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Monday, September 25, 2023

Ageing Wines in the Bottle

S.W. and Rich Hermansen
Guest Writers

How long should we keep a wine in the bottle? To paraphrase Einstein, long enough but not too long. It depends on the context. One wine expert addresses the question of how long wine will stay good in a bottle: generally a white wine will not deteriorate for two to three years from the year of the vintage, with notable exceptions such as premier white Burgundies (acidic and bone dry Chardonnay), white Bordeaux (Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon), and sweet wines such as Sauternes and Ice Wine. A great red wine will retain its qualities for at least a decade, and even a lesser red wine for five years. Another expert addresses a different question: when does a premier red wine reach its peak? Picture a wine collector in the wine cellar blowing the dust off a twenty-five year old Romanee-St-Vivant from Bordeaux France and agonizing over whether to enjoy it now or hold it back for another five years and risk facing the grim reaper before having a chance to taste it. Still another expert will explain one of the main reasons for making wine: if properly bottled and stored: a bottle of wine will last for years. Whether it improves in the bottle depends on the wine in the bottle.

Some wine experts specialize in predicting whether a wine will improve dramatically as hoped after being held for, say, ten years in the bottle. They rely on the typically strong and often harsh tastes of tannic acids in the youth of the wine perhaps two years after bottling, an indicator that the wine has room to mature gracefully, or on the elapsed time profile of earlier vintages of wines from the same vineyard. A “vertical tasting” of a sequence of earlier vintages (for instance, 2010 through 2017 vintages) often reveals how a vineyard’s wine will improve from year to year. Buyers of “wine futures” depend on these experts’ evaluations of new vintages for guidance in what to buy to stock their cellars. Many of these buyers enjoy unrealized increases in the values of their wine cellars, much as art collectors take pride in the latest valuations of their Warhol pop art or signed Andrew Wyeth prints. One big difference: art increases in value after the artist dies; the death of a winemaker may have the opposite effect.

Let’s move on to practical rules of thumb on ages of bottles of wine. Most bottles of wine have a year on the label. A few wines, especially sparkling wines, have NV on the label meaning “Non Vintage” or grapes from different years. A large percentage of the wines sold, perhaps upwards to ninety percent, do not improve if held longer in the bottle. No need to worry about any wine that does not have in its youth an acid edge in its taste. The harsh acids in these wines oftentimes mellow after several years in the bottle and in rare cases improve for decades.

In some wines, perhaps best observed in Burgundy, Oregon, or California Pinot Noir, berry and stone fruit flavors predominate in the wine during the first two to three years. The wine then may go dormant for a time, and only to reemerge as a smooth and silky mélange of aromatics. They have two peaks of very different tastes.

The markers of age differ in white and red wines. Young white wines have light straw or lime juice colors. The colors darken with age from golden to brown. A brown color and vague taste of sherry indicate that the wine has oxidized and lost its original flavors. Young red wines have a bright crimson or garnet colors. The colors fade after a few years into rust and brown colors. The wine has a brick red color where light meets the surface of the wine in the glass. The change of color from darker to lighter with age occurs when tannins and alcohol meld together and the tannins soften. Wine collectors prize the complex nose and tastes in an aged bottle of red wine.

The effect of ageing on fine red wines has intriguing parallels with ageing of people. It gives us hope that we have the structure and inner strength to move beyond the beauty and sharp wit of our youth into richer associations with family, friends, and the world around us. Those of us who enjoy wines especially treasure the long finish of a great wine that has made the most of its roots and the care given to it during its long journey to its peak. We aspire to the same long finishes, when everything comes together.

S. W. Hermansen has used his expertise in econometrics, data science and epidemiology to help develop research databases for the Pentagon, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Agriculture, and Health Resources and Services. He has visited premier vineyards and taste wines from major appellations in California, Oregon, New York State, and internationally from Tuscany and the Piedmont in Italy, the Ribera del Duero in Spain, the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale in Australia, and the Otego Valley in New Zealand. Currently he splits time between residences in Chevy Chase, Maryland and St. Armand’s Circle in Florida.

Rich Hermansen selected has first wine list for a restaurant shortly after graduating from college with a degree in Mathematics. He has extensive service and management experience in the food and wine industry. Family and friends rate him as their favorite chef, bartender, and wine steward. He lives in Severna Park, Maryland.

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