While standing in the wine department of a Whole Foods recently, I witnessed something that I see most everywhere wine is sold. Two seemingly well-established couples walking in tandem scanned the bottles. One woman said: “What do you think of this one?” The reply came from one of the men in the group, the one who “knows wine.” Right. He inspected the bottle, and then said: “It’s too young.”
Translation? I don’t know, but I want to sound like I do.
Real translation? 90% of wines produced today are made to be consumed within one year of release, and aren’t intended to be held for more than five years from the year they were made. While that isn’t the case for all wines produced, it’s a pretty solid rule of thumb for the ones you might buy at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods.
Here are answers to some other basic questions about aging and collecting wines. Because you never know when you'll be trapped in the wine aisle at a Whole Foods, do you?
Question: Do I need a cellar or a wine fridge to collect wine?
Answer: No. The point of a cellar is to keep the wine in a climate that’s both moisture- and temperature-controlled.
The two biggest enemies to wine are sunlight and drastic temperature swings. You can store your wine in a dark place in your home where the temperature doesn’t change too much and it stays cool, like the floor of a closet, or under the sink in your kitchen (as long as your dishwasher doesn’t heat up that area).
If you’re planning on getting (or already have) a wine fridge, be sure it’s moisture-controlled as well as temperature-controlled. A lot of low-end wine refrigerators are no different than dorm refrigerators — just with a glass front — that are set to 58 degrees. All of the moisture is pulled out, with the result that, like a piece of bread in a refrigerator, the cork in your wine will get dry and stale. Over time, a stale, dried-out cork will allow air to enter into your bottle.
Also, be sure to keep an eye on the temperature of your wine refrigerator. It doesn’t take long for a bottle of wine to be ruined, or “cooked,” when and if your storage unit brakes down.
Question: Is it better to store wine on its side?
Answer: If it’s easier to stand your wine up, and you’re buying it to drink, by all means stand it up.
If you’re going to store your wine for a long period of time, six months to several years, then it’s best to put the bottle down. By storing a bottle on its side you’re ensuring that the cork will stay moist, which is especially important if the wine is being stored in a dry place (like California).
Question: What does “a good year,” or “a bad year” mean?
Answer: If you’re buying a bottle to drink with your friends or take to a party, don’t worry about it.
A "good" or a "bad" year refers to the growing season and is considered a guideline to how the wine will age over time (for the 10% of the wines that are purchased for aging and collection). But, like most things involving wine collecting, it’s just a guideline as to how the wine will stand up to the years. It’s far from a science.
Domestically, 2008 was a good year — but it was also a growing season plagued by forest fires, the smoke from which hung in some of the valleys, causing a smoky tinge to a lot of the valley floor wines, particularly in Sonoma. The wines not affected by smoke were round and plump with fruit, yet stiff with tannins. 2009 wines from Napa and Sonoma are known to be brighter in fruit with much harder, gripping tannins, while 2010 is known for having ripe full-bodied fruit and soft, fuzzy tannins. Since the tannins are approachable upon release, the 2010s are considered a great, even a "classic” year. But the tannins are what holds the wine together for the long haul, so without them being as strong, the 2010s may not age as well as the 2009s or 2008s.
Question: If I’m saving wine for a special occasion, how long can I save it?
Answer: It depends on what it is, because all wines age differently — hence the five-year rule for everyday drinkers.
For higher-end wines like Champagne, as long as you don’t keep it in or on top of your refrigerator, the wine will usually be fine for a very, very long time. Just keep it in a cool, dark place on its side and there isn’t any reason that your one saved bottle from your wedding day can’t be opened and enjoyed on your 50th anniversary.
Cabernet Sauvignon: Depending on the quality of the bottle ($50 - $100 and up) you can save it for ten to twenty years.
Pinot Noir: Unfortunately, domestic pinot noir doesn’t have the acid to help it age for extremely long periods of time. While some red Burgundys can age for decades, those bottles tend to run $500 - $1000 a bottle. If you’re saving a nice bottle of domestic pinot noir, it’s best to open it within ten years at the absolute longest.
Bottle aging not only softens wine, but it brings out a completely different set of flavors often showing themselves as earthy notes of forest, mushroom, and soil. So, before you start aging wines figure out if you like your wines young, bold and fruity, or delicate, earthy and soft.
Question: What is the point of collecting wines if I can’t drink them?
Answer: Collecting wine often has nothing to do with drinking them.
For the most part, people who collect wine do so for two reasons. The first is status. Collecting wine is something people do so they can show off how much wine they have. The second reason people collect wine is to sell it. Who do you sell it to? To those people who are collecting wine for the status of having it.
Over time, wines become more and more rare, like cars, or baseball cards, or Barbie dolls. But unlike cars, you can’t maintain wines so they keep their value — other than keeping them in a cool, dark place. (Although, like Barbie dolls, you can keep your bottles in the original cases to add value.) But wine is alive, and eventually it’ll die, so the trick is to collect it for as long as you can and then sell it before it’s too late.
By buying three or six or twelve bottles of wine a year, and buying those same bottles every year, you create something called a vertical collection. And if the wine you’re collecting suddenly gets high scores from wine experts, or becomes a “cult” wine, then your money can skyrocket.
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For example: A Napa winery called Scarecrow sold their first vintage of cabernet sauvignon in 2003 for $100 a bottle. Today, that same bottle is worth approximately $800 a bottle, and a new release (if you can get it) runs you about $400 bottle. So, if you had been collecting Scarecrow since the first vintage, at one case a year (three bottles) and decided that you wanted to sell your collection, you could take your wine to an auction house and likely have bidders from around the world fighting for your vertical collection. And keep in mind that those folks who collect wine for the status of having it will gladly pay anything to get it. So for between three hundred and a thousand dollars a year for ten years, in one swoop you can sell your vertical collection for enough to send your kids through college. At least in theory.
The most important thing to remember about wine, whether you’re collecting, or drinking, or both, is to enjoy it with friends. After all, it’s no fun opening an old valuable bottle if you have nobody to share it with.