Now that’s a heck of a wine question – and a very common one. Fact is there is no simple, one line answer. So let’s get a little deeper. Deciding when to drink a particular bottle of wine is like betting on the Super Bowl: you gather some information, check out the record, seek some opinions and play the odds. Sometimes it all comes together and it’s perfect. Other times you might just come up a bit short. But hopefully you enjoyed the game (and if you didn’t at least you had the commercials)!
There are just lots of things that can influence the decision to drink a bottle you’ve been saving, one someone gave you or a recent purchase. By far the most important of all is what you like to taste. Many, if not most, people enjoy the taste of younger, fruit forward, more “in your face” wines, which is not surprising since that’s really what we’ve been conditioned to expect in everyday wines and even high end ones that get magically high ratings by different experts. Some of this is marketing, but I think the real reason is that we live in an instant gratification culture, and one that is really relatively new to an ubiquitous appreciation of wine. The reality is that the vast majority of wines we drink are young, bottled and sold to be consumed now. I’ve seen sources that state 95% of wine purchased is drunk within a week. And many of these wines really aren’t built to age beyond a few years anyway. Most people don’t get exposed to aged wines and the difference aging can make in taste and enjoyment.
With age-worthy wines it’s all about balance and, to me, more artful winemaking, which is why most of the real keepers are higher end to say the least. These well made older wines are generally rounder and more complex. With the reds (like Cabernet, Syrah, Merlot, Nebbiolo, Pinot Noir, Tempranillo) the component elements of tannin and acid come fully into balance and are integrated with the fruit characteristics of the grape variety for a sipping experience that is satisfying from the tip of your tongue all the way through the finish. With age-worthy whites (like Chardonnay, Riesling) the taste is rich and silky, befitting the golden color.
Still, how do you know a wine is “ready?” Here are some ways to help answer that:
- Every day wine is just that. Buy it and drink it. It’s not scientific but my own rule of thumb is that any wine produced and marketed for $30 or less is made for today’s enjoyment, not years in any cellar. I like to splash young reds into a decanter to light them up a bit before I sip. Drink the whites now too but no need to decant.
- Get to know your grape and region. Some grapes , like Tempranillo, Cabernet and Nebbiolo are more tannic than others such as Pinot Noir or Merlot, so a little age smooths them out. Different countries and wine regions have their own aging and bottling requirement too. For example, Spain’s Rioja has rigid rules for how much time the wine must be aged in oak and the bottle before release. Bordeaux is famous for age-worthy wine and you can certainly taste the difference between tighter, more tannic young Cabernet driven Bordeaux versus young, fruit forward, higher alcohol Napa Cabernet.
- Let your fingers do the Googling. Got a ’94 Napa Cab stashed away? Been saving something special for an anniversary? Did you buy a case of good Bordeaux when your kid was born? Did you bring back a bottle from that trip to Tuscany five years ago? Check out the reviews, the vintage charts and the pedigree of the wine. Sure, the reviews are opinions, but so what? Those opinions are based on multiple experiences so at least it can give you a baseline. Check out the winery websites too for their own input on longevity, even though you know going in that they have a biased point of view. There’s much info and opinion online so start there. I think the vintage charts are a great place for general input. Here are links to three popular vintage charts:
- Taste. Taste. Taste. It’s all about learning and a great way to do that is to go to tastings at your local store, wine dinners at restaurants or chatting up your favorite wine person. You’ll develop your own opinions about varietals, regions, styles and producers.
- Sample. Got some older wines you may want to drink but are uncertain if it’s time? Go for it. Drink one. What’s the worse that can happen? This isn’t science and don’t get caught up in the analytics of a perfect time to drink it. That misses the point – the point that wine is ultimately really personal.
Pop the cork and savor the moment.