleefully open and enjoy the wine. Today well over 95% of wines are consumed within 48 hours of purchase. Honestly who has the time and patience to lock away wine in the hopes of unknown future joy?
Master of Wine Jancis Robinson asserts that significant number of wines will receive little or no benefit from cellaring. Certainly at the cheap end of the scale (“Vin de Pays” or equivalent level of quality) are designed to be drunk within a year or so of bottling. Not all wines are made to age, which is good news for our impatient and spontaneous lifestyle. In fact many wines that are cherished for their bright and zesty fruit flavours will lose their appeal over time, like classic Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, French Beaujolais, or Rosé. The use of the screwcap actually helps these styles of wines retain their youthful freshness and can be enjoyed longer otherwise than under cork.
So why bother aging wine to begin with? It is revealing to realise that a bottle of wine is a living thing, and a perishable good. Winemaking involves an array of complex chemical reactions that today’s scientists are still uncovering, and these do not stop once the wine is bottled.
These are the most obvious changes to a wine over time:
- Tannins soften – a big chunky Cabernet Sauvignon that may be unapproachable in its youth may become silky with patience, with the overused analogy of a sledgehammer wrapped in silk.
- Primary fruit flavours will ebb away, opening multiple layers of flavour and subtlety. A bold chardonnay that may show big oak and stone-fruit may evolve to uncover hazelnut, caramel, lemon blossom, toasted almond, nougat and more. This is helped by a transformation in the acids in wine, releasing complex esters.
Certain wines will improve immensely with time. Certainly a top tier Red Bordeaux deserves time to mature, the rich tannins softening to reveal layers of complexity & intrigue that would be absent in its youth. Other wines that yearn for a decade or more of age before enjoying include Northern Italian Barolo and Vintage Port. White wines too can enjoy time in rest, especially Riesling and Chenin Blanc. Thankfully modern winemaking techniques such as micro-oxygenation mean that a significant number of otherwise highly tannic wines are enjoyable earlier in life.
Before cellar aging your wines, be sure that you actually like older wine. If you prefer big bright brash flavours in your wine, you may actually prefer to enjoy them in their youth rather than tucking them away for another 2-5 years. Fine wine shops will often sport a few bottles of pre-aged wines, perhaps deliberately held back by the winery for extra years before release. They tend to sell at a premium price, after all how many businesses can forgo 5 years of income for what they produce.
So what kind of conditions should a wine cellar have? The ideal cellaring conditions for wine include avoiding sunlight and vibration, wines need a consistent cool temperature to mature gracefully (neither too dry nor humid). Ironically, the most common wine storage in New Zealand are in terrible conditions – on top of the fridge in the kitchen where the wine is subjected to constant vibration, humidity from the kitchen, and regular large shifts in temperature up & down.
While most of us don’t have budget nor inclination to create a separate wine cellar, many New Zealand homes have spots that will do quite nicely in a pinch. That otherwise useless space in the corner underneath the stairs, or the bottom of the wardrobe in the spare bedroom. These have the added advantage of not being used every day, so removes the temptation for careless hands and party guests. You don’t really want to squander that bottle of Coleraine on a casual cheeseboard. No need for fancy racking systems either, just use the cardboard boxes that the wine is packaged in will do fine – the boxes that that are layered 6 x 2 are better than 3 x 4).
Lastly, starting a wine cellar doesn’t have to be expensive. There is no need to buy large amounts at once to stock your cellar, set aside a small budget each payday and drop down to your favourite wine shop. Talk to someone helpful who can examine what your wine preferences are, and guide you towards specific wines that suit your palate and will improve with age. If you are already drinking a couple bottles each week, instead of making a spur of the moment purchase aim to buy a mixed case of 12 bottles once each month- ten bottles to drink over the course of the next month (yes you can even put these ones on top of the fridge seeing as they’re only going to last a couple of weeks anyway) – and make the last two bottles that are suitable to go into the cellar. Getting to the cellar once a month is a good period of time to stay aware of what you have, making sure that you haven’t forgotten something that needs to be drunk now, but also avoids disturbing longer-lived wines too often.
You can stagger the age of when they should be drunk too- one to be consumed in say a year’s time, and the other for three years or more. Over the course of a year, you’ll be well on your way to a rounded cellar, with a couple cases tucked away. Even better, a number of those one-year wines will be ready to drink, being replaced by new stock each month.
Of course if you find a wine that you particularly love, buy more than one and enjoy how it evolves and changes over time.