Keeping and storing still wines
One of the questions most commonly asked is ‘How long can I keep a particular bottle of wine?’ and the unhelpful but true answer is, until you open it! Of course, what people actually mean is when ought a wine be drunk in order for it to be at its best, which is a very inexact science. But here goes with some tips.
What preserves your wine?
Wine is a natural product made from fruit, so just as a cut slice of apple will go brown and bad over time, so will a wine. However, there are certain substances within wines which will slow this ageing process down and will act as a preservative. For a wine to taste good after a period of time it is going to need at least one of the following:
• High acidity
• High alcohol
• Tannins – either from fruit or from barrels
And none of these will make the wine worth keeping if there isn’t a hefty amount of concentrated fruit flavour there as well.
How to tell if your wine is a ‘keeper’
The vast majority of wines bought today are meant for immediate consumption – in fact, in the UK, it is estimated that most wine is drunk within 6 hours of purchase. A white wine costing less than about R30 is unlikely to improve over time and ditto for a red wine costing less than about R50. At this price level, it is difficult to get the fruit concentration needed for successful ageing. On the other hand, if you are paying R70+ for a white or R80+ for a red, then it may well be worth keeping it for a while. Bear in mind that the wine will change over that time so make sure you like the taste of mature Sauvignon Blanc before you cellar it!
• Back label
Most back labels will give you some idea of when the winemaker thinks the wine will be at its peak. Remember that when it says ‘Drink within three years’ that means three years from the year it was made, not from the time you buy it.
If the back label is unhelpful, try the website which usually lists drink from dates in the analysis of the wine. If this also fails, then ring the winemaker and ask him/her for her advice – just one of the beauties of living in SA!
Some grape varieties age better than others. A young Cabernet Sauvignon can be undrinkable as the tannins are too high and too gritty on the teeth, whereas the main charms of Sauvignon Blanc are that it is fresh and zippy with high acidity so is best drunk young. As a hugely rough guide, I wouldn’t keep an unwooded white wine of any varietal much longer than a year or so and a wooded Chenin Blanc, Semillon or Chardonnay should still give pleasure up to 3-5 years from vintage. Red wines should all be fine for about 3 years from vintage whereas the best ones (obviously those which cost the most!) can make it through to 10 years and more.
So you have decided to hang onto these bottles for a few years to see what will happen? The most important factor you should now consider is to look at the temperature of where you are going to keep it. Ideally it should be quite cool – about 10-15°C is fine. If your storage place is too hot, then your wine will mature more quickly. If it is too cold, there is a possibility of freezing and destabilising the wine. The worst thing in the world for wine, however, is variations in temperature, so be sure that wherever you are going to keep it, the temperature is going to be more or less the same all year round. If you feel up to it, buying a wine fridge is a great investment and will keep your wine at a perfect temperature for many years to come. If you don’t have a wine fridge, then store your wine on its side, slightly tilted down towards the cork (to stop it from drying out) and make sure it is well-labelled so you don’t end up with a mystery box in ten years time.
Serving an older wine
Bring it out from its place of storage a couple of days before you want to serve it and stand it upright – this will allow any sediment to settle at the bottom of the bottle. Open it quite close to the time you wish to serve it – I once knew a bottle which oxidised within 30 minutes of opening (it was 45 years old mind!) and pour it carefully, checking how clear the wine is as you go. Be prepared to sacrifice up to a fifth of the bottle if it has thrown a heavy sediment. There should be no real need to decant an older wine unless you want to try and salvage every last drop.
Keeping sparkling and fortified wines
Non-vintage sparkling wine is sent to the supermarket shelves when it is ready to drink and will not get any better. In fact, if you keep it too long, it will actively get worse as the bubbles will start to disappear. A vintage sparkling wine can last a bit longer – perhaps up to 10 years – but in general, my advice would be not to wait for a special occasion, but to make the occasion special by drinking bubbly at any opportunity!
Fortified wines are some of the longest-lived wines there are. Many forward-thinking parents buy a good port when their child is born hoping they will be able to hang onto it until their 18th birthday (fat chance in my household!) and a good bottle of port can last up to 25 or 30 years or more. Get advice from a specialist wine shop before you invest your life savings however!