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Reading Between the Wines: the ageing process

As the New Year starts rolling in, we pack away the remains of Christmas, and take stock of the gifts we have been given and leftovers we didn’t use.

Keeping wines can improve their taste and flavour
Keeping wines can improve their taste and flavour

If you are known for enjoying a nice glass of wine, it is quite likely that someone will have bought you a decent bottle for your Christmas. Often, it can be worth thinking about giving these bottles some time before you open them, as it can markedly improve the wine. The hard part is knowing how much time, and accepting that it will most likely be measurable in years.

Wine can be a great gift – especially if the gift-giver is into wine too – because people will usually pay much more for something they are giving away as a gift, than they would pay for their own wine. So when we get a nice bottle, we often think: “I’ll save that up for a special occasion”. This is a good instinct; you just need to follow it through.

You don’t need a cellar, just a cool, dark corner of the house where the temperature is normally cooler than the rest of the house, but most importantly relatively consistent all year round. The cupboard under the stairs, or something like that (although NOT the boiler cupboard!).

It is a sad truth of the current wine market that, unless money is no object, there is a dearth of readily available aged wine, and that most premium wines on the high street shelf are sold a little bit too young to drink. All wine is different, so I don’t want to generalise on this matter but as an example, I would be very happy if you were to give me a £30 bottle of 2011 vintage Saint-Émilion from a good producer, but equally I would be very, very reluctant to drink it any time soon. However, that same wine would be amazing right now in a 2005 vintage, but (if you could find it) it would probably cost around three times the price!

Don’t get me wrong – some fine wines are made to be consumed young, but others might be utterly wasted. In extreme cases, young wine can be mistaken for a flawed wine. Often, young wines can smell muted on the nose, and taste overly tannic, bitter, and dusty – but as if there is fruit flavour in there behind it all. A few years down the line, that fruit profile develops into the dominant characteristic and those harsher flavours are brought into balance. It can make a truly amazing difference.

It can, however, go the other way. Having been into wine for a number of years now, I am lucky enough to have a wee collection of bottles – some were gifts and some were treats I got myself – that I am purposefully holding on to in the back of my cupboard.

Sadly, I am often quite remiss when ‘auditing my cellar’. I went through some of my older bottles just before Christmas, and noticed a few were due for drinking but annoyingly, I had let at least one of them go too far. This is something of a gutter when you have been holding onto something for years (six, in this case).

In finding the balance on how long to keep wines you need to do two things: firstly, you need to keep a record of what you have, and what vintage is marked on the bottle, and secondly, you need to do a little homework in order to find out how long your given bottles want. The answer to this is so loaded with interdependent variables (grape, country, region, year, producer, etc) that it is impossible to ever know the ‘perfect’ amount of time for every bottle, but a little bit of web searching will give you estimates on vintage quality in most wine producing areas, and general ageing guides for most types of wine.

It could be worth looking into this for any bottles you have been given recently (if you still have them!) – as nothing beats well-aged wine. Think of it as temporary abstinence - it could even be a New Year’s resolution!

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