Bottles in the Champagne Pommery cellar

One of my earliest experiences with aging a bottle of wine took place many moons ago. A time when, as Austin Powers once said, life was all about a flock of seagulls and a gas shortage. Carla and I had just announced our engagement to my parents. I secretly knew that at the top of their bedroom closet was a bottle of Champagne. Not some cheap, lame sparkling wine, but a bottle of real Champagne. It was, in fact, a bottle of Moët White Star. For years, I had plotted to come up with a reason to convince my Mom and Dad, both seasoned bourbon veterans, to open the bottle so I could experience my first taste of real Champagne.
Our nuptial announcement did the trick. “Let’s open that bottle at the top of the closet,” my Mom said. In no time, I quickly moved several bedspreads at the top of the closet that were “protecting” the bottle and whisked it off to the kitchen and into the freezer. A long 20 minutes later and I placed the bottle on the counter, took off the foil and wire cage (no snide remarks, please), and went for the cork—which immediately broke into two pieces with the bottom remnant unceremoniously dropping into the bottle. Momentarily shocked but undaunted, I pressed on and poured a small amount of “bubbly” into a bulky etched wine glass. The wine was brown, flat, and dead a proverbial doornail. My heart sank and with it, visions of vinous bliss.
Let’s recap: at some point in the past, a friend had given my parents the bottle of White Star. With no means—and less knowledge—of how to properly store a bottle of wine they did what most people in a similar situation would do; they stuck it in the closet. In this case, they tucked it snuggly into bedspreads at the top of the closet, the warmest place in the bedroom other than directly next to the heater vent. Combine that with the arid desert climate of Albuquerque and you have an inner circle of hell to store a bottle of wine. No mystery that the bottle of White Star died a quiet death long before its day of reckoning.
Fast forward. In a recent chat with friend and colleague, Ken Schroeder, the topic of aging wine came up. I’ve worked with Ken over the last few years on a smart phone wine web-app he developed called, “BottleCru.” BottleCru classifies grape varieties and varietal wines by style, making it far easier for consumers to understand wine. The BottleCru app (www.bottlecruapp.com) also includes a very detailed food and wine pairing database including cheeses and more, all driven by those wine styles. During our call, Ken must have asked at least a dozen questions about aging wine; questions that consumers often ask but rarely get good answers. At the end of the call, I asked Ken to put together a list of questions about aging wine. In short order, he sent his list and I added several more questions to it. Here’s the list with my answers. Be forewarned that that many answers are far from absolute and are simply guidelines. Think pirates. 
Aging Wine FAQ
Do all wines age?
Yes, all wines age as in eventually becoming oxidized and ultimately vinegar. However, some wines take far more time than others to go through the aging process. Most go through their evolution quickly within a year or two. 
Which wines age best?
Top quality sweet wines, fortified sweet wines, and certain red wines tend to age the best and/or longest.
Are aged wines better than un-aged wines?
Context is important here. Who is to say that a bottle of just-released Prosecco enjoyed with the woman/man of your dreams during a beautiful sunset isn’t every bit as amazing and memorable as an uber expensive bottle of 20-year-old Chateau Latour enjoyed in some formal dining room. Note the difference between a great wine experience vs. a great wine. Both are relevant—and equally important.
One more note: good wine is good wine regardless of age. One can easily make a strong argument that a great age-worthy wine like a Grand Cru Burgundy only gets better with time. But it was also good to begin with and the wine’s inherent quality is a vital part of its potential to age.
Do dry or sweet wines age better?
Historically, very sweet dessert wines age the longest, in some cases for well over a century. The best dry red wines are also capable of aging for decades. Note that in every instance where a bottle has aged for an extended period of time, it has been kept, undisturbed, in a very cold cellar.
What are the best conditions to age wine?
Great question–and a very important one as well. Proper conditions for cellaring wine are a constant temperature of between 55-60 degrees with a minimum of 60% humidity, and no source of light or vibration. A constant, cool temperature and darkness are key.

Do wines with oak age longer?
Not necessarily. There are plenty of unoaked dessert wines that age for decades. Sweet Rieslings, Chenin Blancs, and Muscats of various kinds come to mind.
Can you tell by looking at a wine if it’s aged?
It depends on what is meant by “aged.” For the sake of convenience, let’s assume the wine is older than ten years. If that’s the case, then the answer is definitely yes. A white wine will have a deeper color due to oxidation from time in bottle. A red wine will show more garnet, or reddish-brown, in the color for the same reason. The older red will also show more rim variation, the difference in color between wine at the core of the glass vs. the edge of the glass. The color at the edge of the glass will also be more evolved as well in the form of garnet, orange, or even brown.
Do bouquets or tastes age first?
One really can’t separate “bouquet” from “taste” in wine. Both are the result of the chemical makeup of the wine and thus interdependent.
What’s the stuff on the inside of the bottle?
In red wine, the “stuff” is sediment, the pigments (color) and tannins that have precipitated out of the wine over time. Sediment is the reason why older red wine has to be decanted. Note that “stuff” can appear in white wine as well. Usually sediment in white wine is tartrates, or tartaric acid crystals, a natural component of every wine. Most winemakers choose to cold stabilize, or chill their white and blush wines before bottling to removed excess tartrates and thus avoid confusing or even consternating their customers. Perish the thought!

When should I drink my bottle?
This is a short question with a very long answer. As the wise Inigo Montoya once said, “Too long. Let me sum up.” The following variables come into play:

  1. Wine type: what kind of wine is it? Something just purchased at Target with a plastic cork that’s meant to be opened and enjoyed now and over the next several months. Or a quality bottle that has the capability to age? The price you paid for the bottle will be an important clue. Less money equals a wine that’s intended to be enjoyed near term and not aged.
  2. Storage conditions: do you have a place with the right conditions to store wine long term? If not, all bets are off. Open the bottle soon as in over the next two weeks.
  3. Personal preference: do you actually like the smell and taste of an older wine? The answer is probably not unless you’ve not had more than a few experiences with aged wine. If that’s the case, drink up!

Do closures affect the aging of a wine?
The quick answer is yes–but there’s a lot to it. Suffice to say that until recently, it was commonly thought that wine in a bottle was in an anaerobic environment, that is to say an environment devoid of oxygen. However, in a 2005 study at the University of Bordeaux, Dr. Paulo Lopes used carmine indigo testing to prove that trace amounts of oxygen are introduced into wine at the time of bottling. The amount of oxygen added to the wine, or oxygen ingress as it’s called, depends on the type of closure used to seal the bottle. Aside from sealed laboratory glass-on-glass bottles, screwcaps add the least oxygen with traditional corks adding more. Many side-by-side studies with screwcaps vs. corks and aging have been conducted since. The results of most studies show that wine under screwcap appears to age more slowly than wine bottled under natural cork. However, we still don’t know everything that happens in a bottle of wine as it ages regardless of the type of closure. Research will go on—and probably for a very long time.
People pay more for aged wines. Why? Is it worth it?
Older wines are more expensive because the party that has owns the wine has spent monies on the bottle itself as well as the time and space to store it properly. The bottle may also have been purchased at auction for a higher price. These costs are passed along to you, the consumer. As for the question of whether the high cost of an older wine is worth it, that depends entirely on you, the occasion, and your budget.
How do I know which wines will age well?
The easy answer is to do a bit of online research with vintage charts. Several are available gratis and you’ll be able to discover which general categories of wine age well. Beyond that, know that wine, vintages, and the potential to age are a series of moving targets. It is far from exact science. Take vintage charts with a grain of salt and use them as guidelines. More below.
Should I trust the vintage charts I see in magazines?
The answer is yes—but with a caveat. As just mentioned, predicting a wine’s future is never exact science. However, if you are going to seek advice on the prospect of a certain wine (or certain vintage) aging well, get the opinions of top tier professionals who are specialists in the specific kind of wine in question. Go deeper than ballpark predictions, even from mainstream wine publications. 
If there a point where you can age a wine too long?
Yes! Keeping a bottle for too long is a common mistake even made by savvy wine veterans. If you own multiple bottles of the same wine, the temptation when you open one and find it drinking well is to wait to open another bottle thinking that the wine will only get better with a bit more time. More often than not, the wine in your glass is at its peak and will not get better. A good rule to follow is if you open one of several bottles of the same wine and find it drinking well, don’t wait too long to check on another bottle. You may find that second bottle starting to fade or even past its prime.
Are there any quick fixes to aging? Is there some kind of compensation that can be used in place of aging wine to get the same qualities?  
Are there quick fixes to patience and waiting for wine to age in the cellar? I guess you could put a bottle in the trunk of your car on a hot July day and drive around for a bit. The motion and hot temperature would quickly work their magic and prematurely age/oxidize/Madeirize the wine. We call this, “trunk aging.” All kidding aside, there is no replacement for the natural aging process. If you really like a specific wine, buy 6 or 12 bottles and follow it over time. That’s the reason for having a cellar.
Do dumb-periods exist?
Yes, so-called “dumb periods,” or the phase where the nose and palate of a wine are not as vibrant as they were when the wine was first released, do indeed exist. And we’re not really sure why. Suffice to say that after evolving past youthful qualities, certain wines move into a phase where they don’t smell or taste as good as they did previously. However, at some future point the wine evolves into a state of maturity, hopefully with layers of complex aromas and flavors. Once again, this is far from exact science. Needless to say, wines capable of long-term aging are usually the ones that go through a dumb phase. A wine with a short shelf life—think White Zinfandel—isn’t around long enough to suffer such a fate. 
Does bottle shock exist?
Yes it does. I’m sure many reading this post have experienced the disappointment of traveling with wine only to arrive at the destination, open a bottle that night for dinner, and have the wine fall flat and disappoint. If you stop and think about it for a moment, it makes perfect sense. Wine is a living thing and subjecting it to drastic changes in pressure, altitude, and temperature dramatically affect how it will show if opened too soon after arrival. It’s best to always give the bottle a day or two to settle in after the rigors of the journey. Perhaps we should follow the same advice. 

What about dropping pennies into a glass of wine?
Dropping a penny into a glass of wine—as in putting the wine into contact with copper—can help clear up sulfur compounds on the nose of a wine. Make sure the penny is clean–and remember to remove it from the glass after 30-60 seconds.
What about those aeration units?
Pouring red wine through an aeration unit adds air into the wine, changing its texture as well as how your palate responds to the tannins. It makes the wine taste smoother, like photoshopping, so to speak. If that’s your thing, fine. But you could also accomplish the same thing by…wait for it…decanting the wine. Or double decanting the wine. Either will accomplish the same goal of putting air into the wine. Decanting, what a concept. More on that below.
Some practical advice: if you are obsessed with drinking red wine in a restaurant that is smooth, for lack of a better term, choose an appropriate wine or select the right dish that has enough protein and fat to take the edge off the tannins. But don’t expect the current release of Gaja Sori Tilden to have the same quality of tannins and texture as a bottle of Marcel Lapierre Morgon. That is beyond ludicrous. Finally, don’t bring one of the aeration units into a restaurant and expect the sommelier or server to use it on whatever bottle you order. That, too, is beyond ludicrous.
What about decanting? I’ve heard that white wines don’t benefit from decanting.
Before answering this question, it would be useful to offer all the reasons why one could decant a bottle of wine in the first place:

  1. To separate an older red wine from the sediment.
  2. To aerate a bottle of young white or red wine or a bottle with noticeable SO2 (see below).
  3. To raise the temperature of a bottle that’s just been retrieved from a cold cellar.
  4. For the theater of it all.

With that, the answer to the above statement is not true—and for the second reason. Historically, some white wines with a track record of long-term aging have more than the usual amount of SO2 (sulfur dioxide) added before bottling. On opening one of these bottles, the wine may show SO2 on the nose. Decanting will help the sulfur “blow off” or dissipate.
Are there red wines that don’t benefit with decanting? If so, which ones?
The only answer I can think of is if the wine in question is so old that decanting the bottle would reduce the window of drinkability to a very short period of time. Otherwise, decant away!
I’ve had X bottle of wine for some time now at home. When should I drink it?
This is perhaps the commonly asked question about aging wine–and the answer could be the only thing you ever need to remember on the subject of wine and aging: if you are holding a bottle of wine in hand and asking yourself if you should open it, the answer 999 out of 1,000 times is a resounding YES. For god’s sake, open the bottle and drink it. The exception to this rule is if the wine in hand is the only bottle you own of a something very rare and/or expensive. Say it’s a bottle of Petrus, Hill of Grace, or La Tâche. Then you might pause for a moment and consider whether the occasion, the company, and the meal call for such a spectacular bottle. Only then should you hesitate. Otherwise, open and enjoy the wine. After all, that’s what it’s for. Cheers!