December 7, 2022

Why (and how long) put your wine in the cellar

The word cellar is both a noun and a verb. The latter simply meaning to put something in a cellar, although it usually refers to a bottle, or more, of wine. In modern usage, it is not necessary to store wine in an actual cellar. The wine can be stored in a specially designed refrigerator or in a corner that is cool and dark enough to allow the wine to age gracefully.

However, simply having a cellar (or cellar-like storage) is not enough for a successful cellar business. As Cambridge historian Helen Bettison writes, a wine that can age well is also needed, and “some form of capital investment is usually required”. In fact, it’s worse than that: keeping wine does not require the willingness to pay today for a wine that will not be drunk for many tomorrows, it also requires the willingness to assume the risk that after several years of waiting what comes out of the bottle may not be good.

Of course, wines that conventional wisdom says are worth keeping are almost always orders of magnitude more expensive than those that aren’t. It is therefore not surprising that the vast majority of bottles of wine purchased around the world are consumed within days or even hours of purchase. And these wines are therefore made to be enjoyed young. (For the purposes of this column, “wine” refers to red wine, although there are many white wines suitable for aging.)

In fact, it is reasonable to ask why a wine is made to be cellared. Domestic wine cellars, as opposed to those in cellars or other commercial buildings, are largely the invention of the wine trade from the 17th century. Wine shipped from the port of Bordeaux to the lucrative markets of London, Amsterdam and Edinburgh should have been stabilized, perhaps with sulfur compounds but surely with the astringent tannins of grape skins (especially Cabernet Sauvignon) and the oak barrels in which it was contained.

Stabilization is a fancy way of saying that the wine has been treated and made to prevent living things from growing in it and spoiling it. Most wines now contain traces of sulfides because their molecules bind to oxygen, which many insect pests need to thrive, and on their own cause oxidation, chemical breakdown. So-called “natural wines” that are made without sulphides usually rely on tannins, drawn from long contact with the skins or even stems for added astringency.

Very tannic wines are unpleasant to drink young; they dry out the mouth, like sucking on a tea bag. This effect is commonly referred to in the tasting notes as “striking”. Before modern winemaking technology, such as temperature-controlled fermentation tanks, tannins were a valuable and sought-after tool to keep wine from spoiling on its way to market. (The hops in beer play a similar role and were extensively developed as a stabilizer by Hanseatic League traders.)

The trade-off for a London wine consumer, whose chances of receiving an intact case of Claret were enhanced by the wine’s tannins, was that he would have to age the wines for a few years before they were drinkable. If you were (or are) the owner of a large house with a cellar and you had (have) the capital to buy wine regularly first, or just on a case-by-case basis, then those wines would be a good fit, since you could manage a rolling inventory of young wines as input and old wines as output. (Restaurants with large wine lists work this way.)

Does this make sense in the modern era? Like all answers to questions about wine, it’s “it depends”. And like most answers to questions about wine, the follow-up reason why this might make sense is “because it’s fun.”

For most of my career as a winemaker, I didn’t put a lot of wine in the cellar because I lacked the simultaneous mastery of Bettinson’s three criteria. The capital I had to spend on wine, I tended to use to buy as many as I could, eager to try and enjoy many different styles. I had a small refrigerator where a few prize bottles sat for a while, but even then the temptation to open them eventually became too strong to resist and the rate of depletion sometimes exceeded the rate of acquisition. Finally, as a journalist, I’ve been lucky enough to be in front of quite a few older wines at tastings and events, so at least I had a ‘lived experience’.

This has started to change over the past few years. First, my wife and I renovated and extended our house, and storage space was added in the basement, under the new staircase. I had room. Then the pandemic lockdowns changed the way I bought wine, so I bought a lot more, including more expensive “age-worthy” bottles, at checkout. Since the cases of wine had to be stored in the cellar for the short term, I started separating the bottles on different shelves and putting a few in the ones I had prepared for storage.

Besides the metaphysical thrill of drinking something old (what were you doing in 2012?), there are also physical benefits. In my experience, mid-range reds ($20 to $40 a bottle) hit a kind of sweet spot three to five years after vintage, although they are often sent to market at two years. Even if they are not particularly tannic, they seem to settle and a surplus of fruit emerges.

As for the expensive wines that are really made to be in the cellar, the classified growths and the luxury brands, I try to retain them for up to ten years before being cultivated and picked. What I hope is that they will have opened up, softened without losing all their structure, and that they will reveal the core of their fruity character as well as the so-called tertiary characteristics that come with ageing, such as earthiness, cedar, tobacco. , or whatever.

In conversation earlier this year, Australia-based Master of Wine Neil Hadley remarked in passing that he believes no wine benefits from more than 15 years of aging. He didn’t mean that no wine couldn’t or shouldn’t age longer, just that the chemical magic that happened in a bottle in the cellar would probably have run its course by then. After the peak could come a plateau, although the risk of decline would also be present.

I’ve tasted just enough very old wine, say 30 years or more, to know that at some point they all taste the same. The flavors that made them distinct coalesce into a rusty haze of raisin in the glass, best drunk quickly before exposure to oxygen kills what’s left to savour. It’s not unpleasant, but when a very old wine, like a 50-year-old Bordeaux or Barolo, still sings with fruit, it’s something very special, and I’m always grateful to whoever has invested their capital.